Eczema, or atopic dermatitis as it is often known to doctors, is characterized by inflamed and itchy skin. This is often accompanied by dryness or flaking, and the intense irritation experienced by sufferers can result in scratching to relieve the discomfort. This can, of course, worsen the condition and may enable bacteria and yeast infections to gain a toehold.
The Prevalence of Eczema
There is still disagreement among doctors as to the exact cause of atopic dermatitis. What we do know, however, is that diagnoses of eczema have increased significantly in recent decades. Many Western countries have experienced two-fold increases or even greater. These days, approximately 20% of children in developed nations are affected by the symptoms we know as eczema. While this frequently clears up with age, it is estimated that between 1% and 3% of adults still suffer from the affliction.
Interestingly, this pattern has not been reflected in developing countries. It has therefore been suggested that there may well be environmental and/or dietary elements involved. It also seems very likely that there are genetic factors at play too.
The most common sources of treatment prescribed by medical professionals are anti-histamines and corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and allergic reactions that may be causing irritation.
While these treatments can be very effective in many cases, an increasing number of people are concerned about the side effects sometimes seen with these treatments. Some examples of steroid use can include glaucoma, weight gain, slow growth in children or the onset of diabetes. Little wonder then that one survey found that 42% of eczema sufferers had experimented with some kind of home remedy in the last year.
The question is what natural treatments actually seem to produce positive results in eczema sufferers?
Eliminate Food Allergies
A surprising number of us suffer from allergies without even realizing it. There is evidence that such unidentified allergies may be worsening or even causing skin problems such as eczema in the first place.
A study that set out to assess the effects of diet on atopic dermatitis found that 56% of eczema sufferers had at least one underlying allergy to specific foods. The most common causes of these skin reactions were found to be eggs, peanuts and milk, which when combined accounted for 72% of the reactions observed.
Interestingly, by eliminating these causal factors from the diets of participants approximately 40% of the study participants lost their sensitivity within a period of between one and two years, showing significant improvements in their condition as a result.
If you’re suffering from ongoing eczema a great place to start may therefore be to investigate the possibility that you’re reacting to a common ingredient in your diet. If so, you might be able to significantly improve your condition with the minimal need of pharmaceuticals.
Consume Evening Primrose Oil
Studies have suggested that another contributing factor to eczema may be an inability to metabolize fatty acids from the diet. These fatty acids normally compete against substances known as “prostaglandins” which are responsible for inflammation in the body. More fatty acids should in theory therefore “out-compete” the prostaglandins. Scientists have therefore theorized that providing more fatty acids may help to tip the balance, reducing inflammation and lessening the symptoms of eczema.
Whilst there are many sources of these essential fatty acids one of the best-known and most heavily studied is evening primrose oil – a rich source of one particular fatty acid known as gamma linolenic acid (GLA).
In one study assessing the impact of evening primrose oil patients were either provided with 500 mg of evening primrose oil or a placebo in capsule form. Participants were asked to consume one capsule per day for a period of five months, before assessments of their symptoms were made. The scientists in question reported that an impressive 96% of patients taking the evening primrose oil showed improvements, while suffering no more side-effects than the placebo group.
Other researchers have identified even faster improvements – sometimes in as little as 12 weeks – by providing higher doses of evening primrose oil. One particularly successful trial, in which the improvements were described as “significant” gave doses of between 4g and 6g per day to participants.
Similar studies involving cases of eczema, but this time in children, have yielded similar positive results. One such study provided participants either with either liquid evening primrose oil or olive oil. None of the children knew whether they were receiving the “real” treatment or the placebo. This treatment was continued on for a period of four weeks, at which point their symptoms were assessed. Once again the eczema of those children taking the primrose oil was “significantly improved” when compared with the control group.
Vitamin D was once thought to be primarily responsible for the absorption of calcium from the diet, a crucial component of healthy bones and teeth. In recent decades, however, nutritionists have become ever more aware of how wide-ranging vitamin D’s impact on the body is. For example, studies have suggested that vitamin D plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system and a deficiency may play a role in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
It may also, if the scientists are to be believed, play a part in the treatment of eczema, and many experts believe that this is due to vitamin D’s effect on the immune system, helping it to fight off bacterial infections more efficiently.
A study from Hong Kong compared vitamin D status among children. They found that lower levels of vitamin D were closely associated with symptoms of eczema, while non-affected children had, on average, a much higher level of vitamin D in their body.
Another study took swabs from eczema sufferers, while also drawing blood to measure vitamin D levels. They found that bacterial skin infections were much higher in those who were deficient in vitamin D. The experts concluded that “vitamin D supplementation may help ameliorate clinical signs of the disease and can be considered as a safe and well-tolerated form of therapy”.
This may help to explain why “light therapy” is often recommended in more severe cases of eczema, though in truth many of us are unknowingly deficient and may benefit either from greater access to natural sunlight or a daily vitamin D supplement.
Vitamin B12, sometimes known as cobalamin, has an odd relationship with the appearance of eczema. On the one hand, studies have demonstrated that high concentrations of vitamin B12 in pregnant women are associated with the development of eczema in their children after birth. It would seem, therefore, that it is possible to have too much vitamin B12.
On the other hand, vitamin B12 has demonstrated its ability to improve many symptoms of eczema. One simple experiment asked eczema patients to treat one side of their body with a topical vitamin B12 ointment, and the other side with a placebo ointment. After just two weeks of treatment it was reported that “skin treated with topical vitamin B12 improved significantly”.
These results were replicated in another study, where patients were asked to use either a vitamin B12-enriched moisturizer or a placebo twice a day for a period of two months. Experts were drafted in to assess each patient’s skin both before and after, rating their condition as “very good”, “good”, “moderate” or “poor”. The results demonstrated that 88% of those taking the placebo were ranked as either “moderate” or “poor”. In contrast the group receiving vitamin B12 was rated as either “good” or “very good” in 58% of cases – a marked improvement.
Salt water can have a number of benefits for the skin. Possibly most importantly salt water can have a gentle antiseptic effect, ridding the skin’s surface of any yeast or bacterial infections which may be worsening symptoms. Furthermore, it is believed that the rich soup of nutrients found in natural sea salt can also help to reduce inflammation of the skin.
Studies of bathing in salt water (“balneotherapy”) have substantiated these assumptions. For example, 49 adult eczema sufferers were enrolled onto a regime of regular salt baths in Germany. SCORAD is the name given to the industry-standard scoring system for measuring eczema in people, and combines both the proportion of the skin affected and the severity of symptoms. These are combined to give an eventual “score” of how serious an eczema case is. In this particular study it was found that salt bathing reducing average scores among the participants by 39 points – a significant improvement.
Other studies have demonstrated that bathing in salt which is rich in magnesium chloride (like Dead Sea salt) is capable of improving skin barrier function. This helps to trap moisture deep in the skin, reducing the appearance of itchy or sore skin.
All eczema sufferers would be wise to consult their doctor for professional advice before embarking on any treatment for their condition. At the same time, the scientific evidence does point to a number of beneficial treatments besides the standard pharmaceutical solutions. Whether you opt to consider using evening primrose oil, salt baths, vitamins D and B12 alone or in conjunction with your standard drug regime should be discussed with your physician. The upside is that you should now be better armed to make informed decisions about some far more natural potential solutions to ease your condition.