Do you deal with eczema? Have you been told you will always have it? Eczema is an ongoing skin issue that can be very frustrating for those who suffer from it. This skin disease may show up in small patches on the face or completely cover the belly or lower legs. The dryness and itching can be unbearable, keeping some people awake all night long due to extreme discomfort. Most people seek out skin care products, like topical steroid creams, ointments, and other lotions, to soothe the itchy skin and protect it from further injury. While these and other home remedies can help with symptoms in the short term, it doesn’t address the actual cause(s) of eczema.
What is Eczema?
According to the National Eczema Association, eczema is “an inflammatory skin condition that causes itchiness, dry skin, rashes, scaly patches, blisters, and skin infections. Itchy skin is the most common symptom of eczema.” The healthcare system says there are seven different types of eczema: atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, nummular eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and stasis dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis (also called atopic eczema) is said to be the most common type. It’s usually what people are talking about then they say they have eczema.
In the United States, about 10% of the population (31.6 million people) currently deal with eczema. While it tends to peak in childhood (80% of sufferers develop it before age 6), it’s most common in adult women. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), eczema tends to show up in different ways based on the person’s stage of life. Here are some symptoms of eczema:
- Infants: A rash often develops on the scalp or face –especially the cheeks. It feels dry, raw, or scaly to the touch.
- Children: An itchy rash begins in the creases of elbows or knees, but may also appear on the neck, wrists, ankles, or elsewhere.
- Adults: Eczema shows up as extremely dry or irritated skin. Commonly affected areas are the hands and eyelids.
Additional signs and symptoms that may accompany eczema include deep and numerous lines in the palms, skin infections, oozing and crusting skin, cracking and bleeding, and feelings of anxiety, depression, and/or isolation. Conditions that frequently accompany eczema include psoriasis, hay fever, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, eye conditions, and mental health issues.
How is Eczema Usually Treated?
If you make an appointment with an allergist or dermatologist, he or she will usually create a treatment plan that involves avoiding triggers, like harsh soaps and detergents, swimming pool chemicals, fragrances, and even certain fabrics. Moisturizers are recommended to help improve the skin barrier and soothe the irritation.
For severe eczema, they may prescribe a topical corticosteroid or an oral antihistamine. They may even prescribe an injectable biologic medication. Diluted bleach baths are also recommended to decrease the need for medications like antibiotics. Occasionally, a doctor might recommend phototherapy or ultraviolet light therapy as a more natural way of treating eczema.
While avoiding harsh soaps and regular moisturizing may help soothe sensitive skin, it’s not getting to the root of the matter. Besides that, taking medications long-term can do more harm than good. For the most part, the medical system says moisturizing and medicating are the answers to eczema. We disagree.
What Causes Eczema?
While the National Eczema Association states they don’t know exactly what causes eczema, they acknowledge stress and allergens as potential causes or risk factors. They also refer to toxic metals, allergens, and chemicals as “triggers” of eczema flare-ups. Clearly, eczema is an environmental disease.
Think of eczema as an indicator. Having a patch of eczema is an indicator that the immune system is off balance. Eczema is an allergic reaction to some type of irritant. Atopic dermatitis (eczema) in infants often progresses to allergies (hay fever) and asthma in later childhood. This phenomenon is referred to as the “atopic march.” The immune imbalance that was present early in the infant simply takes a different form as the child gets older.
What causes an altered immune response? At The Wellness Way, we always go back to physical, biochemical, and emotional causes. We refer to them as trauma, toxins, and thoughts; the Three T’s.
Trauma Contributors to Eczema
Examples of physical stressors that may lead to eczema include the following:
- Car accidents, falls, or other injuries
- A traumatic loss
- Severe illness
- Sexual assault/being a victim of violence (or viewing it)
- Having a baby
or other events that have a major impact on your physical body.
These things can set off the Cell Danger Response, a theory outlined by Dr. Robert Naviaux. This theory poses that a physical, or biological threat initially triggers a stress response, throwing the body off balance. Responding to the threat requires extra resources, so the body increases production to meet the demand. The body makes all kinds of changes to survive. That’s the Cell Danger Response (CDR).
After the dangerous situation is over, the body should automatically activate a sequence of anti-inflammatory and healing pathways. If that doesn’t happen and CDR persists, it leads to imbalance throughout the body, including the gut microbiome and skin.
Toxin Contributors to Eczema
Biochemical stressors that may contribute to eczema include the following:
- Mother’s sugar intake during pregnancy
- Food allergies – eating allergenic foods is a biochemical stressor on the body.
- Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke are both associated with eczema
- Air pollution, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), is similarly associated with eczema. Air pollution is worse inside than it is outside, as VOCs can come from the off-gassing of construction materials, paints, and furniture.
- Fungal and other infections can introduce toxins into the body, causing eczema. Even dust mites are associated with eczema.
- Hormone imbalance – New research came out in 2022 showing that hormones significantly influence allergies (hay fever), asthma, and eczema.
These toxic exposures, whether internal or external, set off an immune response in the body. Depending on your genetics and other contributing factors, this can lead to eczema.
Thought Contributors to Eczema (Mental or Emotional Stressors)
Chronic psychological stress can also aggravate eczema by increasing stress hormones, decreasing the immune response, reducing blood flow, and increasing inflammation. Psychological stress activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in the skin. While short-term stress can be beneficial, stimulating healing, long-term or chronic stress can be very harmful, keeping the skin inflamed and disrupting the protective outer layer.
The Swiss Watch Approach to Eczema
At The Wellness Way, we like to think of a healthy body as a Swiss Watch with many gears working together in harmony. Like the gears inside a Swiss watch, how one system functions in the body affects how everything else functions. That means inflammation in your digestive system will impact your immune response and result in chronic inflammation throughout the body, including your skin. All your body’s systems are connected via a central gear, the nervous system:
The Digestive System and Eczema
The gut microbiome makes up 70 to 80 percent of your immune system. If there’s dysbiosis (microbial imbalance) in the gut, it will impact how the immune system responds to the surrounding environment. Since there are immune cells throughout the body, the skin is also affected by your gut health.
Leaky Gut, Leaky Skin
As nurse practitioner Nicole Saleske explains in this video, a “leaky gut” is usually a prime culprit behind eczema. A “leaky gut,” or intestinal hyperpermeability, allows food molecules that aren’t fully digested to enter the bloodstream before they should. This causes the immune system to respond to what appears to be a foreign invader.
Immune Responses to Food
A common cause of chronic inflammation and skin issues are food allergies. Eating foods that you’re allergic to creates an immune response in the body. Depending on your genetic weaknesses and other conditions, that can lead the skin to become inflamed and break down.
Stressed Life, Stressed Skin
Stress is so often discounted as a source of dis-ease. However, it is a major culprit in all illnesses due to its powerful effect on the brain and nervous system. When the brain detects stress, it affects hormones, neurotransmitters, enzymes, and the HPA axis of the skin.
Restoring skin health requires a whole-body approach. Clearly, there are some environmental factors that can aggravate the condition. However, we need to look deeper. Here are some ideas on where to start.
Some Thoughts on Where to Start
Do a Food Allergy Test
Eczema is highly associated with food allergies. Young children with eczema are six times more likely to develop a food allergy than those without eczema. About a third of children who have eczema also have a food allergy. Some of the most common food allergies associated with eczema are cow’s milk, chicken eggs, peanuts, soy, nuts, and fish. Adults with eczema are two to four times more likely to have allergic rhinitis (“allergies”) or food allergies. But you won’t know unless you test.
Go Natural with Topical Applications
Some research indicates a topical application of licorice could help. One potential option is to add a few drops of Licorice root extract to a topical oil that fits with your food allergy list, like almond, coconut, or jojoba. Rub on the skin instead of commercial creams or lanolin, which, while natural, could make the rash worse.
Apple cider vinegar is another popular natural option for skin issues. At The Wellness Way, we are big fans of apple cider vinegar and use it both internally and topically to promote a balanced pH and healthy microbiome. For irritated skin, be sure to dilute the ACV with water before applying it with a cotton ball.
Switch Out Your Household and Personal Care Products
The National Eczema Association (NEA) shares an entire list of chemicals that trigger or aggravate an eczema flare. Some of them are common in personal care items like shampoo, body wash, and cosmetics. Some of these include Cocamidopropyl betaine. Quaternium 15, parabens, and even fragrance. Other chemical irritants are found in household cleaning products. Find the full list of eczema triggers here.
Choose Your Jewelry Carefully
The NEA’s list of eczema triggers also mentions certain metals, including gold, nickel, and copper. If you need nickel-free earrings or find you have a skin reaction to a “white gold” watch (containing nickel), it may go back to the same immune imbalance that is causing eczema.
These strategies can help lessen the signs and symptoms temporarily. However, there’s still an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. That’s where testing and health restoration come in.
The Wellness Way Can Help!
At The Wellness Way, we don’t see eczema as strictly a skin issue. We go beyond the surface and dig deep into the contributing factors, including food allergies, gut issues, immune imbalance, and even stress. Our practitioners start by having you share your health history and current symptoms. From there, we’ll recommend specialized testing to find out what is triggering your immune system and keeping you from healing. We don’t guess –we test! Reach out to one of our Wellness Way Clinics today!
- Eczema Causes, Triggers & Symptoms | National Eczema Association
- Eczema types: Atopic dermatitis symptoms (aad.org)
- Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis) | Symptoms, Treatment & Management (aaaai.org)
- The Atopic March: Progression from Atopic Dermatitis to Allergic Rhinitis and Asthma – PMC (nih.gov)
- Metabolic features of the cell danger response – PubMed (nih.gov)
- The association between sugar intake during pregnancy and allergies in offspring: a systematic review and a meta-analysis of cohort studies – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Food Allergies: The Basics – PMC (nih.gov)
- The association of smoking with contact dermatitis and hand eczema – a review – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Effects of air pollution on the skin: A review – PubMed (nih.gov)
- The clinical significance of fungi in atopic dermatitis – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Immunotherapy of house dust mite allergy – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Hormonal Effects on Asthma, Rhinitis, and Eczema – PubMed (nih.gov)
- Association between Stress and the HPA Axis in the Atopic Dermatitis – PMC (nih.gov)
- Consensus‐based European guidelines for treatment of atopic eczema (atopic dermatitis) in adults and children: part I – Wollenberg – 2018 – Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology – Wiley Online Library
- Eczema Prevalence, Quality of Life and Economic Impact (nationaleczema.org)
- The Interplay between the Gut Microbiome and the Immune System in the Context of Infectious Diseases throughout Life and the Role of Nutrition in Optimizing Treatment Strategies – PubMed (nih.gov)