Case Studies: Herbal Skin Treatment for Dermatitis

This herbal skin treatment for dermatitis can reduce skin inflammation, diminish itching and promote healing of the lesions.


| January/February 2003



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St. John’s wort, in oils and creams, can help relieve skin problems.


It is often said that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but what about the human “cover,” your skin? Doctors recognize many varieties of problems and diseases of the skin. Although we can visualize the skin (in contrast to, say, the liver), it is often difficult to determine whether a problem is due to attack from various fungi and bacteria or to an internal process such as psoriasis or eczema, or from factors within and without such as an allergic reaction to an ingredient in your soap.

I have come to the conclusion that even when the skin is seemingly attacked by an external pathogenic (disease-causing) agent such as a fungus, this is usually preceded by an internal process of imbalance. For instance “liver heat,” or inflammation due to chronic doses of aspirin, chronic stress, overuse of alcohol, and immune weakness because of improper nutrition can all contribute to a major outbreak of athlete’s foot. This is a manifestation of the important principal in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), “treating the branch, treating the root.” Treating the branch is like applying a calendula cream to an itchy, scaly patch on the arm. Treating the root is taking a closer look at the inner world of the body through the traditional principles of asking a patient about their health habits, smelling the breath and skin, feeling the quality of the pulse, looking at the tongue, and of course, closely examining the skin. My point is that treating both the branch to relieve symptoms and treating the root to bring increased health and prevent future problems is the way to go.

I have worked with patients with various skin problems in my clinic— everything from skin cancer, psoriasis, acne, and boils to burns and fungal infections. Skin problems are common and always surprise me with their many manifestations. People come in with itchy, scaly, red, white, dry, festering, burning areas on the skin, wondering what is going on.

A dermatitis case

Marjorie came in with red, itchy patches on her hands, arms, and feet. She told me her doctor had diagnosed her with atopic dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis affects more than one out of ten people in North America. It often shows up in infancy and in children, but many are affected throughout life. People who are affected are also prone to allergic reactions such as food allergies, allergic rhinitis (hay fever), asthma, and eczema. The rashes result from a complex interaction involving many immune processes in the skin with contact allergens and internally with foods and perhaps metabolic waste products. Marjorie began scratching the spots on her arms as if unable to resist. “I can’t help scratching sometimes, especially when I’m nervous, but it usually makes things worse,” she said. Scratching often compromises the protective barrier of the skin, allowing a secondary bacterial infection to become established. She had tried every kind of medicine the doctor prescribed, even steroids, but while these would sometimes reduce the symptoms, they always returned.

I examined her tongue and found it to be swollen and with “scallops” or indentations around the edges. This meant she might be suffering from what is known in TCM as “spleen qi deficiency,” or weak digestion and immune dysfunction. Her pulses were generally weak, emphasizing the “deficient” nature of her internal environment. Digestive problems and food allergies are often related to atopic allergies.

These simple observations led me to recommend tonic herbs to build up Marjorie’s immune system and enhance her digestive strength. But first things first—that is, treating the branch. Marjorie wanted some relief of itching and a reduction in the number and size of the lesions. I noticed her skin was dry. Dry skin can come from spleen qi deficiency because it is the digestion that distributes water around the body. A number of topical herbs can be used to reduce skin inflammation, diminish itching, and help promote healing of the lesions. These herbs are called vulneraries and they can generally ease itching, redness, pain and inflammation of many kinds of skin problems. I recommend applying them several times a day.





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