Eczema is what doctors call atopic dermatitis. It is a genetic skin sensitivity that affects different parts of the body, and it is associated with people who have allergies, though it isn't an allergy itself. Symptoms are dry, scaly, itchy, and sometimes red patches of skin. You may have had it as an infant and then it went away, only to resurface in adulthood.
The usual assumption is that the environment—an allergy to food, soaps, or detergents—causes eczema, but this is rarely the case. Stress can be an aggravator, but again, is not the cause. Eczema is a genetic skin condition for which there is no true cure. Traditional cortisone or steroid creams usually are helpful in treating eczema. When used properly, mild creams are safe even on thin-skinned areas like the face or groin, or on children. The body's adrenal glands produce cortisone naturally, so applying a low-potency cortisone cream should have no adverse side effects.
—Alan S. Rockoff, MD, founder of the Rockoff Dermatology Center, Brookline, Massachusetts
Herbs can help treat skin conditions from the inside out. In Chinese medicine, there is a belief that if internal systems are not working well, you will see evidence on the outside. If skin—the largest organ in the body—is compromised, toxins can affect it, resulting in eczema or psoriasis.
Conditions of the skin usually indicate a buildup of toxins in the lungs, stomach, and liver, so we focus on herbs to heal those areas. Also, I may suggest herbs that help build up the immune system against an allergy attack, and those that aid circulation and nourish the skin. Helpful herbs include rehmannia root, lonicera flower bud, forsythia fruit, scute root, phellodendron stem bark, sophora root, fraxinella root, kochia fruit, red peony root, moutan root bark, scrophularia root, salvia root and rhizome, white atractylodes rhizome, gardenia fruit, and cicada slough. Consult an herbalist to determine the best remedies and doses for you.
—Merry Manqun Li, LAc, founder of the Merry Clinic, San Bruno, California
When treating a skin condition such as eczema, it's important to look at how your digestive system is functioning. If the gut isn't working properly—not filtering out things that aggravate your system—it can make your immune system hypersensitive.
The first step is to cut out foods you're sensitive to. Focus on healing the gut with supplements and stress management.
I recommend getting plenty of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, oil-based antioxidants such as vitamins E and A, and zinc. These help by lubricating the digestive system, which facilitates the absorption of nutrients. The amino acid l-glutamine can help accelerate the skin's repair process. Topically, try not to put anything on the skin—most beauty products will only cause further irritation. When necessary, use plain water to cleanse, or a hypo- allergenic, all-natural vegetable-based soap that does not contain any petroleum by-products.
—EeVon Ling, ND, Toronto