In my opinion, the following passage from Smart Medicine for Healthier Living basically sums up the agony of eczema: “Itching can be so severe that scratching is virtually inevitable. A person with eczema may scratch until the skin cracks and bleeds, preferring the hurt caused by rubbing the skin raw to the intolerable itching.” The authors, Janet Zand, LAc, OMD; Allan N. Spreen, MD; and James LaValle RPh, ND go on to describe eczema as an “inflammatory skin disorder characterized by patches of red, dry, flaking skin and areas that are inflamed, moist, and oozing.” As a person who has suffered from this affliction, I can confirm that it is as bad as it sounds. Sometimes worse.

Causes

There are two general causes of eczema: atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis. According to Zand, Spreen, and LaValle, “Atopic dermatitis is an inherited form of hypersensitivity that usually appears in infancy or early childhood. People with atopic dermatitis often have family members with allergies and a history of eczema. It can become worse after you eat certain foods or are exposed to an allergen like dust or pollen.” They note that it can be a long-term condition. Contact dermatitis, on the other hand, “is often an allergic response to something a person has touched, including topical medicines. Eczema can also be caused by many irritants that come in contact with skin, such as soaps, fabric dyes, feathers, cosmetics, wool, and environmental pollutants.”

Good news

The good news is that there are natural options for treatment that can greatly improve, if not completely eliminate, the aggravating symptoms of eczema. Those options are quitting your job and moving to the tropics to be a scuba bum. Well, those are the best remedies that I’ve come across, anyway! I found that sun, salt water, and the complete elimination of stress led to dramatic improvements in my symptoms at the time. It seems that at least some of these treatment methods are recommended by health care professionals—moderate amounts of sunshine can have healing affects according to Zand, Spreen, and LaValle. “A thirty-minute exposure to ultraviolet rays will reduce inflammation,” they state. However, “monitor your exposure carefully...and don’t stay out in the sun too long. Lengthy exposure to the sun can worsen eczema.” The authors also confirm that stress can exacerbate a case of eczema. Therefore, anything one can do to reduce stress, whether it be Qi Gong or swimming, can be extremely helpful. There are many other avenues of alternative treatment that can provide relief as well, including homeopathy, herbal treatment, and nutritional supplements. However, be sure to consult with your health care professional before beginning.

Supplements

There are a number of dietary supplements that can be help with eczema. According to Christine Climer, RN in her article “Natural Ways to Relieve Eczema” (Mothering, May/June 2005), gamma-linoleic acid (or GLA) is an important fatty acid supplement because the body turns GLA into chemicals that calm inflammation. Foods rich in GLA include Spirulina, evening primrose oil and borage oil. All of these are available in convenient tablet or capsule form. Interestingly, Climer notes that, “In the 1940s, up until the introduction of steroids such as hydrocortisone, fatty acids were the primary treatment for eczema.” In order for these inflammation-calming chemicals to be made by the body, certain nutrients need to be available to the body in adequate supply. “Most people with eczema need zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B6,” she writes. With GLA supplements, be sure to take adequate amounts. All sources I came across recommended at least 500 milligrams of GLA a day for adults (which equals about 5,200mg of evening primrose oil). Some people have also told me that fish or flax oil supplements helped them with eczema. Also, according to Zand, Spreen, and LaValle, “Many people with eczema are low in digestive enzymes. Taking a pancreatic-enzyme supplement with meals may not only enhance digestion, but also improve the condition of your skin within weeks.”

The Willy Street Co-op offers a wide array vegetarian enzymes as well. Probiotics are also an important supplement for people with eczema, and can be taken by pregnant and nursing women to help reduce the risk of eczema early in life. Climer cites a study in which mothers consumed a probiotic containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG before childbirth and until their babies were six months old. “The incidence of eczema among their children was half that of babies in the control group, whose mothers received no probiotic,” she states.

Herbs

Famed herbalist Rosemary Gladstar recommends using the cooling herb Burdock to make a tea, then to use this tea in compresses and as a wash, as well as for drinking. According to Prescription for Natural Cures by James E. Balch, MD and Mark Stengler, ND, “Burdock root has a cleansing effect on the skin.” If you don’t like the idea of drinking burdock tea, the authors recommend that adults can take 1ml of the tincture form or 300mg in capsules, while children can take 0.5ml or 150mg with each meal. Red Clover is another herb that is often recommended for skin disorders. Add a little passionflower or chamomile to calm a nervous system irritated by continual itching, and you have a tasty tea that is both cleansing and calming. Simmer the burdock root in a covered pot for about 20 minutes, then pour the boiling water over any flower blossoms or leaves in your blend, cover and steep for another 20 minutes or so, and enjoy!

Topical remedies

Soothing and healing topical remedies for eczema include aloe vera gel, homeopathic calendula gel, and a non-steroidal homeopathic anti-itch topical cream called Florasone. Another topical remedy that can be helpful is Four Element’s No-X-E-Ma cream, which local herbalist Jane Hawley-Stevens created for her daughter who suffered from eczema when she was very young. This cream includes evening primrose oil and licorice root, which is a natural anti-inflammatory. Jane offers a No-X-E-Ma bar soap and a bath blend in addition to the cream. When the itching flares up, try the following oatmeal bath remedy and see if it helps bring some relief. Grind one cup of oatmeal in your blender or coffee grinder until it is a fine powder, then wrap it in a clean cloth or washcloth (if you don’t have the means to grind it, one source describes using it unground). Put this bag under the running faucet and swish it through the bath water. Squeeze and rub the wet bag over your skin. Oatmeal is very soothing to dry and inflamed skin.

There are a few other plants that can help heal the skin when applied topically. Neem seed oil, a popular remedy in India, is one such plant. Balch and Stengler recommend applying Neem oil directly to inflamed areas of skin to help them heal. In the arena of essential oils, elemi, geranium, lavender, myrrh, neroli, and rose are all good oils to choose from for aromatherapy baths or compresses. Zand, Spreen, and LaValle suggest that one use “a few drops of one to three of these oils to a small quantity of jojoba oil to make a healing body oil.” For an aromatherapy bath, use 10-15 drops of essential oil per tub of water. Just be sure to always dilute essential oils in water or carrier oil before use.

An itch-free future

Eczema can be a chronic and very irritating condition. Try some of the remedies I have written about if they interest you, or do your own research. However, whatever you do, don’t give up hope. There are always other options and you do not have to be stuck relying on antihistamines to alleviate the itching so you can get to sleep at night. If you are struggling with finding a path to healing, seek out a qualified alternative health care practitioner, such as an acupuncturist or herbalist. Try cutting out old habits and trying out new ones. With persistence, a future with healthy, itch-free skin can be yours.