Maintaining clear skin is a lifestyle change. Just as there is no silver bullet to quickly and easily eliminate cardiovascular disease, there is no simple solution to repair sensitive-skin issues like eczema. A cardiac physician may recommend a holistic combination of diet changes, exercise, meditation, and medication for a heart condition to heal over time. The same philosophy goes for healing skin; it takes a multifaceted approach to clear eczema and keep it clear in the long run—change in lifestyle develops over time, not overnight.
In order to write this page we (again) asked Michael Huffman, the author of Zen Skin Care: Clearing Eczema and Caring for Sensitive Skin – Naturally! book, for help.
There’s a strong connection between overall health and the food we eat. Did your mother tell you: “You are what you eat”? Or have you heard the quote attributed to Hippocrates: “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food”? As those quotes suggest, there are several ways to improve skin health simply by making some adjustments to how and what we eat.
Several alternative healing modalities find a link between diet and skin health and note that some specific foods can be considered triggers for eczema. Even Western medical studies have shown to connect diet to eczema. Reactions can vary from person to person, so it’s important for you to identify the foods that are triggers for you.
The blood vessels that run through the deepest layers of skin (the dermis and hypodermis) are responsible for nourishing it by oxygenating it, circulating nutrients from the food we eat through it, and hydrating it with the water we drink. The aqueous connective tissues and blood vessels in the dermis are the sole true source of hydration for skin, not any skin care product applied topically. Therefore, to support this critical function via the digestive system, it’s critical to drink good-quality water (spring water with naturally present minerals is the best) and a healthy diet (including foods rich in vitamins and essential fatty acids like the Omega-3s found in specific species of fish).
Tips on How to (and How Not to) Eat
- DAIRY – all substances related to cow milk, such as cream, cheese, ice cream, butter, and milk, have proven to be irritating to the gut and therefore to skin conditions. To clear skin in the beginning, also avoid goat and sheep milk products.
- EGGS – eggs are also to be excluded because they can cause skin issues. According to a study published in the International Journal of Dermatology in 2011 egg allergy may play an important role in the worsening of atopic eczema acting as a triggering-exacerbating factor in a minority of patients.
- WHEY & CASEIN – whey and casein are by-products from cow milk and cheese production, and they are often difficult to identify on product labels. These two irritants are the main proteins in cow milk, so they’re found in milk, ice cream, yoghurt, cheese, and creamy soups. They can also be found in margarine, tuna, dairy-free cheese, non-dairy coffee creamer, semisweet/milk chocolate, cereal bars, cheese-flavoured chips and snack crackers, and processed meats. Whey is a cheap protein because cheese makers usually throw it away; it’s commonly added to protein powders, protein bars, and commercially made smoothies like those at Starbucks. Most wine is made using casein from milk (see Alcohol below)
- SUGAR – all kinds of sugar—even the glamorous “healthy” ones like agave nectar and raw honey with low glycemic indices—serve as fuel for the growth of bad bacteria (pathogenic anaerobic bacteria, fungi, and yeast) that crowd out the good bacteria in the gut. These bacteria then produce metabolic waste products that need to be eliminated. Because the primary elimination organ in the body is the skin, the elimination of the waste products can cause flare-ups of eczema, dermatitis, and acne. Sugar is in store-bought fruit juices and added to nearly every processed food item available in grocery stores and restaurants.
- ALCOHOL – all forms of alcohol (even a tiny sip of wine) can result in small intestine bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO, which impairs healthy gut function. Additionally, beer and cider are made from gluten, which is a known irritant to gut and skin health. Whether it’s the casein, sulfites, gluten, or alcohol itself causing issues, it’s important to stay away from wine, beer, cider, and distilled spirits. In the longer term, alcohol can also make the skin less elastic, more reddened, and more likely to wrinkle and crack.
- MEAT – collagen is needed to heal wounds like the cracked skin of eczema. The best source of collagen is protein, animal protein in particular. However, red meat irritates sensitive skin, so look to poultry, legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas), almonds, sunflower seeds, and fish (not shellfish) as the best sources of protein.
- WHEAT & GLUTEN – gluten is the protein found in certain grains. Until your skin clears, don’t eat wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt, or kamut. During this cleansing period, only have gluten-free bread, pasta, whole grain cereals, etc. Other than the fact that gluten is a probable eczema trigger, it can cause three other medical conditions that you may want to discuss with a naturopathic physician (there are tests for each): Celiac disease (CD), non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), and wheat allergy.
- NUTS & SEEDS – peanuts, cashews, corn, and soybeans (used to make tofu, soy milk, soy lecithin, and other soy products) should be avoided until the skin clears. Peanuts are one of the top allergens for those with eczema.
- FOOD PRESERVATIVES, COLOURINGS, FLAVOURINGS & NITRATES – unless a product is labelled as “nitrate-free,” nitrates are found in all processed foods, sausages, lunchmeats, cured hams, and so on. “Sodium nitrite” and “sodium nitrate” (you might see either on a food label) are used as preservatives to keep meat that bright red colour and help prevent bacterial growth. Nitrites in food can lead to the formation of chemicals called nitrosamines, which may cause cancer. Studies have linked eating cured meats that contain nitrites to various types of cancer in children, pregnant women and adults. Additionally, most processed foods and beverages also contain preservatives, as well as artificial colourings and flavourings, which are all known eczema triggers.
- SOFT DRINKS, PROCESSED FOOD, FAST FOOD & RESTAURANT FOOD – soft drinks contain sugar or sugar-like chemicals and need to be processed by the liver (directly into fat actually). Those trying to clear their skin are best to avoid all beverages with added and/or fake sugars so that the liver can focus on its regular job of clearing the toxins, so the skin doesn’t have to. Fast food isn’t really food with any nutritional value and most often contains white flour bread and pasta that the liver considers sugar and immediately turns to fat. The problem with most restaurant food is that unless you can see the kitchen where real people are preparing the food fresh (not reheating from frozen), you never know what ingredients they’re using and how the food is prepared, e.g. with nitrates in the meats, cheap cooking oils that don’t help the skin, etc. Eating at home is the only way to know exactly what is in the food you’re eating. There it’s easier and most nutritious to focus on simple, real food full of nutrients for the skin like brown rice, quinoa, lentils, fish, chicken and steamed vegetables to name just a few and to cook with coconut oil, ghee and olive oil to nourish sensitive skin.
- OXALATES – the plants that contain high amounts of oxalates can be a trigger for eczema (and oxalates also cause more than 75 percent of kidney stones). During the eczema clearing period, eliminate foods with high oxalate content like rhubarb, spinach, Swiss chard, beets and beet greens, wheat bran, strawberries, celery, and peanuts.
- NIGHTSHADE VEGETABLES – the nightshade family can be a trigger for eczema, so avoid potatoes, tomatoes, peppers (bell, chili, cayenne), eggplant, and Goji berries.
- CAFFEINE – while caffeine itself isn’t directly responsible for causing eczema symptoms, it can cause inflammation because as a diuretic (something that causes increased urine production) it can cause dehydration and high uric acid levels that can upset the skin’s function. Be sure to stay hydrated if you decide to drink coffee and tea.
- CITRUS FRUITS – avoid fruit like oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits.
- SHELLFISH – avoid shellfish like scallops, mussels, oysters, clams, shrimp, crab, and lobster while clearing eczema.
Healthy Additions to Your Diet to Further Soothe the Digestive System
Store-bought juices that are frozen or reconstituted as concentrates, or those that are pre-mixed in bottles and cartons in grocery store aisles, are basically pure liquid sugar. During processing, the original juice is pasteurized by heat which kills all of the nutrients, it then goes through dehydration, freezing, thawing, dilution and is finally reconstituted as juice that is 100%…sugar. All sugars feed the bad bacteria in the gut. Not only that, the liver turns the sugar directly into fat. More importantly, the beneficial enzymes needed by the skin are long gone. In summary, refined fruit juices are so refined there is no nutritional benefit to drinking them and this fruit juice (sugar) does more harm to the body than good.
The body needs fresh live juice with all of the enzymes intact. These enzymes lose their mojo shortly after being spun through a juicer. High-speed, centrifugal juice machines usually sit vertically on the counter top and spin so fast (up to 10,000 RPMs) and they generate so much heat that most of the nutrients and beneficial enzymes in the vegetables and fruits are killed in the process. A slow (horizontal, masticating style) juicing machine is optimal as it spins at usually 43 to 110 RPM. This method gets the most nutrition from fresh vegetables, especially leafy ones like kale, celery, wheat grass and parsley, and this method doesn’t oxidize the juice, i.e. cause it to turn brown and lose its potency so quickly. Slow-made juices can be kept for up to three days in the refrigerator vs. fast-spun juices should be consumed immediately because they are heavily oxidized in the process. Aloe vera juice is also very soothing and healing for the digestive tract. You can add pure aloe vera juice to your smoothie in the summer.
Liver and kidney support is also essential as we must ensure that these organs are working optimally to clear out toxins from the body and to prevent itchiness. Regular bowel movements should also be encouraged, as a backup of toxins in the digestive system can also cause toxins to be released through the skin.
Not all fatty acids are created equal: Omega-3s are super beneficial while Omega-6s are okay in small quantities, though they are pervasive in most fast and processed food. Omega-9s are not considered “essential” because our body can produce them. While Omega-3s are the dietary rock stars for skin, the body can’t produce them on its own. Omega-9s are also great nutrition for the skin and are found in avocado, olive oil, sunflower, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, and macadamia nuts.
The vegetable oils that most people consume —canola, corn, cottonseed, safflower, grapeseed, soybean, sesame and sunflower, which are found in potato chips and French fries, baked goods, i.e. all processed food —contain predominantly Omega-6 fatty acids. These actually work against the good Omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found primarily in fish oil, contain high levels of EPA and DHA, which our skin, brain, and heart thrive on. These EFAs enhance the production of sebum and support the health of the skin’s natural barrier function. Omega-3 and Omega-9 fatty acids moisturise the skin from the inside out!
The best sources of Omega-3s are whole fish, specifically mackerel, sardines, anchovies, and salmon. The smaller non-salmon fish are lower on the ocean’s food chain, plentiful, and sustainable, and they contain the most Omega-3s. While wild salmon is a great source of Omega-3s, it’s only available fresh seasonally and it is very expensive when it is “previously frozen” because it is becoming increasingly scarce in the wild.
Walnuts and ground flax seed are also good sources of Omega-3s, but research has shown that the same quantity of fish oil is twenty times more beneficial than the ALA component in flax oil. This is because ALA doesn’t convert as easily to the highly beneficial EPA and DHA components in the Omega-3s in fish oil.
An article by the National Eczema Association notes that the body’s “bacterial flora is very different in patients with atopic dermatitis, so the idea that adding back healthy bacteria in the form of probiotics as a useful treatment is compelling.”
Fresh krauts and kimchi found in natural food stores are getting more innovative; have fun and try curried cauliflower, Napa cabbage with seaweed and ginger, carrots, beets, or daikon radish. Kimchi is a Korean fermented vegetable that is eaten with nearly every meal in this country.
Some other sources of probiotics can be found at health food stores or can be made at home using starter kits that include the good bacteria needed to begin the fermenting process. These include: kefir made with coconut water or spring water, kombucha and miso broth