You may already know that winter’s dry air, cranked-up heat, long hot showers, and multi-layered clothing can cause dry skin and eczema flare-ups. But did you know that certain foods can add to that annoying and uncomfortable itch? If you frequently suffer from red, itchy skin, there are some foods you should eat and others to avoid. Plus, there are other things you can do to be more comfortable.
What is Eczema?
Eczema is a medical condition that causes the skin to become dry, red, sensitive, raw, and extremely itchy. In some cases, eczema can result in raised bumps, and cracked, thickened, scaly skin. This condition typically appears on the hands, wrists, feet, ankles, neck, and upper chest. It can also occur inside the bend of the knees and elbows, and on the eyelids. Occasionally, an individual may develop hay fever or asthma at the same time.
Why Do I have Eczema?
First off, you’re not alone! Approximately 10.1% of Americans (31.6 million people) have some type of eczema, and atopic dermatitis. The most common type of eczema often develops in infants and young children.
Eczema is considered a chronic condition that suddenly flares up for various reasons and tends to be hereditary. But before you blame your parents for your itchy skin, you should know that it doesn’t always pass on directly to children. In fact, it’s still not known why some people develop eczema while others don’t. Research suggests that there is interplay between genetic disposition and environmental factors, referred to as triggers. These triggers can set off an eczema outbreak in those who are predisposed to the condition.
Eczema symptoms often appear in the winter, when cold, dry air sucks the moisture out of your body. Perspiration is also a trigger, which can occur in hot, humid weather or in bundle-up type of weather that’s cold and dry. It can surface with exercise or stress. Allergens such as pets, pollen, dust mites, and mold can also bring out eczema symptoms.
Chemical irritants also contribute to eczema attacks and there’s a mile-long lineup of possible culprits. These substances vary and make up the daily fabric of our modern lives. These include automobile exhaust fumes, industrial soot, pesticides, fertilizers, and secondhand tobacco smoke. Preservatives found in processed foods, drugs, cosmetics, and personal hygiene products can aggravate the condition along with fragrances, pigments, taste enhancers, surfactants, and chelating agents that act as irritants to activate eczema. Heavy metals that cause hypersensitivity reactions from jewelry and dental fillings, can also trigger this debilitating condition.
The Eczema and Food Allergy Connection
If that laundry list of eczema triggers isn’t discouraging enough, studies have recently found a link between eczema and certain foods. Results show that up to 81% of people with eczema also have a food allergy. Researchers believe that an eczema rash and inflammation may weaken the skin’s barriers and allow contact between certain food proteins present in the environment and the skin’s immune cells. Once the body’s immune system is sensitized in this way, eating any of these foods can cause an allergic response. Researchers focus on filaggrin, an epidermal barrier protein, as it was found that a deficiency of filaggrin may lead to atopic dermatitis.
While most studies focus on children, adults face the same risk when it comes to eczema and resulting food sensitivities. This food/eczema link also goes in both directions. While it appears likely that eczema may cause food allergies, certain common food allergens can also trigger or worsen the condition.
Foods That Trigger Eczema Outbreaks
The top foods that get people itchy are those that frequently cause allergic symptoms, such as milk, eggs, wheat, soy, and peanuts. A milk allergy is different from being lactose intolerance. An allergy to wheat, which can be quite severe (as a soy allergy), is different from gluten intolerance. Certain individuals can be so allergic to peanuts that even being near someone eating them can cause a serious reaction. People who are allergic to these foods may have an eczema outbreak when they come upon one of these triggers.
Apart from these common food allergies, there are other items that can worsen eczema symptoms or act as a trigger for certain individuals. Nutritionist Karen Fischer’s ‘Itchy Dozen’ list includes dairy products, grapes, oranges, kiwi fruit, soy and tamari sauce, tomatoes, avocados, broccoli, dried fruits, deli meats, eggs, and various kinds of junk food. Three chemicals that naturally occur in many of these foods are salicylates, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and amines. These are all found to cause adverse reactions that include atopic eczema.
Food reactions and eczema triggers vary from person to person. If you’re not sure what makes your symptoms worse, an elimination diet may help to determine the problem foods.
Relieve Eczema Symptoms with the Right Foods
You might be wondering, “Are there any foods that won’t make my eczema worse?” Yes, there are! Since eczema is an inflammatory skin condition, foods that have anti-inflammatory properties help to alleviate eczema symptoms. Anti-inflammatory foods include fish and foods high in flavonoids and probiotics. Fish that contain the highest levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids are salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and albacore tuna. If you’re a vegan with eczema, consider a plant-based omega-3 supplement. Probiotic foods such as yogurt, tempeh, kombucha, kefir, and miso also help, along with flavonoid-rich foods such as kale, spinach, broccoli, apples, and cherries.
What Else Can You Do to Ditch That Itch?
Here are some other steps you can take to relieve eczema symptoms:
- Drink lots of water to replenish your body’s moisture.
- Take a vitamin D supplement daily, especially in winter months.
- Use mild soaps, laundry detergents, and personal care products that are void of chemicals.
- Apply topical lotions that reduce inflammation.
- Take lukewarm rather than hot showers and baths that dry out your skin.
- Take colloidal oatmeal baths to help moisturize your skin.
- Don’t rub your skin, pat it dry, as scratching or rubbing can make your eczema worse.
- Immediately follow every shower or bath with a thick moisturizer to protect the skin barrier.
- Use a humidifier in the winter to keep the air moist.
- Avoid wool and nylon clothing and bedding, as these fibers can irritate your skin. Cotton is recommended for those with eczema, as it allows the skin to breathe and will prevent overheating.
- Manage stress with exercise, yoga, and meditation.
While there isn’t yet a definitive eczema cure, awareness of the possible triggers, beneficial foods, and smart personal habits can keep your itch at bay to make you feel comfortable in your own skin.
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