Mother Earth Living

Expert Answers to Your Health Questions

Treat a Tough Eczema Case

About a year ago (I’m 60 now), I developed a patch of eczema on
the inside of my left elbow, later the right. They itched badly and
welted but have since disappeared. Now I have had it for more than
eight months under my left breast, left armpit and in the groin
area. It seems to be spreading, discolored and occasionally
odorous. The itching is so intense it often disrupts my sleep. I’m
taking evening primrose oil capsules but there’s been no real

West Bethel, Maine

the body’s largest organ and an important part of the immune
system. Its condition reflects the health of the body beneath it.
When skin gets pimply, itchy, scaly or inflamed, we often take
suppressive prescription drugs or douse the afflicted area with
over-the-counter medications.

But from a natural healing point of view, inflammatory skin
disease of all types is part of the same process. There may or may
not be infection involved; there may or may not be hormonal
factors. But virtually always, skin disease is an accumulation of
waste at the cellular level causing inflammation. Eczema,
psoriasis, acne and general dermatitis all are inflammatory skin
diseases. They are given different names and express themselves in
different ways in individual people, but in natural healing, they
are considered to be idiosyncratic expressions of the same toxicity
problem and are treated more or less the same.

Your case sounds like it involves infection, so that has to be
handled first with oral antibacterial herbs, such as goldenseal
(Hydrastis canadensis). I like a short, intense treatment of 15
grams a day, in capsules, until the symptoms subside, plus two
extra days.

For an effective skin inflammation remedy, use Chinese violet
(Viola yedoensis). A medicine that uses the whole plant (including
leaf and root) of the perennial herb, violet targets inflammation
and disperses heat that is stuck in the skin. In terms of clearing
heat, detoxifying and reducing swelling and dissolving lumps, the
herb is equivalent to dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), another
classic herb for skin inflammation, with which it often is
combined. Violet also has some antibacterial action, so it might be
a particularly good match for you. Take violet as a tea. Start with
a teaspoon of the dried herb, brewed, and work up to as much as an
ounce of the dry weight of the herb, brewed, daily.

Alterative herbs get to the core issue and help remove the
buildup of toxins. Once things have calmed down a bit, gradually
taper onto Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium). Use 6 grams a
day, in capsules. Other effective alteratives include dandelion,
burdock (Arctium lappa) and red clover (Trifolium pratense).

KATHI KEVILLE RESPONDS: Over the years, I’ve
worked with many people with eczema. By the time they talk to an
herbalist, most of them have been to at least one dermatologist and
an array of other health professionals. They’ve had varying
success, but the condition has continued to worsen. They usually
have ruled out other types of skin conditions, such as allergic
reactions and infections. I’m going to assume that it’s already
been determined you have eczema. If not, please do seek a
professional’s opinion. The fact that it is odorous might mean it
is some type of infection.

I think eczema really is an umbrella category for a number of
skin problems with similar symptoms. However, most types respond to
a similar herbal treatment. Start off by switching to a cream that
contains skin-healing herbs, such as calendula (Calendula
officinalis) and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) or plantain
(Plantago spp.), along with essential oils. I’ve had a lot of
success with creams that contain lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
and tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia). Both of these oils work
directly on the eczema, and on the secondary bacterial and fungal
infections that can result. Cream is better than salve, especially
if your eczema is dry and the skin is cracked. (Use these essential
oils in a cream base, not straight on the skin.)

Treating your eczema with topical herbal creams is a good idea,
but this literally only goes skin deep. For permanent health, you
must address the source of the problem. Most herbalists agree that,
with eczema, that source is likely to be the liver. This makes
sense, considering the skin is a secondary organ of elimination and
the liver is responsible for “cleansing” the blood of toxicity and
impurities. The liver is a busy organ with many responsibilities
that help the body run properly, including storing vitamin A and
helping regulate the hormones.

The Liver-Skin Connection

There are a number of liver formulas available at health-food
stores. Good liver herbs to look for include milk thistle (Silybum
marianum), burdock root and turmeric root (Curcuma longa). You can
take these in any herbal form that is convenient for you, such as
tincture, pills or tea. You also can add any of the three to your
diet, a method I recommend. Sprinkle ground milk thistle seeds on
cold and hot cereals and other foods. Fresh burdock root is sold in
many health-food stores–cook it as you would a carrot. It’s
especially tasty in soup and stew. Turmeric provides the
bright-yellow seasoning that gives curry its vibrant color. Add
curry or turmeric to rice and other grains, potato salad, soup,
vegetables and salad dressing.

It’s a good idea to avoid any fried foods, including things like
fried corn chips, even those from the health-food store! You also
should avoid hydrogenated fats, found in many processed foods and
margarine. Your liver doesn’t do a good a job of processing these
types of altered fats. Instead, use olive, sesame or coconut oil,
uncooked if possible. You mentioned you take evening primrose oil
(Oenothera biennis), which you might continue. It is a good type of
oil to help resolve eczema, but its action can be countered if you
eat fried food. It rarely works when it’s the only treatment.

Another thing to consider is whether your eczema might be
related to the nervous system and/or the immune system. This may be
indicated if your symptoms flare up when you are under stress. Both
the immune and nervous systems will respond to soothing herbal
teas, such as chamomile (Matricaria recutita), and relaxing
aromatherapy scents, such as lavender. The plant-based medicine
works even better if you also incorporate other types of relaxation
techniques that involve deep, relaxed breathing. There are many
from which to choose, such as yoga, chi gung, tai chi and just
plain walking. Getting plenty of sleep also will go a long way to
boosting your immune and nervous systems.

Finally, you’ll need some patience, as it can take more than a
month–and occasionally even longer–for some people to see any
difference. It may be several months before the eczema completely
disappears, or at least retreats, often to its initial location.
Since it is the nature of eczema to ebb and then return, there can
be flareups once you’re on the healing path. Try not to be
discouraged. Once it does finally disappear, keep the herbs and
cream on hand so you can treat it right away if you see it begin to
pop up again. It’s also a good idea to use the therapy a few days
at least once a month as a preventive.

Vanish Varicose Veins

I am looking for an herbal treatment for varicose veins, as well
as for swollen ankles and feet.

Via e-mail

veins are extremely common. As many as 60 percent of all Americans
suffer from some form of vein disorder. Women are more affected–an
estimated 41 percent of all women will experience abnormal leg
veins by the time they are in their fifties.

Veins have one-way valves that prevent the blood from flowing
backward as it is pumped back to the heart. If the one-way valve
weakens, some of the blood can leak back into the vein, collect
there and then become congested, and the vein can enlarge
abnormally. These enlarged veins are varicose veins, which are dark
blue or purple, very swollen and raised above the surface of the

Herbalists use herbs with astringent qualities that tighten
connective tissue. Most astringent compounds are polyphenols of
some type, including tannins and flavonoids. Horse chestnut
(Aesculus hippocastanum), an astringent herb, is the most popular
natural treatment. It has a high tannin content. It also contains
the coumarin glycosides aesculin and aescin, which slow blood
coagulation. Several studies have shown benefit from oral and
topical horse chestnut. One study, done in Italy in 2001, found
that horse chestnut cream treated the condition significantly
better than a placebo.

Pine bark and grape seeds contain polyphenols that reduce
inflammation and tighten vein tissue. Other applicable astringent
herbs include witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) and oak bark
(Quercus spp.).

Another strategy is to use herbs that increase circulatory flow,
in an effort to reduce the pressure from accumulated blood. Herbs
in this category include ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), garlic (Allium
sativum) and ginger (Zingiber officinale). Niacin also is used in
this regard.

My favorite program includes high-dose gotu kola (Centella
asiatica), which strengthens the connective tissue of the vascular
walls, brewed as a tea of 1 ounce dry herb, daily; high-dose (1,000
IU daily) oral vitamin E, which heals damaged vascular tissue; and
external applications of salves containing arnica (Arnica montana)
and pine extracts, which reduce inflammation and speed healing.

Edema–an accumulation of fluids in the body’s tissue–can
certainly aggravate, or even cause, varicose veins. And it’s
miserable on its own. Edema can be a sign of more serious diseases
so it’s important to have it checked out medically.

Diuretic herbs can help eliminate swollen ankles. There are many
Western diuretics that work well, including dandelion leaf, uva
ursi leaf (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and juniper (Juniperus
communis). But an exceptional herb from Ayurveda is my favorite
diuretic. Punarnava (Boerhaavia diffusa) is a unique herb that
helps maintain efficient kidney and urinary functions. It protects
the kidneys and is a mild, well-tolerated diuretic, antispasmodic
and anti-inflammatory agent in urinary tract infections. Use 250 to
500 mg a day in tea or capsules.

KATHI KEVILLE RESPONDS: Both varicose veins in
the legs and swollen ankles are indications of poor circulation.
Blood and intercellular fluid are pooling in the lower part of the
body. The two things to do are to encourage fluids to move back up
and to make your veins strong enough to carry the load. Take
remedies that focus on improving the condition of the varicose
veins, then see if your ankles don’t improve as a result. Swollen
ankles can be a warning sign for kidney and possibly heart
problems, and sometimes even liver problems, so be sure to look
into that. One thing you don’t want to do is take a lot of
diuretics (herbal or otherwise) to get rid of the extra fluid
around your ankles, until you are certain that both your heart and
kidneys are functioning strong.

Some of the same herbs that are used to reduce varicose veins
are also used to treat the heart. One of the best ways to stop
varicose veins is to strengthen your blood vessels and make them
less porous and more elastic. Hawthorn flower and berry (Crataegus
spp.) and ginkgo leaves do this while improving blood circulation–a
great combination. Studies on ginkgo show its ability to reduce the
discoloration of varicose veins, which also means it decreases the
damage. Another herb, gotu kola, also strengthens blood vessels, as
well as connective tissue, which supports blood vessels. These
herbs also will help with swollen ankles, especially if related to
circulation problems. The best results are seen when all three
herbs are teamed together. Gotu kola has another advantage: Along
with the enzyme bromelain from pineapple, gotu kola stops
destructive enzymes that break down the damaged veins. Bromelain is
available as a supplement. Take the other herbs in any form that
you like. To improve the strength of your blood vessels, try taking
flavonoid-rich supplements of blueberry, bilberry or pomegranate–or
add these foods and other deep-blue and red foods to your diet.
Foods rich in vitamin C also are beneficial. If you take vitamin C
supplements, purchase ones that include bioflavonoids.

Externally, try a cream containing such herbs as St. John’s wort
(Hypericum perforatum), chamomile and cypress (Cupressus
sempervirens) to help the varicose veins. Massage also is
beneficial. While she shouldn’t rub directly over varicose veins,
you can have your massage therapist apply a massage oil on them
that contains the essential oils or cypress, grapefruit, lemon and
chamomile to reduce both varicose veins and your swollen

Let’s not forget the importance of exercise. It is one of the
most inexpensive, safe and therapeutic activities for your health.
Walking is a wonderful exercise. Stretching exercises help open
constrictions in the pelvic area that could be restricting fluid
circulation. If you must sit long hours at a desk, support your
legs on a stool or anything to raise them up. Even better, change
position often and roll your feet around and practice simple foot
flexions. A number of different types of foot rollers that
encourage your feet to stay active are available. All this will
encourage fluids to move up your legs. If you stand in one spot
often (such as at a retail job), make sure the floor has some give
to it. Get rubber floor pads designed to reduce foot and leg
fatigue, if necessary. If your ankles are particularly swollen in
the morning when you wake up, sleep with your legs slightly

You might even enjoy some of this therapy. Massage, exercise and
eating berries–not too bad of a prescription for good health!•

Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa has more than 25 years of experience
with medicinal herbs. A licensed dietitian/nutritionist, massage
therapist and board member of the American Herbalists Guild, he
specializes in Ayurvedic, Chinese and North American healing

Kathi Keville, director of the American Herb Association
(, is author of 11 herb and aromatherapy books,
including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches
seminars throughout the United States.

  • Published on Jan 1, 2007
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