For four years, Robert Landis, a forty-three-year-old long-distance cyclist from Vashon Island, Washington, suffered from athlete’s foot. The soles of his feet itched almost constantly and were covered in red scales, his toes were inflamed, and his toenails were gray. At times, his feet burned. Although Landis kept his feet clean and tried both over-the-counter and prescription antifungal creams, nothing helped. Finally, he sought the advice of an herbalist, who carefully analyzed Landis’s condition, then suggested he try garlic, an herb containing compounds that fight fungal infections. After following the herbalist’s recommended regimen of nine deodorized garlic capsules a day for six weeks, Landis says, his feet didn’t itch for the first time in four years. He continued to take garlic, but at a reduced dosage. Gradually, his feet returned to their normal color, the redness and scales disappeared, and his toenails began to grow in normally.
An equal opportunity invader
When rubbing your toes becomes more of a compulsion than a relaxing time-out, you, like Landis, may be among those suffering from athlete’s foot. Toes and soles of the feet that burn, sting and/or itch are often a sign of this pesky infection. The skin may crack, peel and display a rash, and itchy bumps filled with fluid may appear on the sides and/or soles of the feet.
Athlete’s foot is medically termed tinea pedis, a Latin referral to fungal foot infection. This miserable condition may be caused by the same types of fungi that cause ringworm (t. corporis), jock itch (t. cruris), and fungus nail (onychomycosis or t. unguium). They all result from a class of fungi called dermatophytes—microscopic parasitic fungi that invade only dead skin tissue and thrive in warm, moist areas.
Although dermatophytes prefer people who perspire a lot, they don’t discriminate. They prey on athletes as well as those whose heaviest workout is picking up the remote control, and they attack people of all ages, including preadolescents, high school students, and senior citizens. The infection is mildly contagious through contact in public showers and swimming areas, shared towels, or contaminated bath mats. Poor hygiene, continually moist skin, and minor skin or nail injuries increase the chances of being attacked by dermatophytes. Age, sex, disease, and/or taking medication may also alter skin flora and make individuals more susceptible to attack by dermatophytes.
Athlete’s foot fungi penetrate into layers of dead and dying cells of the hair, nails, and outer layer of skin to establish a foundation below the skin surface but not inside the body. Because of this position, they can’t be reached by circulating blood, so the immune system has a difficult time recognizing and destroying the invaders. This makes athlete’s foot notoriously difficult to treat through internal avenues, including pharmaceuticals. Antifungal drugs must sometimes be taken at high doses to have an effect, a situation that can pose risks, including liver toxicity. External applications for treating athlete’s foot can also be doomed to failure, killing as they do only the surface portion of the fungus. Topical preparations are thought to control athlete’s foot at best, not to cure. Relapse is almost universal.
Taking care of your feet
The most effective remedy, then, is good hygiene. It can help prevent infection as well as help speed treatment. Keep your feet dry—always dry them thoroughly after bathing. Avoid socks manufactured from synthetic fibers because they don’t absorb moisture very well. Instead, buy socks made of cotton, wool, or a combination. Change your socks frequently and wear well-ventilated shoes with leather soles, not those with synthetic uppers or hard rubber soles. Change shoes a couple of times daily, so each pair can dry thoroughly.
If you do develop athlete’s foot, you may wish to try a natural healing approach. Here, success comes from a combination of topical remedies to aid in short-term symptom control and nontoxic antifungal herbs taken internally to gradually kill the infection. Fungi are hardy, so the treatment can be slow and tedious. Plan to treat the pest for several weeks, or even months. Good hygiene is crucial to treatment success.
Two of the best-known herbal remedies for athlete’s foot are tea tree oil and garlic. Additionally, I have found that using diluted solutions of the essential oils of clove and cinnamon, applied with a cotton swab or dropper to the infected areas, are very helpful.
Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) is the most accepted and universally recognized natural remedy for athlete’s foot. This essential oil is relatively mild and well-tolerated, making it convenient to use. Folk medicine draws upon the oil, extracted from the tea tree, an Australian tree species, to make remedies for ailments ranging from diaper rash to warts and cold sores. Although modern clinical studies of tea tree oil aren’t as numerous as they are for some herbs, one recent study of patients with toenails infected with the athlete’s foot fungus showed that a 100 percent concentration of the oil, applied directly to the nail, was as effective as a popular topical antifungal drug at relieving symptoms.
To use tea tree oil, look for tea tree oil creams, available in most health-food stores, and apply according to directions on the label. If you are treating nail fungus, trim the nail back as far as possible to help the oil penetrate more completely, then apply the preparation. Proceed cautiously because one 1994 study showed that tea tree oil may cause skin inflammation.
As good as tea tree oil may be, however, in my experience the essential oils of clove and cinnamon are far more effective at bringing relief. But you must be cautious when applying them; otherwise, they may burn your skin. Dilute the essential oil, which can be purchased in natural food stores, with almond oil or hand lotion. I recommend one part essential oil to ten parts almond oil. Apply the solution to the infected area once or twice daily, after thoroughly cleansing and drying your feet.
Fighting from inside
When Landis’s herbalist recommended he take garlic to help beat his athlete’s foot, the advice may have been based on the ample information that exists about garlic’s medicinal assets. Folk medicine of many cultures recognizes garlic (Allium sativum) as an effective remedy for numerous ills, including fungal infections, and a large body of scientific evidence backs this up. Specifically, it shows that garlic is effective against dermatophytes associated with athlete’s foot, including Microsporum gypseum and Trichophyton terrestre. Researchers have traced garlic’s antifungal action to one of its constituents, allicin.
Clinical studies performed since 1988 indicate that a daily dose of 600 to 900 mg of garlic powder, standardized to 0.6 percent allicin is an effective preventive amount. For those who wish to fight infections using garlic, up to five or six cloves daily or 3,000 mg of garlic powder standardized for allicin content may be effective.
Be forewarned, however, that such dosages can cause heartburn and gas, and some people may experience an allergic reaction to garlic. Garlic consumption is considered safe for most people, but it reduces the clotting time of the blood, so persons taking anticoagulant drugs should avoid large amounts. Consult your health-care provider for information specific to your condition.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle, Washington. He is a professional member of the American Herbalist Guild and co-author of Herbal Defense (Warner, due out in August).