Come along as I share the journey my son took us in uncovering the true connection between food and health. Along the way, we discovered how to prevent eczema flare-ups in 5 steps which ended up healing our son from his painful itchy patches
The opinions expressed in this article are my own. I am not a licensed health care provider so please check with your doctor or dermatologist before following any suggestions posted on this site.
After discovering my son was suffering from some pretty bad eczema I did a lot of research as to not only how to care for eczema but also why he was experiencing such skin issues at such a young age. You see my son was only 3 when we got diagnosed with severe eczema. But he began suffering from eczema, and painful itchy rashes, when he was just 6 months old.
Taking control of my son's eczema
Gosh, where do I even begin? It seems like a lifetime ago watching our son suffer from painful itchy flare-ups. He was our first child and I can safely say that we were a bit lost and confused as to how to prevent eczema flare-ups. Having exhausted all creams, steroids, ointments, dermatology visits, naturopathic remedies, and homeopathic medicines it just seemed like this would be a part of our son's normal life.
Watching him suffer was agonizing! Having never suffered from skin issues myself I felt a huge lack of control and support. It all felt out of my hands. Back then there were no Facebook support groups, Instagram influencers, or access to so much reliable information like there is in today's world. Social media was just not that big yet and people were just not sharing!
The conversations promoting the connection between food and health were only beginning to surface. And the idea of clean eating and the need to shift away from the standard American diet was not something we heard of often. We were told to follow the traditional child-rearing practises by every doctor. The introduction of rice cereal at 4 months, whole cow milk after 12 months, and jarred baby food. No mention of the importance of whole food or the need to maintain good gut health and essential fats.
Exposing my son to the traditional Western diet, combined with his predisposition for eczema and a sluggish digestive system, sent his tiny body down a road of inflammation which manifested as eczema flare-ups, hot patchy skin, itchy spells, and painful scabs. Which led to behavioural issues, difficulty sleeping and just a frustrated child.
Research into the causes and treatment of eczema
After 2 years of watching my son suffer I could no longer sit idly by. The birth of my second son was an eye-opening experience of the beneficial effects that healthy skin and a healthy gut play on your overall wellbeing. Having just defended my Ph.D. in Health Science I decided that I would use my, skills, my very expensive skill (lol), to try and figure out just how I could reduce the amount of eczema flare-ups my son was having.
I dived deep into medical journals, spoke to colleagues, and read study after study on the causes and treatment of eczema. So I learned a lot about things we could do and a lot about things that were just out of our hands. But I felt a renewed sense of hope and determination that I could help treat his eczema with the support of whole foods, proper eczema care, and a focus on improving his gut health.
How to prevent eczema flare-ups.
I will summarize some of the main research I found and give some suggestions for what has worked for us with our son. We spoke with 5 different dermatologists, 2 allergists, and many doctors in addition to the countless hours I spent reading and researching eczema. All of this resulted in the same basic conclusions, which I share below. I am in no way suggesting that this will cure your eczema but this is what has helped us manage and significantly reduce my son's flare-ups.
UPDATE: Before you read any further I want you to know that as of today, February 2020, 3 years after implementing these steps my son has no eczema flare-ups. The last one was over a year ago, which was a tiny little patch on his hand. We focused a lot on food and gut health and worked with a nutritionist to implement a proper elimination and reintroduction diet. We now eat a predominantly whole food plant-based diet. In my personal opinion, I believe the diet change and focus on gut health were the two biggest factors that helped my son.
I encourage you to work WITH a dietitian or nutritionist if you are making changes to your child's diet. While the internet is a wonderful place full of knowledge is does not replace the guidance and advice of a professional who is trained to ensure an adequate diet is achieved.
5 steps to reduce eczema flare-ups
- 1. Clean up skincare products
- 2. HYDRATION, from the inside out
- 3. Focus on a healthy Omega 6/3 ratio and increase healthy essential fats
- 4. Identify any food intolerances or allergies
- 5. Look into the health of your gut flora and introduce fermented food or probiotics.
Ok so now onto the research.. this is just a small summary of some of what I read. I am by no means an expert on eczema, just a mama armed with some research skills and motivated to help heal her son.
1. Eczema caused by skin irritants
So the first thing we did was to stop using anything irritating on the skin. We cut out any strong soap and lotion including laundry detergent.
SUGGESTION: We began using Aveeno eczema body wash and coconut oil as lotion (it is the cleanest lotion you can use). We eventually moved on to more natural forms of soaps like Dr. Bronners and Truely organic. But to start we wanted to use the doctor recommended soap to see how my son's skin would respond. We looked for products that had minimal ingredients. Olive oil soap or anything along those lines are good.
2. Eczema and dehydration
For many eczema sufferers hydrating the skin can cause big flare-ups. However, this was not what we observed with my son. I think the discrepancy comes from the fact that we focused on hydrating his skin from the inside out, rather then just applying ointments and creams. The idea is to maintain an adequate level of hydration within your body which in turn helps your body flush out any toxins and keep your skin healthy.
SUGGESTION: The best way to hydrate the skin is to ..you guessed it, drink lots of water and eat lots of hydrating foods.
3. Reducing eczema flare ups with healthy fats
There has been a lot of research regarding the link between fat and dermatitis (eczema). Researchers conclude that children who are on the traditional western diet generally are not receiving the beneficial fats needed to maintain good gut and skin health. They suggest cutting out all processed foods including processed oils (no margarine or vegetable oil).
Eczema research also shows that many sufferers have an essential fatty acid (EFA) deficiency (particularly in omega 6) or a breakdown in their ability to metabolize it (a good review here). So these researchers suggest that increasing the amount of beneficial fats, (like chia, hemp, avocado...) in one's diet should help alleviate some of the symptoms of eczema and correct any deficiency. And this is what we found to be extremely helpful with our son.
SUGGESTION: Stick to a whole food diet and substitute processed oils, such as vegetable oil and margarine, with either olive oil or coconut oil. We had our son eating coconut oil for the first few months. Then we switch to unprocessed plants for these healthy fats. These healthy unprocessed fats now came from eating chia seeds, hemp seeds, seeds in general, nuts, and avocado, dulse, spirulina and more. The researchers also suggest fish but that's a personal choice. Chia and hemp seed go really well in your morning oatmeal!
4. Eczema and food allergies
Researchers discovered that some people with eczema have a more 'permeable' gut. Studies suggest that these people likely have an intestinal mucosal defect, or more plainly, an increase in the absorption of large molecules. According to these researchers, this finding is consistent with the view that allergens (large molecules) are absorbed through the gut in increased amounts in this disease.
This does not mean you will have true food allergies BUT it does suggest that these larger molecules can be absorbed and can cause an immune response. And this results in flaring eczema along with a host of other inflammatory symptoms.
If in addition to eczema you also see hay fever (seasonal allergies) and mild respiratory issues this is even more important. My son had all of that!
SUGGESTION: Look into any food intolerances or allergies. Speak with a health care professional to ensure this is being done in a healthy manner. Simply cutting out food groups indefinitely is not the answer here and can cause more harm then good.
Our experience with food allergies
Our first step was to get a skin prick allergy test (IgE test) for our son from our allergist. And after testing positive to some of the top allergens we removed the foods that came up. We also asked for an IgA blood test. IgA plays a role in allergic responses and his results showed us that his body was having inflammatory reactions. Following our doctor's orders, we stayed on this eliminated diet for over a year to give his body a chance to heal. We replaced these foods with whole plant-based foods focused on gut healing.
My son ended up not having many true allergies. After that year we successfully reintroduced all the foods on his NO list except gluten (we suspect celiac). However, the following year we were still careful to keep his diet simple, full of whole foods and healthy fats. This is the diet we still eat today and we we are all thriving. Remember, to see big results you sometimes need big change. Although this was the hardest and biggest step we took it was also the most rewarding.
5. Eczema and gut health
The link between gut flora and eczema is very extensive. In a nutshell, research suggests that many sufferers of eczema have a reduction in their flora when compared to normal unaffected individuals.
Thus, establishing a good colony of beneficial gut microbes is a very important step in healing the gut. While a healthy gut bacteria is beneficial to reducing eczema flare-ups, too much bacteria can leave you with bacteria overgorwth. So what should one do... focus on whole food rather then supplements!
SUGGESTIONS: Sticking to a whole food diet with a predominance on plants is a great start. That is to say, that whole foods are amazing at providing your body with lots of pre and pro-biotics. You can additionally try and add a few fermented foods, sauerkraut is usually a hit with the kids. But pay attention to the symptoms and how you feel after.
The powers of whole foods over eczema
This journey we took with my son was an eye-opening experience. And witnessing the damage a traditional western diet had on our son's health was powerful. We saw first hand the connection between food and health. It also taught us to take our health into our own hands and to think critically about the information we are feed.
To sum up, today my son is symptom-free, something I never thought would happen. And I am so so grateful for this eye-opening experience and the changes it sparked in our lifestyle! It sparked my desire for cooking home-cooked meals to nourish my family. To focus on simple healthy recipes that promoted a good gut without eliminating the essential fats that we so need. And it sparked my desire to start this blog. To share these recipes and our story to inspire and motivate you that food really is the key to health!
A year after we began this journey of healing this is what my son's leg current looks like! This was worth every effort we made!
- Dietary fatty acids and inflammatory skin disease
- Diet as a risk factor for atopy and asthma
- Dietary fat and asthma: is there a connection?
- Maternal fat consumption during pregnancy and risk of wheeze and eczema in Japanese infants aged 16-24 months: The Osaka Maternal and Child Health Study
- Intestinal permeability in patients with eczema and food allergies
- Probiotics in the treatment of atopic eczema/dermatitis syndrome in infants: a double-blind placebo-controlled trial
- Probiotics in the management of eczema
- Low diversity of the gut microbiota in infants with atopic eczema