* disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. The advice I write below is based on my experience of someone that lives with eczema, and what remedies work for me.
Throughout my life, on and off, I’ve dealt with eczema. It is a skin condition that consists of patches anywhere on the body, where any of the following can occur: swelling, redness, small bumps, itchiness, cracking, seeping, peeling, dryness and flakiness. For anyone that has dealt with it, this is basically the course in which a flare up ensues. And, like me, you might’ve woken up in the middle of the night, scratching the affected area.
My eczema started as a kid, with dry, flaky patches on the inside of my upper arms. It then disappeared during my teenage years, only to reappear again in my early twenties, when I began working in the restaurant industry, handling wet dishes, food and sanitising cleaners. At this time, the eczema began on the palm of my right hand, underneath my thumb. Throughout my twenties and into my thirties, it’s come and gone, with some particularly bad flare-ups in recent years – both on my hands, small spots on my elbows, and small patches on my face. It has progressed across my right hand and is now parked on the inside of my right ring finger and the space on the palm below. I also currently have a patch on the knuckle of my right index finger. In comparison to some people I know, who have it all over their bodies, I’m lucky that my eczema affects a very small area. Still though, it’s literally a pain to deal with.
What causes my flare ups?
My main flare-up triggers are either topical or dietary:
Topical: the use of household cleaning products, dishwashing soap and even paint spirits without the use of rubber gloves. I also reacted very badly to normal Aveeno lotion, the very stuff that I kept applying to my hands thinking it was soothing problem! Frequent handwashing under hot water also irritates my skin, which is at times unavoidable when you’re handling and cooking with raw meat.
Dietary: Grain-based foods, (the main grain being wheat) and too much conventional dairy. Sometimes, even just too much dairy, pasteurised or unpasteurised. Before I went primal, it was understandable that my skin was going crazy because I was consuming some grains, some dairy, and a whole lot of sugar! It also makes sense that Aveeno lotion was an irritant: it’s made with oatmeal. I continued to use it once I went paleo, not even thinking that I needed to eliminate topical grains too! (sidenote: you should if you’re in my boat).
So why the current flare-up? I went to France to ski, ate pastries or tarts made with wheat flour and sugar every day, drank alchohol (red wine), ate lots of French cheese (Tomme de Savoie and Raclette – both made with unpasteurised milk fortunately), and washed dishes with hot water and no rubber gloves. And when I was back at home, I did lots of cooking, and frequently washed my hands because I was handling raw meat, (all in the name of recipe development at least!) Basically, I enjoyed French food and did what I love: cooking. And my skin suffered for it.
I also dealt with a flare-up before Christmas – after nine months being eczema free! – which was the result of being too flexible with my diet. I was eating all the grain-based, shop-made cookies, pastries and cakes on offer in my new school’s staffroom, thinking I was going to be fine because in the past, my eczema hadn’t been affected with a rare piece of cake at family gatherings. I was also ordering dessert or scones from café outside of school; again thinking I was invincible to the grains. Turns out I wasn’t.
Why are grains so bad for Eczema and skin in general? This article, from Christ Kresser, explains a bit of it. Although the main idea of the article is Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (which is real by the way), it talks about how standard testing for Celiac Disease misses out many key wheat proteins and enzymes to which many are intolerant. And these intolerances don’t manifest themselves in the classic symptoms of upset stomach and diarrhoea. Instead, intolerances to wheat proteins, in my case transglutaminase-3 (an enzyme that links proteins together), reveals itself through the skin or brain issues:
“…intolerance of wheat could manifest in skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis, and in neurological or brain-related conditions like depression, peripheral neuropathy, or ADHD.”
This important bit of information and the linked article demonstrates the effect of modern wheat, and how all its proteins and enzymes don’t agree with people. It also explains why my skin flares-up if I eat too much baking made with wheat flour.
I also think, although it’s not confirmed nor researched, that perhaps I, along with most people, have a slight casein or whey intolerance, hence why my skin reacts to too much dairy. Casein and whey are both proteins found in milk.
Finally, another factor that causes my eczema to flare-up is stress. Doing too much, all the time and simply overdoing it. One of the nasty by-products of stress is to crave or seek refined carbohydrates, which I have been doing as a result of prolonged stress from a pretty epic but extremely stressful 2015.
My tried and true remedies
When I first moved to Scotland and was shopping for an eczema cream at a health food store in Edinburgh, the owner told me something I’ll never forget: “You should treat eczema from the inside out, not the outside in.” He recommended I take some kind of omega-3 oil – fish oil, flaxseed oil or hemp oil. I went with hemp. I added this to my daily smoothie, but never saw my eczema clear up completely. I also took fish oil tablets, but again to no avail. Why didn’t they work? Because I was still eating the conventionally healthy foods that were irritating my gut and leading to my skin problem. Just under a year into my primal journey, I managed to clear up my eczema through the following:
- Avoiding grain-based foods and eating them only rarely (like a slice of cake every two months).
- Cutting down on dairy drastically, to the point of avoiding it, and again, only consuming rarely.
- Taking an L-glutamine supplement to aide intestinal health, but also prevents urges to eat refined carbs.
- Taking a probiotic supplement of 15 billion live bacteria, containing the Bifidobacterium, Acidophilus and Lactobacillus strains.
- Consuming Great Lakes gelatin powder in my daily smoothie (recipe coming soon!)
- Increasing consumption of Omega-3 rich foods in my diet, like ground flaxseeds, chia seeds and avocado. And an overall increase in healthy fats too.
- Wearing rubber gloves when using cleaners and washing dishes.
- Using basic bar soaps for washing hands.
- Applying Melaleuca lotion and coconut oil to affected areas.
And if I’m not away on holiday and I want a dessert, choosing a cake made with gluten-free flour or a non-cake dessert, like crème brûlée or berries and cream. My skin doesn’t react to these.
It seems like a lot to do, but it’s so ingrained (pardon the pun!) in my daily living, that it’s now second nature. And yes, sometimes I don’t (or can’t in the case of going away on holiday) maintain the above interventions, but thankfully, due to my now strict adherence to paleo eating, flare-ups aren’t nearly as bad as they used to be and clear incredibly quickly. My skin doesn’t crack or seep anymore, and it clears in days.
I’ve also learned my lesson permanently when it comes to grain-based non-paleo or primal foods: they’re not worth it, for the sake of my skin or guts – I will not sacrifice my skin health for a processed, factory-made baked treat. I will, however, for a delicious French pastry!
Next post: a round-up of posts all about stress, the physiological effect it has on us, and how to tackle it.
Do you have skin issues?
What are you triggers and remedies?