Eczema is an autoimmune response that manifests as a skin rash that can be itchy, dry, red, flaky or blistered. Sometimes it can be triggered (but not caused) by external irritants such as pesticides, soaps, cosmetics, and can show up on various parts of the body (not necessarily where it comes into contact with the irritant).
Eczema usually begins in childhood before the age of five, and becomes less severe in adulthood, although not always – for some it begins in adulthood. But, like most skin afflictions, eczema is not just a surface problem – it goes much deeper and research suggests that gut health may be a huge factor in various skin conditions. Your skin is often a print out of your digestive system, especially if you are prone to skin problems such as dermatitis, eczema or acne.
Eczema is said to be on the rise, especially among children, according to research in the UK and the US.
So what causes it and what can be done about it?
The most common way to treat eczema is with drugs that control inflammation and suppress the immune system, but these do not address the root cause, they just relieve the symptoms, and they can also cause a cascade of other problems.
Gut health is the basis of a healthy immune system. Having the right balance of micro-flora in your digestive system is also central to your mood, energy levels and your body’s ability to absorb the nutrients it needs for maintaining all-round good health. An unhealthy gut not only leads to digestive problems, but also skin conditions, poor immunity and allergies.
To have the right balance of beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract depends a lot on what you eat. Probiotics (good bacteria) can be introduced to redress the balance. Eating too much of some foods (especially sugar) and not enough of others, makes your immune system work harder because it upsets this balance.
A study in Finland indicated that taking a probiotic supplement during pregnancy and breastfeeding can reduce your baby’s likelihood of eczema. It’s thought that this happens through the mother’s immunity, strengthened by healthy gut bacteria, passing through the placenta and breast-milk to her child. The implications of this go beyond eczema, and may have a significant effect on lifelong immunity. The mothers in the study were all allergy sufferers, so their children’s chances of eczema were greater than average.
Probiotics can be introduced in the form of fermented foods, such as, unsweetened yoghurt, pickled vegetables, kombucha (fermented tea), etc, or in the form of a supplement. Probiotic supplements are not all created equal. Look for a broad spectrum one, because everyone’s gut flora is unique and introducing a wide range of probiotics means you’re more likely to get the right balance for you.
Removing certain foods from your diet may help. Foods that exacerbate the condition (perhaps because of an undiagnosed intolerance) may be placing a strain on your immune system. Examples of things to try eliminating are eggs, nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, chili, eggplant), dairy and some nuts.