term “eczema” refers to a variety of skin irritations,
of which atopic dermatitis is the most common. Fifteen million Americans
have eczema, most of whom develop symptoms as infants or young children.
It’s rare for initial signs of eczema to appear in adults over
30. While environmental factors often precipitate the condition, eczema
more likely appears in a child whose parent also suffers from it.
Dry, itchy skin—especially around the eyes,
inside the elbows, and behind the knees—characterizes eczema.
It also seems that people with eczema have an overabundance of Staphylococcus
aureusbacteria on the skin. Persistent scratching opens the tender
skin to opportunistic infections.
Studies have shown that 80 to 90 percent of those
with eczema have an overactive immune system, which triggers a histamine
release in response to allergens that don’t bother most other
people. Irritants that bring on this allergic response range from
foods such as milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, and fish to materials
like wool, soap, perfume, chlorine bleach, and dust. Stress is also
a culprit. Emotional stress taxes the immune system, causing eczema
flare-ups to occur.
In addition to an overactive immune system, eczema
patients do not properly metabolize essential fatty acids (EFAs),
according to recent studies. Low levels of certain fatty acids impede
prostaglandin synthesis, which controls inflammation. One solution:
300 mg/day of evening primrose oil (EPO) can raise
EFA levels and reduce the inflammation. Alternatively, supplementation
with omega-3-fatty acids can optimize prostaglandin
synthesis. Try taking ten grams of fish oil daily, or increase your
dietary intake of cold-water fish such as halibut or salmon. Note
that while EPO and omega-3 fatty acids have both proven effective
in clinical trials, the latter option costs considerably less.
As with any allergic condition, eczema responds well
to flavonoids, due to their antihistamine action. Antihistamines
prevent the immune system from releasing substances that cause localized
inflammation. Among the best flavonoids are quercetin
(400 mg taken before meals) and grape seed extract
(50–100 mg, taken 3 times daily). A recent study has shown
that inulin, a polysaccharide contained within the root of burdock
(Arctium lappa) and dandelion (Taraxacum
officinale) activates the pathway of the immune system essential
in destroying bacteria. This pathway is compromised in those with
eczema, enabling opportunistic infections to occur at irritated
sites. Try one-quarter teaspoon of tincture three times a day, or
brew a cup of tea from freshly dug backyard roots (1 tablespoon
fresh chopped root simmered in 8–12 ounces of water for 15
Finally, licorice (Glycyrrhiza
glabra) is a potent anti-inflammatory that you can use externally.
Licorice acts similarly to the steroid hydrocortisone in reducing
the inflammation and itching associated with eczema—and it’s
93 percent effective in treating atopic dermatitis. Try a moisturizing
cream infused with licorice extract or a solid extract of glycyrrhetinic
acid, one of the herb’s active components. Or try taking licorice
internally: 1 teaspoon dried root simmered in 8–12 ounces
of water for 15 minutes, taken two or three times a day. A word
of caution, however: Licorice is contraindicated for those with
liver or kidney disease and/or high blood pressure.
Managing a skin condition like eczema can be difficult,
especially for young children. Why not turn some of the above suggestions
into fun games to make treatment more enjoyable? Have a licorice
tea party, or make applying cream a laughterfilled tickle fest.
A cup of chamomile tea close to bedtime will also
help relax the body and lessen scratching during sleep. Above all,
celebrate your successes and educate yourself when a suggestion
doesn’t work—and be happy and confident in what you
do to take care of yourself.