Stubborn skin conditions may respond to the gentle touch of herbs.
You drink 10 glasses of water a day, eat mostly vegetarian foods and jog each morning to keep stress at bay. It's a recipe for perfect skin, yet your outer layer may need convincing. Eczema, psoriasis and herpes are notoriously persistent skin conditions that defy even the healthiest intentions, often arising from no clear cause and stubbornly resisting most medical treatments. The good news is, these common but troublesome complaints often respond well to gentle, herbal remedies. Here, you'll find salves and baths to soothe itchiness, preventive teas to ease nerves and tinctures to take when all else fails your skin.
Cool Eczema's Itch
If you've experienced eczema, you know one thing—it itches. A lot. More irritating than any insect bite or poison ivy mishap, this relentless red rash is closely linked to asthma, hay fever and a family history of allergies. People prone to eczema find that emotional stress, wool clothing and temperature changes can make it even worse.
Vermont herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, author of Rosemary Gladstar's Family Herbal (Storey Publishing, 2001), favors burdock (Arctium lappa), a traditional cooling herb, for soothing the red-hot inflammation of eczema. "I use it as a wash, in compresses and internally," she says. Burdock root is also easy to cook and can be made into tea. Try steeping it with equal parts hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) for an anti-inflammatory nerve-fortifying drink.
Barney J. Kenet, MD, dermatologic surgeon at Cornell Medical Center and author of How to Wash Your Face (Simon & Schuster, 1999), recommends a calendula (Calendula officinalis) and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) cream for eczema relief, as well as aloe leaf gel (Aloe vera) and blackberry leaf tea (Rubus spp.) applied topically to speed healing and ease itching. An old-fashioned oatmeal bath also helps. "An oatmeal bath soothes itchy skin, but it's also very relaxing to the nervous system," says Gladstar, who adds lavender oil (Lavandula spp.) for extra anti-inflammatory effects.
In addition to herbal remedies, getting enough essential fatty acids may help prevent or soothe chronic skin problems. Consider adding black currant, borage seed, evening primrose and flaxseed oils to your diet. When they're part of your diet, oils of black currant (Ribes nigrum), borage seed (Borago officinalis) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) help relieve eczema from the inside out. Each contains gamma-linoleic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid (EFA) that helps regulate prostaglandin, a hormonelike substance responsible for inflammation. Evening primrose is the most frequently studied GLA-laden herb, but despite numerous clinical trials, it's unclear whether it successfully treats eczema. Even so, says Gladstar, EFAs are crucial to skin health: "They help lubricate the skin, create suppleness and retain moisture—all of which are problems with eczema," she explains.
Psoriasis remains more of a riddle than eczema, yet its characteristic rapid skin-cell growth may also be related to compromised immune functioning. The disease tends to run in families, and although psoriasis may itch, the telltale silvery scaling and dry, flaking patches can be its most upsetting symptoms when they affect hard-to-hide areas such as the face, neck and hands.
Gladstar recommends a calming, detoxifying tea of burdock, calendula and St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) to ease psoriasis symptoms. Calendula's anti-inflammatory properties also make it an excellent topical remedy. Try creams or washes on affected areas. A handful of studies suggest that ointments containing Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) reduce scaling and flaking, while another indicates that aloe vera cream may help (Forsch Komplementarmed, 1999, vol. 6, supp. 2; Tropical Medicine and International Health, 1996, vol. 1, no. 4).
The same gooey, moist properties that make oatmeal baths so effective for eczema also help moisten scaling skin affected by psoriasis. Take an oat soak several times each week, says Gladstar, alternating it with a combination tea bath of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and burdock to ease inflammation.
Herbal sources of essential fatty acids are also good bets for soothing psoriasis. "Many chronic skin conditions have an underlying inflammatory component," writes Kenet, "and most people do not have adequate EFAs in their diets." Try incorporating black currant, borage seed, evening primrose or flaxseed with meals.
Blisters Be Gone
The herpes virus responsible for unleashing painful skin blisters hides deep in nerve DNA where it can remain dormant for months or years—until a job interview or family gathering wakes it up. That's because stress is the most common herpes trigger, followed by fatigue, sun exposure and flu infections. Stress and other irritants send the virus dashing down nerves to the mouth or genitals where it starts an eruption. The lesions, called cold sores or fever blisters when they're near the mouth, last up to 14 days and are extremely painful. Although slightly different viral strains cause oral and genital herpes, treatments for both are essentially the same. According to Gladstar, antiviral herbs are your best bet for lesion prevention and deep healing.
Melissa (Melissa officinalis), a European favorite for treating herpes, is sold in cream and tincture form. According to one study, melissa cream reduced the discomfort, size, and number of cold sores better than placebo. Using melissa also seemed to speed healing and delay the next herpes flare-up (Phytomedicine, 1999, vol. 6, no. 4).
Although lacking scientific clout, topical licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is extremely effective at stopping an outbreak, says Gladstar. Apply tincture at the first tingling sign of a cold sore. Even better, combine it with an ice cube placed directly on the blister. "At first, it's excruciatingly painful," she says, "but it works."
Melissa and St. John's wort are also considered nerve-fortifiers. Like oats (Avena sativa), they strengthen the nervous system so the body can better adapt to pain, says Gladstar. Try tinctures of all three if you already have a sore. If the virus is dormant, drink a tea blend several times a day to keep it that way.
Persistent conditions require persistent treatments. With commitment, eczema can be healed in four months, says Gladstar, while it may take more than six months to make even a dent in psoriasis. And the herpes virus never truly goes away.
Hard-to-cure skin conditions may also benefit from these supplements:
Eczema: Probiotics, zinc
Psoriasis: Fish oil
Herpes: L-lysine, topical zinc, topical vitamin C
"These are such big topics," says Gladstar. "There's no simple cure." The causes of skin inflammations vary widely from one person to another, and until they are identified, symptom relief and prevention remain your most realistic goals. So line up the tinctures, teas and bath preparations because "there is hope," says Gladstar. "People can reduce outbreaks with natural remedies."