If you have eczema, chances are you’ve gone to bed with a wide range of smelly, sticky potions smeared all over your skin, resulting in stained sheets and pyjamas. Or perhaps you’ve gone to bed mummified, with toilet paper enveloping your limbs in an effort to keep things neat and tidy? This mix of eczema creams and bed linen protection doesn’t prevent you itching, in fact you may have given up on a potion that can prevent itching. But it does cover the lesions up that weep and bleed during the night and the exudate from drying to anything it comes into contact with. Sadly, this is the nightly ritual of many with eczema.
What about probiotics?
If you have allergies in the family, eczema might be only one of the allergic conditions playing havoc with a good night’s sleep. Asthma may also plague your evenings and scratching through the night can result in skin lesions becoming infected and if bad enough can call for an aggressive course of antibiotics. Tummy woes can follow a course of antibiotics as disruptions to the intestinal microflora frequently lead to antibiotic side effects including diarrhoea. Fortunately, probiotics are readily available to recolonise the intestines with health-boosting microbes. But which probiotic would you pick? Research is turning up increasing amount of information on the appropriate use of probiotics and it is no longer a one size fits all scenario. Choosing to take a probiotic suited to minimising antibiotic linked disruptions can also reduce the chance of a runaway growth of Candida albicans and a potentially nasty case of thrush. With the cycle of eczema, itching, infection and antibiotics, it is interesting to note that Candida albicans overgrowth is linked to the exacerbation of eczema symptoms in sufferers. So choosing the right probiotic can mean the difference between healing the infection and relapsing straight back to itching and scratching and potentially winning a reprieve for a moment or two.
Further research is looking into the effect of probiotics in preventing inflammatory afflictions like eczema. Preliminary studies show good results for people with eczema simply by changing your strain of probiotic. In fact, the intestinal flora primes the immune system to stop it overreacting to the environmental, food or anxiety triggers found to stimulate inflammation of the skin.
Probiotics have also been investigated for the primary prevention of eczema in babies. In families with history of hereditary allergies, it was found that only supplementing pregnant mums and their infants for the first 6 months of life can reduce the frequency of allergic eczema by half. So, it seems if you are keen on preventing eczema in your children, early supplementation is a true bonus for getting a good result here. Often the best probiotics are also available in a dairy-free form, as hereditary allergies may also manifest as food allergies.
About 15-35% of kids with allergic eczema will have food allergies and from talking to new mums it is clear food allergies are on the rise. Delaying the introduction of solids has previously been recommended as the best prevention for food allergies in children, however new research suggests that this has not been the case in practice and may possibly have the opposite effect. Further research is needed but it seems babies between the ages 4-6 months have a natural tolerance of foods introduced in this time frame. The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) now advocates introducing of these foods, including egg, peanuts, nuts, wheat, cow’s milk and fish along with other solids. Their Infant Feeding Guide with a full list of recommendations can be viewed here: www.allergy.org.au
Tips for dealing with eczema symptoms
Meanwhile, helpful symptomatic advice for those of you who have already developed eczema includes:
- Keep your skin moisturised. Your skin is the barrier to the outside world and its ability to control water loss in compromised with eczema, so moisturising becomes very important.
- Prevent overheating. You are advised to use thin layers of cotton blankets instead of thick doonas. This way your temperature can be more easily controlled. Much like layering your clothing, you can just peel off a layer to prevent overheating.
- Avoid hot baths and showers. Limit tub time to 10 minutes as this will ensure you are out before your skin starts to get wrinkly – a sure sign that essential moisture is being lost by your skin and it will dry out.
- Swap your soaps for more gentle soap replacements.
- Wear soothing fabrics that do not irritate the skin. You don’t need any further triggers for potential itching.
- Chlorine and sand are skin irritants. Be sure to rinse off and moisturise after a day at the seashore, in the sandbox or in the swimming pool.
- Identify food allergies. Nuts, eggs, soy and cow's milk cause about 90% of food allergies.Other offenders include chocolate, gluten, shellfish, fish, citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries and food additives (such as MSG and sulphite derivatives).
Will healing the gut help treat eczema and food allergies?
While infants seem to have an all-natural tolerance of foods when introduced between 4-6 months, in adults, food allergies or intolerance may originate from overexposure to a particular food, incomplete digestion or “leaky gut”. Could you have a leaky gut? Having a leaky bowel or damaged intestinal lining makes it easier for food particles to overcome the diminished obstacles of the intestinal immune system and spark inflammation. By relieving intestinal inflammation and strengthening bowel functions probiotics show another facet to their healing purpose in eczema treatment.
Eliminating food triggers is part of healing a leaky gut, as these foods continue the cycle of inflammation when they are consumed. Coupled with a reduction in environmental allergens by changing to low-allergenic face washes, body washes, laundry powder, moisturisers and detergents and maintaining your probiotic supplementation may be prescribed as part of a program to heal your digestive system. Meanwhile, intermittent treatment with steroid creams may still be needed for the severe cases of eczema. Often these are used for 10 days, then stopped for 4 days, with treatment being duplicated as needed.
Anti-inflammatory foods: Omega 3 fatty acids
Systemic inflammation is something that must be tackled from the inside as well as the environment. The anti-inflammatory effect Omega 3 fatty acids are well known and are understood to modulate immune responses to possibly help allergic disorders such as eczema. One study found the use of fish oil supplements in pregnant women from 20 weeks until delivery resulted in a reduction in the incidence of eczema in their children recorded at one year. In addition, it has been found that Omega 3 nutritional supplements taken during pregnancy and lactation reduce the danger of food allergy and allergic eczema in babies with a family history of allergic disorder. The preventative effects were found at doses of 1.6g EPA and 1.1g DHA daily. High strength, high quality, purified, fish oil capsules or liquid fish oils are the best for getting this amount of active Omega 3 from supplements. Higher amounts are recommended for the treatment of recognised cases of eczema.
In reading this you may be aware that there is not any one remarkable magic bullet that will take your incessant itch away. It generally takes months of intensive interventions both naturopathic and potentially conventional to return to comparative normality. Still, the relief you will feel when you no longer need to plaster yourself in creams and potions in order to get a good night’s sleep will be worth every step you have taken on the path to becoming well.