I have eczema—it has been an ongoing problem for two years. Nothing seems to help or control it. I have been to dermatologists as well as my naturopathic doctor. It is affecting my life in more and more ways. If you have any ideas on anything to try, please let me know. Your input would be most appreciated.
—T. T., via e-mail
Stansbury responds: Eczema tends to be chronic and has numerous underlying causes or contributors. I don’t know enough of your history to get any clues as to what might benefit your particular case, but following are the two basic presentations I’ve seen most often. If either description seems to fit your situation, the accompanying suggestions would be a good place to start.
Most commonly, eczema is associated with a state of allergic hypersensitivity and often occurs in tandem with hayfever, asthma and irritable bowel syndrome. This common presentation often runs in families, and although it can be well managed, it tends to be lifelong, flaring up at times of stress, poor diet, exposure to numerous allergens, etc. In such cases, decreasing the allergic (atopic) state with antioxidants (especially beta-carotene and zinc), essential fatty acids (flax, black currant, and fish oils), bioflavonoids such as quercetin and B vitamins may help but it usually takes at least two or three months to see substantial improvements. Allergic individuals should avoid all food colorings, preservatives and manmade compounds, both orally and topically. Allergy testing may help eliminate some of the guesswork for an allergy-prone individual.
In other cases, the eczema may be triggered by substances in the diet and bowels to which the body and blood become sensitized and reactive. Constipation, the use of antibiotics and drugs, low fiber intake, liver or gallbladder congestion and numerous other factors may alter the intestinal ecosystem and promote the blood cells to react as if an allergen were present. In these cases, taking probiotics (beneficial intestinal microbial strains) and fiber, and using liver- and digestive-supportive herbs, such as Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), burdock (Arctium lappa) and dandelion (Tanacetum parthenium) roots may help. If you experience chronic digestive problems, then digestive enzymes, bitters or herbal vinegar taken with meals may also improve digestion, fat absorption and assimilation of the fat-soluble vitamins A, E, D, and K—all of which play important roles in skin health. Skin that is extremely dry and prone to cracks and fissures may indicate a lack of essential fats in the diet or a problem with fat metabolism.
Willard responds: Eczema is a common skin problem. It is characterized by blistered or crusted and scaling lesions, which are almost always accompanied by severe itching. I often find that eczema is caused by one of the following issues: allergies, lack of essential fatty acids, yeast (candida) infections, poor diet and/or genetic predisposition. Fortunately, eczema can usually be reversed. The most common situation I find is that the person does not consume as much essential fatty acids (especially omega-3 oils, found in fish) as their ancestors did. Often by increasing these essential fatty acids with changes to the diet or with supplementation, the problem can be reversed.
I usually have my patients start an eczema program with a two-week cleansing detoxification diet, followed by a diet low in mucus-forming foods, along with herbs for the bowel and blood to cleanse the body of mucus and toxic waste. Skin irritation can be relieved by using chickweed (Stellaria media), chamomile (Matricaria recutita) or calendula (Calendula officinalis) in the form of a fomentation or an ointment. Apple cider vinegar or yellow dock (Rumex crispus) tea applied externally will relieve itching. But the real problem lies inside the body, not just on the skin. The best supplements to be taken orally for eczema are: essential fatty acids (such as those contained in black currant, borage, or fish oils, 2,000 mg twice daily); burdock root (250 to 500 mg twice daily); dandelion root (250 to 500 mg twice daily); beta-carotene (30,000 IU twice daily); zinc (15 mg twice daily); vitamin C (1,000 mg twice daily); and homeopathic sulfur in a 30x potency (three times daily).
I’m sure you will find the above helps you in short order. If you live in an extremely dry environment, sometimes increasing the humidity will also help.
Terry Willard is a clinical herbalist, president of the Canadian Association of Herbal Practitioners and founder of the Wild Rose College of Natural Healing in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of eight books and a CD-ROM, Interactive Herbal.
Jill Stansbury has been a naturopathic physician for more than ten years, with a private practice in Battleground, Washington. She is the chair of the Botanical Medicine Department at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, and the author of many books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Publication International, 1997).
The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.