Achieving healthy, glowing skin is an attainable dream for many. But for the millions of people who suffer from eczema, psoriasis or rosacea, the redness, scaling, sores and incessant itching that mark these chronic skin conditions can lead to a lifetime of discomfort and embarrassment. Conventional treatments aren’t always effective and often rely on antibiotics and topical steroids that can thin the skin, weaken an already delicate immune system and damage the liver. Fortunately, Mother Nature has a number of safe, effective tricks up her sleeve to help control these troubling diseases.
Calming Angry Skin
Are you the sensitive type? If your skin seems to react to everything from stress to perfume, you may have eczema. Also known as dermatitis in medical-speak, eczema is actually a group of skin conditions that affects one in every 12 American adults. Caused by genetic factors, stress, an allergic reaction or yeast growths, eczema often appears as red, itchy, inflamed, scaly or even crusty, oozing patches of skin. People with thin, dry skin are more susceptible.
Luckily, there are a number of natural steps you can take to ease eczema. First, it’s important to do some sleuthing to find out what causes flare-ups. For some people, it can be as simple as a change in climate. For others, stress or illness can worsen the disease. Certain foods, fabrics or the chemicals commonly used in cosmetics and cleaning products can also make symptoms worse. If you can pinpoint what makes your skin rage, take whatever steps you can to avoid the offender.
Botanicals can help heal the outbreaks that do occur. According to naturopathic doctor Tori Hudson, author of the Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Keats, 1999), evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis), a rich source of gamma linolenic acid (GLA), can help your skin retain moisture and may protect it from environmental oxidative damage. One recent study by Korean researchers at Inha University found that evening primrose oil not only reduces skin lesions and itching, it also helps modulate the immune system.
“There have been many scientific studies using GLA with excellent benefits in improving the symptoms of eczema,” Hudson says. She recommends supplementing the diet with 500 to 3,000 mg of evening primrose oil daily.
Packed with polyphenols, oolong tea (partially fermented Camellia sinensis) can also soothe stubborn eczema. Researchers from the Shiga University School of Medical Science in Japan discovered this when patients undergoing treatment for their eczema began drinking oolong tea three times a day. Their skin health improved in as little as one week. After a month, 65 percent of the 118 participants showed significant improvement.
“Herbs are particularly helpful when applied topically,” holistic cosmetologist Denise Santamarina says. Santamarina is the owner of Natural Nouveaux, a nontoxic salon and day spa in Las Vegas. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), aloe (Aloe vera) and witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) are her top picks for eczema because of their ability to reduce inflammation.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is recommended by the German Commission E to treat eczema-related inflammation. While some eczema ointments contain fenugreek, you can make your own poultice by mixing the powdered seed with enough hot water to form a thin paste. Dip a clean cotton cloth in the paste and apply to the affected area. Leave on for five to 10 minutes, rinse with tepid water and pat dry.
Moisturizers containing emollient herbs like marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) can help prevent dryness. And calendula (Calendula officinalis) can speed the healing of broken skin. According to renowned herbalist and Herbs for Health editorial adviser James A. Duke, research on calendula shows that this herb is antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory and antiviral. And because of the powerful broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity of tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil, this botanical is being looked at for its ability to treat eczema caused by Candida albicans and allergic hypersensitivity.
Perhaps the most frustrating symptom of eczema is the constant, sometimes severe, itching that can leave you raw and bleeding. While cnidium (Cnidium monnieri) has been valued by practitioners of Asian folk medicine for centuries because of its antibacterial and astringent effects, new research by the Institute of Natural Medicine in Toyama, Japan, has found that this herb is a potent antipruritic (itch-reliever) when used topically. The herb is available in many Asian markets, and you can make an effective anti-itch poultice by mixing ground cnidium seeds with water.
For the nearly 5 million Americans who suffer from psoriasis, it’s almost as if their skin is set on fast-forward. Normally, skin cells go from birth to death in about 28 days, but with psoriasis, skin cells complete the whole process in a mere three to four days. As a result, affected areas develop thick, red patches of skin covered with flaky, silvery scales. In severe cases, pus-filled blisters form on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet, and the nails may become pitted and discolored. While psoriasis tends to be inherited, its cause is open to speculation. Many researchers believe it’s an autoimmune disorder. Others think it’s a defect in the body’s natural detoxification process. Still others point to nutritional causes and stress. Common triggers may include injury to the skin, some infections and reaction to certain drugs. One thing is certain: There is no known cure. But you can control the severity of the disease.
For some psoriasis sufferers, dietary changes may be beneficial. Turkish researchers recently found that people with psoriasis have low levels of key antioxidant vitamins A, C and E. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables will ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of antioxidants to support healthy skin. Selenium also plays an important role in the disease. One case-controlled study of 59 psoriasis patients and 38 patients without the disease discovered that those with psoriasis were deficient in selenium. Selenium can be found in whole grains, garlic, onions, broccoli, tomatoes and Swiss chard. A diet rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids can also tame the inflammation that accompanies psoriasis. Fish and flaxseeds are excellent sources.
Sunlight can help send psoriasis packing — at least temporarily. In fact, some doctors employ prescription ultraviolet light boxes combined with certain drugs that increase sun sensitivity. But this “new” treatment is actually thousands of years old, Duke says.
Known as heliotherapy, ancient Egyptians rubbed red, scaly skin with plants containing compounds called psoralens and then sat in the sun. According to Duke, psoralen-rich plants, including angelica (Angelica archangelica), carrots, celery, citrus fruits, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), figs, lovage (Levisticum officinale) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris), can provide a safer, gentler way to boost the healing power of the sun.
For a pleasant treatment, Duke suggests trying his Psoriaphobic Citrus Juice. “Simply toss a mixture of citrus fruits, a carrot and a celery stalk into your juicer,” he says. Once you’ve finished drinking this tasty treatment, go out into the sun for some homemade heliotherapy. But, since long-term exposure to the sun can increase your risk of skin cancer, Duke advises that you practice this therapy with caution.
Even without the benefit of the sun, herbs play an important role in controlling psoriasis. Scientists from London’s King’s College discovered that gotu kola (Centella asiatica) was as effective at slowing the rampant production of skin cells as a synthetic anti-psoriatic treatment. Another study of 49 psoriasis patients found that an ointment containing Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) also helped put the brakes on overactive cell production. What’s more, earlier research shows that Oregon grape can boost the skin’s immune response and soothe moderate psoriasis by reducing inflammation and itching.
Recent studies have also found that fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) can help patients with severe psoriasis. Although how this particular botanical works is a topic of hot debate, some researchers believe that the fumaric acid esters in the herb modulate the T-cell response. Duke recommends brewing a strong tea of the herb and applying it to the affected area with a cotton ball three times daily.
When it comes to caring for psoriatic skin, Santamarina suggests dry brushing the skin with a natural-bristle brush to exfoliate the build-up of dead skin cells. (This may be painful for some psoriasis sufferers; don’t use this treatment if it hurts.)
“Begin at your feet and work your way up over your legs, torso and arms using smooth, upward strokes,” she says. “Then hop in the shower to wash all of the dead skin away.”
For an even more effective treatment, follow your dry brushing with a bath containing Dead Sea salts. High in magnesium, potassium, calcium and iodine, a double-blind controlled study of 23 patients by Israeli researchers found that Dead Sea salts significantly reduced psoriasis symptoms.
War of the Roses
When the blush of youth turns into an embarrassing redness that never seems to go away, you may be suffering from rosacea. Rosacea is a disease that can make even teetotalers look like long-time alcoholics. It’s an unglamorous problem that affects 13 million Americans, including former President Bill Clinton.
Although no one is quite sure what causes rosacea, some studies have found a connection between this skin condition and the ulcer bug, Helicobacter pylori. Others point to Demodex folliculorum, a microscopic mite that lives on dead skin cells. Whatever the cause, rosacea is a chronic condition that first appears as excessive flushing across the cheeks, chin, nose and forehead. Eventually, this redness is accompanied by small, unsightly blood vessels. In many people, rosacea doesn’t end with flushing and blushing but can lead to inflammation and acne-like bumps and pimples.
Any number of factors can bring on the redness. Cheese, chocolate, soy sauce, citrus fruits, spicy foods and alcohol can make rosacea worse, as can hot tea, coffee or soups. Stress can also trigger a flare-up. And because heat can make rosacea worse, it’s wise to avoid saunas, hot baths and excessively warm environments. Even exercise can be your enemy, especially workouts that raise body temperature and increase blood flow to the face.
“You have to be especially careful when it comes to using cosmetics and skin-care products if you have rosacea,” Santamarina says. “Avoid anything that contains alcohol or acetone. And if a product causes redness or stinging, stop using it.” If you do become overheated or encounter a product that worsens the disease, Santamarina suggests soaking a washcloth in ice water spiked with a few drops of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oil. Wring out the cloth and place it over your face for two or three minutes.
Although there is definitely a scientific gap when it comes to herbal therapies for rosacea, folk remedies abound. Tonic herbs such as burdock (Arctium lappa) and yellow dock (Rumex crispus) have been used internally for years because of their cleansing properties. Some herbalists also recommend applying herbal waters of skin-friendly botanicals like Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) or rose (Rosa spp.).
Recently, scientists at King George’s Medical College in Lucknow, India, gave a nod to the effectiveness of traditional remedies — they acknowledged the success Ayurvedic practitioners have had in treating chronic skin diseases with anti-inflammatory herbs like turmeric (Curcuma longa) and neem (Azadirachta indica). But you don’t need to travel to India to benefit from these ancient therapies. You can find turmeric powder, a mild-tasting ingredient in curry spice, in supermarkets or in capsule form at your local health-food store. Topical neem oil is also becoming a staple at health-food stores and can even be found in some skin and hair-care products.
Kim Erickson is the author of Drop Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics (Contemporary, 2002).