Itching for a Cure: Dealing with Eczema
Shireen Hakim, MS, MPH, RDN
When it comes to eczema, many are itching for a cure. Before reaching for the typical medications and creams, it’s important to consider possible longer-lasting and safer remedies. As a chronic condition with no one cause or remedy, understanding the disease is crucial in order to determine how to get rid of it.
Eczema is a chronic inflammatory skin disease characterized by red, itchy, dry, and sometimes scaly skin. A reduced skin barrier function results in moisture loss, leading to the dry, cracked skin. In infants and young children eczema is commonly found on the face, neck, cheeks, and scalp. In older children and adults it’s found on the forearms, elbows, and knees.
Eczema disorder is more common during the early stages of life, affecting 20 percent of infants, 15 percent of children, and (up to) 10 percent of adults. Mubaraka Abdullah*, who lives in California, says her two-year-old son Isa* developed severe generalized eczema when he was four months old, but it has since improved and localized.
Eczema results from a hypersensitive immune system that attacks harmless substances in the body. “It is an immune response similar to an allergic response,” explains allergist immunologist and American Muslim Health Professionals board member Dr. Naba Sharif, of Maryland. There are many interwoven factors that can lead to eczema—namely heredity, allergies, environmental irritants, an unhealthy digestive tract, and stress.
Often a child will get eczema if his/her parents have or had it; there’s a 60 percent chance if one parent carries the gene and 80 percent if both do. Accordingly, Abdullah says Isa’s maternal grandfather also has eczema.
Moderate to severe, persistent cases of eczema are sometimes linked to allergies, whether they are food-related or environmental. The most common food allergens are cow’s milk, wheat, soy, egg, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, and shellfish. Dr. Madiha Saeed from Illinois, and author of HolisticRx, adds chocolate, cheese, tomatoes, and goat’s milk as possible allergens. “Most of my patients heal by avoiding foods known to cause sensitivities like gluten (and/or grains), dairy, sugar, and processed foods for four weeks. If they still have symptoms after that, I test them for food allergies. But food allergies are often associated with eczema, so most individuals should be tested,” she explains. An integrative holistic physician, naturopath, or allergist/ immunologist will carefully test the patient to determine which foods are causing the allergic reaction and need to be eliminated from the diet.
Food allergies are especially common among child eczema sufferers. According to the World Allergy Organization (WAO), physicians consider (food) allergies if children do not respond to routine, mild treatment. In fact, the WAO states that 35 percent of children with severe eczema also have a food allergy. The good news is that the majority of food-related eczema cases in children usually clear up after age five. The Daily Mail reported that a twenty-month-old girl’s severe eczema cleared up simply with the elimination of dairy from her diet. Isa, who as an infant was fed a diet of breast milk and formula, was initially allergic to tree nuts, nuts, sesame, soy, corn, eggs, and pet dander during his first year of life; he is now tolerating corn, soy, and eggs as his eczema simultaneously levels off.
Imbalanced gut flora is an underlying trigger of eczema because a lack of healthy organisms in the digestive tract compromises the immune system and allows dangerous microorganisms to enter. Naturopath Alisha Lynch, of the popular Facebook page Naughty Naturopath Mum, explains, “Autoimmune issues and problems like eczema are caused by an impaired gut lining because food particles get into the blood stream.” Dr. Saeed concurs, “Leaky gut is a root cause of eczema.” Therefore, Lynch advises that healing the gut is the way to heal and treat eczema. “A healthy gut is integral to cure eczema,” agrees Dr. Saeed.
Further, yeast overgrowth, namely strains candida and malassezia, has been found in some patients with eczema and may worsen it. Related to this, emotional stress also contributes by activating the inflammatory response in the body and weakening the immune system.
Being an inflammatory condition, eczema can be eased by eating anti-inflammatory foods. In general, choose organic foods, especially for animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs, to avoid allergy-inducing antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides. Likewise, Dr. Sharif advises her patients to eat a “healthy diet and avoid processed foods.” Both Dr. Saeed and Lynch insist on adding bone broth to the diet to heal eczema. “Cook it with pureed vegetables, soups, and sauces. It heals and repairs the digestive tract because it has the amino acids proline and glycine,” explains Lynch. Coconut oil is also a widely accepted treatment for eczema, cited across the board from Western and alternative medicine to home remedies. There is good reason to be cuckoo for coconut oil. Specifically, it has caprylic acid, which breaks up the overgrowth of yeast found in some eczema patients. It is an ideal cooking oil, especially for cooking vegetables, fish, and oatmeal, and is a good substitute for butter. Two tablespoons a day is an adequate serving amount. Dr. Saeed recommends eating (wild-caught) cold water fish like salmon at least twice a week. Lynch suggests eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, and kimchi because they contain natural probiotics, which restore the “friendly” bacteria in the gut. Both Dr. Saeed and Lynch recommend the herb turmeric, for its anti-inflammatory and infection fighting properties. For infants, “breastfeeding is recommended as primary prevention,” according to the WAO. Breastmilk strengthens and protects the body by providing essential anti-inflammatory and immunity elements. Lastly, it’s also important to drink plenty of water to hydrate the body, prevent and replenish lost moisture from dry cracked skin, and for detoxification.
Nutritional supplements can also help nourish the body so it can heal itself. Lynch says it’s essential to supplement daily with a probiotic. Dr. Saeed agrees, noting the probiotic should contain the strains of the genera lactobacillus or bifidobacteria and have at least five billion organisms per dose for adults and two billion for children. (Try IFANCA halal-certified 4Life Probiotic and Forever Active Probiotics.) Other effective supplemental remedies are essential fatty acids omega-3, -6, and -9 (try IFANCA halal-certified omega supplements by Nutrilite and Principle Nutrition), evening primrose oil (containing another essential fatty acid GLA), and vitamin E (try IFANCA halal-certified Nature Made Vitamin E). Essential fatty acids provide the proper structure and function of cell membranes that form the skin.
Islamic tradition coincides with natural remedies as well. When discussing cures for dryness, Prophet Muhammad [Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH)] said, “If there was anything that would have a cure for death in it, then it would have been (s)enna.” (Tirmidhi). Dr. Zaghloul El-Naggar, a geologist and head of the Committee on Scientific Nations in the Glorious Quran and the Purity Sunnah Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Egypt, further explains on his website that senna is a shrub-like desert plant that treats skin conditions when brewed with vinegar. It is typically prepared by soaking the leaves and pods in water, or mixing dried, ground senna with honey
Topical treatment is important to heal damaged skin and prevent further itching and scratching. Soothing, protective topical agents include coconut oil and creams with chamomile, licorice root, or calendula oil. Coconut oil’s antioxidant, moisturizing, and antimicrobial properties both rejuvenate and protect the skin without any side effects. It can be applied regularly to eczema sufferers’ skin and scalp. According to a hadith, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) also recommended oil as a health remedy, saying to consume oil and apply it to the body (Tirmidhi). As oil may not be a feasible treatment during the day, moisturizers and lotions with minimal ingredients can be effective. IFANCA halal-certified Renew lotion by Melaleuca is commonly known to soothe eczema. Conversely, avoid soaps and creams with harmful chemicals like sodium lauryl sulfate, EDTA, parabens, and fragrance; they may irritate the skin further.
Stress-management is also important to reduce the inflammatory response in the body. This can be achieved with adequate sleep, regular exercise, and a positive and grateful outlook on life.
According to Western medicine, remedies range from mild to strong. Dr. Sharif emphasizes adopting a simple, consistent daily regimen to ensure positive results. “It should not interfere with the quality of life when managed right,” she ensures. Medical doctors treat mild cases of eczema with hypoallergenic emollients, topical hydrocortisone cream, and oral antihistamines, while more severe cases may require oral corticosteroids, UV light therapy, or immunosuppressants. However, long term use of these treatments are known to have side effects.
Eczema is fairly common nowadays due to practices triggering inflammatory and immune responses; however, it can be treated with careful testing and management. A combination of natural and Islamic treatments including healing foods, supplements, and stress management can keep eczema under control. Refer to an integrative holistic physician, naturopath, and dietitian for proper treatment. Avoid triggers such as known allergens and environmental irritants like chemicals. Dr. Saeed, a former eczema sufferer herself says, “I have no recurring symptoms alhamdulillah (praise God) since I healed my gut and avoid common food allergens.”
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) stated, “God has sent down both the disease and the cure, and He has appointed a cure for every disease…” (Abi Dawud).
Shireen Hakim is a registered nutritionist and author of the Meatless Protein Cookbook and Protein Smoothie Recipes.