Eczema and Atopic Dermatitis: Could Natural Treatments Help?

Eczema is a chronic inflammatory disease with a complex pathogenesis. While there are at least eleven skin conditions that can be considered a cause for eczema, the three most common are atopic dermatitis, irritant dermatitis and contact dermatitis.

Atopic dermatitis, the most common cause of eczema, has a strong genetic basis and tends to occur from early childhood in individuals with a predisposition to allergens, even though it is unlikely atopic dermatitis has an allergic basis. Irritant dermatitis manifests when the skin is exposed regularly to excessive harsh washing or to toxic substances while contact dermatitis is an allergic condition where the body responds to repeated exposure to an allergen by activating the immune response at the site of exposure, causing eczema.

Two other common types of eczema are Xerotic (dry skin) eczema, where the skin reacts to excessive dryness by cracking and oozing, and Seborrheic dermatitis where the over activation of the seborrheic glands produce a rash on the scalp, face, ears and occasionally on the chest.

The most common complaint in eczema is the associated itching at the site of the rashes that often present with elevated plaques of red, bumpy skin that can range in severity from mild to extreme when the skin is deeply affected.

The treatment for eczema is most often the application of wet compresses either with water or vinegar, topical steroids in forms of medicated creams and often, systemic corticosteroids.

While the introduction of steroids in the treatment of dermatological conditions in 1952 was considered a landmark in dermatology and its effectiveness can not be debated, time has shown that prolonged use of topical steroids can lead to skin atrophy, rosacea, acne, and purpura, while at a systemic level, the suppression of the hypothalamic- pituitary- adrenal axis has been observed in an increasing number of cases. This can lead to debilitating and often fatal conditions such as Cushing’s syndrome, which is a collection of hormonal disorders due to the presence of high levels of cortisol, hyperglycaemia, which can lead to diabetes and glucosuria, which is the presence of glucose in urine when the kidney function is affected.

Considering not only the severe symptoms of eczema, but also the long term effects of conventional treatment, it is impossible not to look at the possibility of treating this condition in a more natural way.

Taking into account that one of the primary causes of eczema is the effect of irritants and allergens on the integrity of the cell membrane, it is hard not to consider the role a deficiency in essential fatty acids might play in the severity of the symptoms.

The two main roles of essential fatty acids, which ideally should be obtained from the diet, are related to their role in the membrane structures and their role in the synthesis of derivatives regulating numerous aspects of cellular activity.

Researched carried for over twenty years has already established that essential fatty acids deficiency leads to inflammatory skin conditions, of which eczema is the most predominant. Three clinical studies, in 1989, 1994 and 2008 have shown that Fish oil supplementation for a period of 20 weeks has produced significant clinical improvements in the symptoms of atopic dermatitis and eczema, suggesting that an adequate consumption of essential fatty acids plays an important role in treating the symptoms of the disease by restoring cell membrane integrity.

Essential fatty acids can be found in a variety of foods, such as fish, walnuts, chia and hemp seeds, flaxseeds, olive oil, almonds and egg yolks among many others.

Exposure to high levels of antigens has been shown to predispose some individuals to allergic sensitization, which can lead to atopic dermatitis and eczema. Intestinal microflora plays an important role in protecting against allergy development as it reduces antigen transport through the intestinal mucosa. Studies carried in 2005, 2006 and 2009 has shown that supplementation with probiotics has had a beneficial impact on the Severity Scoring of Atopic Dermatitis index.

Probiotics can be found in yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha, pickles and buttermilk.

If essential fatty acids help protect the cell integrity and probiotics help reduce the allergy response, another overlooked essential mineral, Selenium, helps considerably reduce the inflammatory response associated among another things with eczema and dermatitis.

Selenium can be found naturally in Brazil nuts, fish, beef, eggs and spinach.

Another anti-inflammatory with effects on skin is Zinc, an important co-factor in many bio-chemical reactions in the body that support the healthy functioning of every cell in the organism.

Like some of the other nutrients, zinc can be found in spinach, beef, kidney beans, shrimps, oysters, flax and pumpkin seeds, peanuts, cocoa powder, cashews, kefir and yoghurt.

Last but not least, vitamins play an important role in maintaining skin health.

Due to its effects as an immunomodulator for cellular immunity and its importance as a cofactor in normal functioning of all cells, Vitamin B12 has been topically tested in atopic dermatitis in 2004 with significant results.

Again, like some of the other nutrients discussed, Vitamin B12 can be found in foods such as sardines, oysters, egg yolk, beef, cheese and milk.

Probably the best known vitamin in terms of skin health and healing is Vitamin E, which has been used both topically and internally to alleviate dry and cracked skin, assist in the repair of skin cells and as sunburn protection.

The richest foods in Vitamin E are cold-pressed vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, spinach, kale, egg yolks, butter and milk.

Looking at all the possible deficiencies linked to eczema and dermatitis, and noticing that many of the necessary nutrients are often found collectively in the same food groups, it is hard not to deduce that diet plays an important role in alleviating the symptoms of eczema, and even potentially in treating some of the causes linked with the disease.

Before moving onto another highly important treatment of all skin conditions, especially eczema and dermatitis, it is imperative to mention the need for proper hydration of all cells. The consumption of the recommended 1.5 to 2 liters of water a day is simply necessary for maintaining the integrity of every cell in the body, including the skin, even though by itself, it will do little to improve the symptoms of dermatitis.

Along with treating deficiencies and imbalances in the body and proper hydration, skin care is the third important element in treating eczema and dermatitis.

Studies have shown that repeated use of harsh cleansers not only that can worsen existing eczema, but by excessively drying of the skin, it can cause it. As such, it is imperative that all skin cleansers have a neutral to low pH. Further, it is absolutely necessary to properly hydrate and moisturize the skin in order not only to calm the symptoms, but to alleviate the excessive dryness that leads to some of the most debilitating skin complaints.

Some of the best topically applied extracts and oils useful in the treatment of eczema and dermatitis are plant based ones that had been shown to help heal and moisturize the skin.

Shea butter is not only deeply moisturizing and emollient, but it is anti-inflammatory and contains high levels of fatty acids, which are vital for skin nutrition.

Olive oil is not only rich in essential fatty acids and nutritive, but it helps control dryness and flakiness by deeply penetrating the skin layers.

Grape seed oil contains high levels of Vitamin E and linoleic acids that had been shown to help in the treatment of eczema and dermatitis.

Castor oil helps not only in the treatment, but also in the prevention of eczema, as it heaviness creates a protective barrier and is useful in healing dry and irritated skin.

In terms of essential oils and extracts that had been shown to help in the treatment of eczema and dermatitis, probably the best well known are chamomile and calendula which have not only anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial actions, but are deeply healing. Rose oil is not only hydrating, but helps reduce redness and is calming on the skin. Green tea extract is a powerful antioxidant that helps detoxify the skin and improves skin tonus. The list of plants that can help treat skin disorders is endless due to the multi facet action of the rich array of phytochemicals found in the natural world.

In conclusion, while existing medical treatments have been shown to help treat eczema and dermatitis, with unpleasant side effects, proper skin health starts with maintaining the integrity of every cell of the body by ensuring proper nutrition and by using skin care products that have a low allergenic component and help topically nourish the skin.

Eve Dogariu


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