As many of you who listen to the podcast may already know I suffer from eczema and have done all of my life. Like many children I had dry itchy eczema as a child that was exasperated by hot baths, biological detergents and highly perfumed soaps. In time, as with many babies and toddlers who suffer from this form of eczema, I grew out of it. I would only have recurrences if I came in contact with strong soaps or slept in sheets washed in biological detergents for several nights. As with many sufferers, my triggers can be different from others and no two sufferers are the same.
Eczema in itself is a manifestation of an immune response. Often linked with asthma, it is the immune system reacting to what it perceives as pathogens in the outer layers of the skin. Despite what people think, it is not just one type of skin complaint either with it appearing in a number of forms, it is also not just dry skin (although it can be linked with decreased levels of urea on the skin exasperating the situation). In of itself eczema is generally just a nuisance for those who suffer from it. It can however lead to secondary infections, that if left untreated, can pose a danger to the sufferer. Depending on where on the body it occurs to can also impair the sufferers ability to move freely, with treatments such as thick pastes applied under thick bandages to swaddle the skin.
When I was in my mid teens, however, my eczema reappeared in a much more persistent and painful form. It would now present on my hands and would often lead to me being incapable of writing or drawing comfortably – which for a teen trying to compile a portfolio for college was a big deal. This entire time I was just given the usual steroid creams and it would come and go in cycles. It wasn’t until I was 20 that it began to appear on my feet – which as you can imagine lead to greater difficulties in living with my condition.
I continued to get prescription creams from my GP, along with the occasional round of antibiotics but I also supplemented my condition with as many natural remedies as I came across. Just a quick “google” throws up a mind boggling amount of first hand accounts, testimonials, experts and wonder cures to rid you completely of your inconvenient but possibly disfiguring and dangerous condition. The fact that many of these websites claim to “cure” a condition that is immune based sets off the first set of alarm bells. Like asthma, migraines or psoriasis it isn’t a condition that you can be cured of – at best one can hope to manage the symptoms and perhaps make lifestyle changes that minimise its occurrence.
Having done this search I realised how many of these supplements I had used and that they largely fall into two main groups: Oils and Detoxers.
The oils make the most logical sense for most sufferers – you have dry skin therefore you must be lacking in one of the essential fatty acids. The most common recommended is evening primrose oil or starflower oil due to being high in gamma-linolenic acid or Omega-6 as it is often known. Looking at the scientific literature, however, the effect of these oils on eczema is modest and only small trials have been done. Apart from Omega-6 any other oil you can think of is recommended, peanut, flax, fish, coconut, olive, the list goes on. They are all recommended for the same reason – to help hydrate the skin or to “replace” fats lost from the dry or cracked skin. Unfortunately the science just does not back it up and the use of emollient, fragrance free creams is seen as a much better and more reliable way of hydrating and protecting dry skin that is prone to cracking.
Supplements that “detox” the system are also widely promoted as helping with eczema. As many sufferers understand their eczema is due to a reaction to a certain agent a flawed logical step is that you should detox your system so as to clear it out and some how start “a-fresh”. As I have discussed in the past, along with many others, detoxing is a myth – the idea your body holds on to any amount of harmful “toxins” is untrue unless you have a liver/kidney problem or you have been exposed to a massive dose of a toxic substance. In both cases your skin may be the least of your problems. It may not surprise some of you that some people then blame “toxic” vaccines for their child’s eczema, which would follow similar logic to those who believe vaccines cause autism due to the correlation/causation fallacy. This belief in toxins being the problem goes hand-in-hand with the belief that eczema is a disease that can be cured and that it is much more prevalent in first world countries due to higher exposure to chemicals, reliance on cows milk and our dependence on pharmaceutical cures. I can find no data that confirms eczema is more common in developed countries, but I would posit that either the data doesn’t exist or that sufferers in developing countries may have other conditions that are more serious than eczema due to their living standards or that mask it through other conditions caused by poorer access to health care.
As far as I can see every herbal supplement that is linked with having this “detoxing” effect is offered up to help with eczema (red clover, milk-thistle, aloe vera dandelion etc) – often though (and here is the kicker) with a specialised diet. Many sufferers state they coincide the detoxing with an improved diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, drinking more water, staying away from “processed” foods, sometimes even eliminating diary, wheat, gluten or sugar (?!). As I stated above eczema is an immune response – thus it is very likely that a diet that eliminates foods that can act as allergens for some people could aid in a skin improvement. Quite often a contact and a skin-prick allergy test are ordered by dermatologists in order to isolate potential allergens (as was in my case).This idea of toxins is held up by people’s fear of the most common treatment for eczema – cortisone creams. As a steroid they can not be used continuously and can lead to skin thinning over prolonged periods of time. That side-effect alone would give anyone pause to use it, let alone to put it on their child’s skin but used responsibly can provide quite quick relief from all the eczema symptoms.
Like my account here, many people who suffer from eczema post on the internet about their own experiences and often these accounts can be quite “anti-pharma”, if you will. I can sympathise strongly as it can be a very difficult, exasperating condition to live with. I know, as a good skeptic, anecdote does not equal evidence but my own account may act as just one lonely counter argument to all the pro alt-med articles out there.
As I said above things really came to a head when my eczema appeared on my feet. At times I could barely walk, my feet swelled up painfully and the thought of trying to take off my socks could have me close to tears. So I was referred to a dermatologist, not a cheap option but when you could think of how much a few bottles of the supplements mentioned above would cost you over the course of a few months it is no more expensive in the long run. I was sent for a contact allergy test and one result came back – I was allergic to cortisone creams, all of them. The most common and routine thing to give to a sufferer, much like the most basic and common inhaler an asthma sufferer get had been making my eczema worse for 22 years. As you can imagine, one course of antibiotics to clear up any infection in my skin and a new ointment cleared it up within a matter of weeks – better than any “wonder cure” out there. Unfortunately in recent months it has returned and I may need to investigate any food allergies I could have, but I’m heading off in a few days to see my dermatologist, not to my local Chinese medicine or health food shop.
Some great simple advice can be found here.