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 improvement.
West Bethel, Maine
KARTA PURKH SINGH KHALSA RESPONDS: The skin is 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.
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.
I am looking for an herbal treatment for varicose veins, as well as for swollen ankles and feet.
KARTA PURKH SINGH KHALSA RESPONDS: Varicose 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 skin.
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 ankles.
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 elevated.
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 traditions.
Kathi Keville, director of the American Herb Association (www.AhaHerb.com), is author of 11 herb and aromatherapy books, including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.