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I've suffered with eczema since childhood – and it's ranged from those tell-tale red, raised rings, around outer thighs, backs of knees and inner elbows, to sore, weeping blisters across the palms of my hands. As a child, my mother would apply topical steroid cream to my skin, as it was the only thing the doctor ever prescribed, and while the reaction would always diminish for a while, it would soon reappear – if I sweated, ate flare-up foods (more on that later), allowed my skin to dry out, or got particularly stressed.
Right there, I've touched on just how complex eczema can be – and how it is not a condition that can be treated in one fell swoop – indeed, holistic practitioners don't think of it as a condition at all, but rather as a symptom of imbalance, that requires immediate attention. With eczema – as it presents with me – there's a lot of heat, redness and 'fire' – it's an outward sign of inflammation – pointing to internal inflammation. I find the principles of traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine helpful too – there's a lot to be said for reducing the heat within (cutting back on pungent, salty and sour foods), and using cooling, anti-inflammatory foods to foster a happier gut and internal environment too.
The stress link is also not to be ignored because of how much a prolonged and heightened stress response has been shown to compromise our immune systems – and eczema is linked to compromised immune response (indeed, within the last two years, emerging science is proving that eczema itself is an auto-immune condition). So... how do we look to bring holistic solutions to this complex 'symptom' and thereby treat its root cause?
Here are some crucial things I rely upon, to keep my gut healthy, skin hydrated, and diet more supportive of my eczema-prone skin:
1) Don't use harsh surfactant-laden hand washes – one of the first things to go were those 'kills 99.9% of bacteria' hand washes, which strip and dry the hands, and are just too harsh for sensitive skin. When I'm working somewhere that uses commercial soaps in the bathroom, I decant some into a travel-sized bottle and pop into my bag. I always moisturise my hands afterward too.
2) I have some obvious flare-up foods – and they've been the same since childhood... whenever I eat egg yolks my skin pinkens slightly and if I eat eggs a few days in a row, I'll begin to feel that telltale heat and itchiness under the surface. I'm fine with egg whites though, so that's something! I've also found cashew nuts to be a bit of a problem (Ayurvedic science agrees), and in general, try to steer clear of very salty, spicy and sour foods – all of which can put more heat into the system (according to Ayurveda). Coconut helps to calm, as do cooling green leaves and veg, and vegetable juices, such as carrot, are great (but go easy on the spicy ginger!). I also limit the amount of dairy I have, as since childhood, my asthma and eczema would both be exacerbated if I ate too much yoghurt, drank too much milk or overdid the cheese! These days I always choose raw and unpasteurised dairy (when I do have it), and rotate with plant-based alternatives too (oat milk is wonderfully soothing to the system too – but do choose organic if you can).
3) I've bathed in dead sea salts for years – and always noticed a huge improvement in my eczema after a week in the sea, on my summer holiday. I've also had great results from dead sea mud packs over areas that have flared up and pure thalassotherapy treatments. Why? Because the mineral-rich salts (the dead sea is made up of 33% pure mineral salt and 67% H2O – incredible!) are naturally anti-inflammatory. Magnesium, potassium and sodium chlorides are well absorbed by the body, transdermally, and have been shown to not only help the body replenish depleted mineral stores, but to also deeply soothe and relax the nervous system – another very effective way to lower stress levels in the process.
4) Without a doubt, I've found transcendental meditation (TM) to be extremely helpful in my response to any eczema flare-ups – and a recent study by Emory University and the NEA (national eczema association) agrees. They found that during a two hour meditation class, every single participant experienced a reduction in their discomfort and urge to itch. They also found that sleep improved and every participant felt better able to cope with their symptoms. On my part, I've found that my stress levels are markedly lower when I meditate regularly, and as a result, my general health has improved; this too is backed up by numerous studies that have found a very positive link between TM and sleep, immunity, and even biological age. Impressive stuff (all from closing your eyes for 20 minutes, twice a day, and repeating a gentle sound in your mind, repeatedly... to learn more, visit www.willwilliamsmeditation.co.uk)