Is Eczema an Autoimmune Disease? Natural Treatment Options

Is Eczema an Autoimmune Disease?  Natural Treatment Options

Skin conditions can be very difficult to identify and treat.  Why?  The skin is our first line of defense from the rest of the world and is exposed to thousands of substances a day.  These substances come from both from the inside of the body and out.  One rash can look almost identical to another kind as well! The skin is also like an immune window; it reflects our diet, our digestive health, and more.  Is eczema an autoimmune condition? Are many skin conditions autoimmune? I sought to find out the answers because it is an extremely stubborn and uncomfortable condition. I know first-hand.

In this blog I include a couple of links where I make a small percentage at no extra cost to you.  I only link to products I trust and use for myself.

What is Eczema?

Eczema is also known as atopic dermatitis.  For a very long time, there was no known cause. Luckily, now experts agree that eczema is autoimmune, just like many other chronic illnesses.  Why is this important?  Because we know a lot about autoimmune conditions now and ways to get to the root of these conditions!

Eczema autoimmune ties are strong. Autoantibodies are found in patients with eczema. Researchers also recently found that atopic dermatitis was present in 18 of 32 autoimmune disorders examined in adults and 13 of 24 examined in children. These autoimmune disorders included those of the skin, endocrine, gastrointestinal, blood, and musculoskeletal systems.

This research adds to the growing body of evidence that many autoimmune disorders are related. This is not bad news, but good news because that means that many of the same healthy lifestyle habits can work for all of the conditions.

 

 

Types of Eczema

According to the National Eczema Association, there are 6 types of eczema.  These include:

  1. Atopic dermatitis
  2. Contact dermatitis
  3. Dyshidrotic eczema
  4. Nummular eczema, also known as discoid
  5. Seborrheic dermatitis
  6. Stasis dermatitis

I have nummular eczema, which is much more challenging to treat.  Lucky me!

 

Is Eczema a Genetic Condition?

Yes.  Autoimmune disorders are genetic, but genes don’t always determine fate.  Just like other autoimmune disorders, autoimmune disease eczema symptoms can be partly or completely managed by protecting the skin and reducing inflammation in our body.  How? Our foods and nutrients can more or less “mute” these really awful genes. Our skin and digestive exposures also can affect eczema’s fate in your body.

One good example of a nutrient that can help mute autoimmune diseases is vitamin D3. Skin conditions, including psoriasis and vitiligo, are helped greatly with vitamin D3.  Incidentally, these are also all autoimmune skin conditions.

Other autoimmune skin conditions include:

  • lupus
  • scleroderma
  • dermatomyositis
  • bullous pemphigoid
  • lichen planus
  • pemphigus

Celiac disease, another autoimmune disease, has a genetic component that is also linked to eczema.  Gluten sensitivity and other food sensitivities are triggers for skin conditions as well.

Eczema continues to increase in the number of people who have it. This is a sure sign that genes are only a small part of what is going on; our lifestyles play a big role in why we may end up with symptoms.

Symptoms of Eczema

Symptoms of eczema can vary widely based on the type of eczema.  There is one common theme among them all: inflammation.

Eczema symptoms include one or more of the following:

  • Dry, scaly skin
  • Redness and inflamed skin
  • Darkened patches
  • Itching
  • Cracks
  • Oozing
  • Periods of improvement followed by worsening in a somewhat cyclical pattern.

For me, the pattern of eczema is always the same.  A long winter season brings on the itching!  By the end of winter, my skin is very itchy and challenging to deal with.  By early summer, my eczema is basically gone. Other people see a big flare up with periods or shifts in diet.

Why Do People Get Eczema?

Eczema is a symptom that is caused by the breakdown of skin barrier, resulting in inflammation and discomfort.  The following causes can all be happening to make the skin weaker:

  • The outer layer of skin protects from losing moisture.  In eczema, the skin loses too much moisture. Eczema patients can have defects of both the outer layer barrier and the antimicrobial barrier of the outer layer of the skin.
  • Genetic defects can reduce the fat amount of the skin, allowing more moisture loss. Patients with the FLG gene (fillagrin) are 3 times more likely to get eczema than those who do not have this gene.
  • Environmental factors, such as soaps and drying skin products, and chemical cleaners, further dry out the skin.  This can cause inflammation and irritation in the outer layer of skin.
  • Cathelicidin deficiency in the skin is known to be associated with atopic dermatitis.  Cathelicidin is an antimicrobial is made by vitamin D! Vitamin D deficiency is a risk factor for eczema.
  • Inflammatory foods can further worsen the skin’s health and cause drying.
  • Hormone shifts can aggravate symptoms, especially in women.

As you can see, eczema has a lot of potential avenues for treatment as well.  If we care for the inside of our bodies as well as the outside, we are well on our way to healing. There are many triggers that we CAN control.

 

What Lifestyle Factors Trigger Eczema

Here are some questions you should ask yourself before deciding what the best treatment options are. There are things that have helped me along the way and I’m so grateful to have identified these triggers so that I can change my lifestyle for the better.

  • Does stress seem to make it worse?
  • Is it better if I am somewhere sunny and warm?
  • Does dry air make it worse?
  • How is my diet? Does my food intake seem to affect it?
  • How is my digestion? Do I have bloating, pain, constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel?
  • Do my family members have itchy skin or dermatitis too?
  • Was I exposed to a lot of antibiotics as a child?

For me, I can answer yes to all of these questions! Because of this, I need to use several approaches for treatment, not just one.

Autoimmune diseases are hard to diagnose and treat, no doubt.  Yet, many practitioners largely ignore the digestive tract, which is considered to be at the root of many of the triggers of these debilitating diseases.

The list of autoimmune diseases is at least 80 in total and continues to grow.

Many autoimmune diseases present with similar symptoms and yet may never get a diagnosis that is certain. Medical history, as well as life-event history and everyday habits,  are critical to determining the biggest triggers for eczema.

 

Treatment for Eczema

Can you reverse autoimmune diseases like eczema? Eczema may seem daunting to treat, but once your dermatologist or doctor determines that you have a type of eczema, you can be on your way to healing.  Hint: steroid creams are not the only answer!

{Please note that this post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.}

Functional Nutrition for Eczema

Diet can be a more challenging aspect for many people because there can be many factors at play.  A consult with a functional medicine practitioner, including a functional nutritionist like me can help you sort this out.

Common triggers can be dairy, gluten, eggs, or soy.  Your body also may not be making enough enzymes.  Consider this: your medicines may actually be making your digestion worse!

You will be assisted with ways to improve all aspects of your health by getting to the root causes of your digestive issues.

You may not even be aware you have digestion issues until the issues are resolved.  This is because most people don’t really know what healthy digestion is.  It’s not like people talk about their bowel movements with their doctors!  It is often not discussed at all, but it needs to be.

 

Minimize Sugar and Processed foods

These foods are inflammatory and will ramp up inflammation everywhere, including your skin. Be aware of how much sugar is in your cereals, beverages, entrees and more.  Watch out for the daily flavored lattes too!

Processed foods also throw off hormones that help protect our body as well. The insulin surges from these foods are highly inflammatory!

 

Manage your Stress

Stress is a big challenge for many.  We have increasing pressures on our time and our mental energy can’t always keep up.

Stress increases inflammation in the body and ramps up an imbalance of hormones in the body.

Take time for yourself and find ways that you can really relax at least once a day.  Find ways to cope. Two of my favorite stress-relievers are lavender and self-hypnosis, a deeper, more effective, form of meditation than most.

Diffuse Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade essential oils.  Many clinical trials show that essential oils are effective at reducing the stress response in the body.  You can find those oils here.

 

Test for Nutrition Deficiencies

Your skin is the biggest organ and it needs a lot of nutrients.  The only way to know for sure if you are low in nutrients is to get tested. Adequate nutrients can mean a stronger skin barrier.

Common nutrients that are low include magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin A, omega 3s.  After testing, a great whole food supplement for you may be the Lifelong Vitality Pack.

 

Lock in Moisture

Eczema reactions occur largely due to loss of moisture from the skin.  You need to find ways to lock the moisture back in!

Some types of moisturizers work well and others only minimally help. Coconut oil for me wasn’t enough.  Neither were any grocery store brands.

Research is limited, but some studies show that emollients are helpful, including:

  • Colloidal oatmeal
  • Beeswax
  • Petroleum

You want a moisturizer that is deeply penetrating to provide the most relief. Personally, I don’t like the idea of petroleum on my skin so I sought out other emollients [R].

These can include:

I needed help and I needed it now.  I reached out to Meadowsweet Herbs Missoula, Montana a local shop that has helped me in numerous ways throughout my life.  They make the best, most moisturizing salve I have ever found called Desert Rain Salve.  Apply it at least twice daily to help lock in the moisture in your skin.

Lack of moisture in the skin is a major contributor to the skin breakdown of eczema!

Desert Rain Salve

It has olive oil, plantain leaf, calendula flower, jojoba oil, cocoa butter, coconut oil, neem oil, beeswax, Bulgarian lavender, German chamomile, frankincense, helichrysum, benzoin gum, and vitamin E.

Rain salve for eczema by The Healthy RD

A note about topical essential oils.

Essential oils can be healing, but caution should be used when using it on eczema spots on the body.  Avoid oils that dry or irritate this very sensitive skin condition.

I find that essential oils need to be very pure but dilute.  The combination in the Desert Rain Salve seems to be very healing.  Avoid melaleuca topically on eczema or any oil that has strong antimicrobial effects, such as cinnamon, oregano, or thyme on this skin condition.

You can use those oils and I encourage using those oils on less sensitive parts of the body, such as the bottom of the feet.  Want to find essential oil classes nearby in Missoula?  Reach out to me.

Soothing and essential oils shown to help heal include lavender, frankincense, chamomile, and helichrysum. Even then, make sure to dilute with a great protective salve. Get Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade oils here.

Heal your Digestive Tract

Most inflammation in the body starts in the digestive tract.  Why?  Our digestive tract is home to most of our immune system, which can send danger signals (inflammation) to the rest of the body when our digestion is out of balance.

The 4 functional medicine approaches to healing the digestive tract include:

Remove

Remove allergens, intolerances, and processed foods. These foods can make the inflammation of autoimmune diseases worse. At this point, some food sensitivity testing is available but isn’t 100% reliable.  The only way to know if you are sensitive to food for sure is a 3-4 week complete elimination of that food.

Foods that trigger anxiety should also be minimized or removed.  For example, coffee and eczema may not go well together, but it is best to cut back gradually to avoid caffeine withdrawal.

Common food triggers can include:

  • Gluten
  • Dairy
  • Soy
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Legumes

Before embarking on an elimination diet, have a plan and discuss how to best do this type of meal plan with a registered dietitian first.

Replace

You may benefit from replacing digestive enzymes and replace a normal pH with healthy foods and apple cider vinegar.  Lack of digestive enzymes is common due to chronic inflammation. I find many clients benefit from simply adding in these couple of tricks. Terrazymes is a good choice for enzyme supplements.

Re-inoculate

Adding fermented foods help restore healthy bacteria.  Sometimes additional probiotics are beneficial too. Research in the area of eczema and probiotics are very promising. I like the PB Assist probiotic. Make sure to add lots of vegetables to provide prebiotics too.

Probiotic-rich foods include:

  • Fresh sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Tempeh
  • Natto
  • Kombucha, unsweetened
  • Puerh tea
  • Pickles
  • Apple cider vinegar with the “mother”

The most commonly studied supplemental probiotic strains for eczema are Lactobacillus strains.  In a review study of almost 1600 patients, probiotics worked better than placebo for eczema symptoms.

Repair

Repair the digestive tract with nutrient supplementation as described above. Certain plant compounds like nettles, marshmallow root, slippery elm, ginger, and cinnamon can be really helpful.

I found this great stomach powder at a local herb shop called Meadowsweet Herbs.  All you need is half teaspoon in water twice a day. The combination may sound strange, but it is actually a very pleasant tasting drink.

Stomach Powder

Stomach powder by The Healthy RD

L-Glutamine

L-glutamine is an amino acid that is an important fuel source for digestive cells. More glutamine may be required by the body in the following situations: stress, food allergies, alcohol, antibiotics use, digestive disorders, and malnutrition.  Supplemental glutamine reduces intestinal permeability or leaky gut.

L-Glutamine may help heal the digestive barrier for people with autoimmune issues.  No direct research has been looked at to determine if glutamine is effective for eczema.

However, logic suggests it may help.  Why? Glutamine is the amino acid in the highest amount in the body.  We are unable to make glutamine during stressful conditions like trauma and infection.  Glutamine is fuel for intestinal cells, immune cells, and helps our body maintain balance in protein and blood sugar.

You can find high-quality L-glutamine by Thorne here.

Drink Herbal Infusions or Herbal Teas

Many herbal teas can be healing and help dampen down inflammation in the body.  They also help to reduce cortisol and stress in the body.

A tea I like is called Cool the Palette by Dragon Herbal Teas. It has calendula flower, catnip flower, hibiscus flower, lemon balm, marshmallow leaf, nettle leaf, peppermint leaf, and plantain leaf.

Calendula flower is very healing.  In a rigorous clinical trial, calendula was able to reduce acute dermatitis caused by radiation treatment for breast cancer. You can find calendula oil here.

Another tea that I love is called Evening in Missoula tea.  It tastes amazing and contains healing herbs, including chamomile, rosehips, lemongrass, papaya leaf, peppermint, spearmint, blackberry leaf, raspberry leaf, red clover, alfalfa, star anise, wild cherry bark, lemon peel, wintergreen, natural & artificial flavor, lavender, stevia leaf.

The great part about herbal teas is that you can drink them all day long and reap the benefits. You can find Evening in Missoula tea here.

Turn on the Humidifier

Increase the humidity in your home if you have dry air. I recommend an evaporation type of air humidifier because the atomizing ones can leave a weird film all over your home. I have had an evaporative humidifier by Aircare and it has lasted me many years. You can find it here.

Add some essential oils to keep the water clean, prevent mold, and to also add some relaxing aromatic compounds into the air.  I love using eucalyptus, melaleuca, or rosemary. Be careful with essential oils.

Only use Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade.  You don’t want to be adding MORE chemicals into the air by using cheap, low-quality oils.

I also use a diffuser daily to get more moisture in the air and to get some great essential oils in the air for stress relief.

Do NOT use chemical anti-bacterial either.  These chemical cleaners are hard on your lungs and you skin. Also, make sure you aren’t sensitive to any of the oils you diffuse.

Find Some Sun

Get some sun if at all possible.  This winter, this was futile; there is no sun in our cold climate! Vitamin D3 supplements help me, but it isn’t quite enough.

Real UVB exposure is the answer in a lot of ways.  Unfortunately, in the north, the sun rays are predominantly UVA until mid-summer and they quickly dissipate by September. Consider a UVB lamp.  Watch out for tanning beds; they often give off the wrong type of UV! They often only have UVA rays, which serve only to tan, but harm skin tissue.

If you live in a very cold, northern climate, a UVB lamp may be helpful.

  • UVB LIGHT- Uses UVB fluorescent bulbs that emit a proper balance of UVB rays onto your skin, naturally generate the benefits of the sun’s rays.  
  • Full spectrum lamps and bulbs aren’t the right kind of light for getting vitamin D
  • You can find a UVB Sunlamp here

As with anything, make sure you are moderate in your sun exposure. If you buy a UVB lamp, make sure to follow package directions to avoid skin damage and burning.

For sun exposure, mid-day sun gives the most vitamin D-rich rays.

Sunscreens DO block your skin’s ability to make vitamin D3 in the skin.  Further, recent research in the Journal of the American Medical Association is demonstrating that many chemical sunscreens aren’t safe. One study showed that the level of sunscreen chemical that enters the bloodstream is 7 times greater than the amount of nicotine you might have in your blood after smoking a cigarette!

Be mindful of your limits in the sun, avoid sunburns. You can find a nontoxic sunscreen brand that contains all-natural ingredients here.

Natural ways to treat eczema by The Healthy RD

Take Vitamin D3

Don’t assume that 1000 IU of vitamin D3 per day is enough. You need to be informed about blood levels and treat accordingly. A review of 21 studies concluded that supplementing vitamin D3 improved symptoms of eczema

Children’s vitamin D deficiency in this study was related to the severity of their eczema symptoms as well.  The clinical trials supplementing vitamin D3 were small but point to the fact that vitamin D3 can be a useful therapeutic option for people with eczema.

Doses used for children were 1000 IU per day and 4000 IU per day for children.  I personally require more.  I find it is important to tailor your dose to your blood levels.

Around 75% of the population runs low, or insufficient in vitamin D3.

A great resource for more information about vitamin D3 is Grassroots Health.

How Does vitamin D3 Improve Eczema?

By now, most healthcare providers are aware that vitamin D is important for health. Autoimmune conditions are receiving special focus in the research in regards to their benefits.  Eczema is no exception.

Vitamin D functions as a hormone in the body and has over a thousand functions.  Some of the functions that vitamin D has to help the skin include:

  • Vitamin D has been shown to increase the amount of platelet-derived growth factor, which promotes wound healing
  • Increases TNFα promoting keratinocyte differentiation
  • Decreased inflammation compounds called IL-1α, IL2, IL-6
  • Vitamin D strengthens the permeability barrier in the epidermis
  • Helps promote immune tolerance. How? By increasing suppressor T cells; these are helpful in ALL forms of autoimmune disorders.
  • Increases protective antimicrobial content of the skin. This antimicrobial compound is called cathelicidin.

 

Avoid Drying Products on Your Skin

Some websites recommend using bleach on the skin for eczema.  Yikes, that sounds terrible! Some people also try hydrogen peroxide eczema treatments. I have tried many things, but I will never try either of those.  I generally avoid bleach due to its harmful effects on lung health and skin health.  Both bleach and peroxide are very drying, so they may make eczema worse.

Skin products that can break down your skin:

  • Harsh soaps
  • Hand sanitizers
  • Chemical cleaners
  • Scented laundry detergents and fabric softeners

Additionally, wear fabric that isn’t irritating to your skin, ideally cotton, and preferably wear loose-fitting clothes.

Eczema graphic showing the skin layers by The Healthy RD
Layers of skin, showing the breakdown of the outer layer in eczema

Steroids

Steroids can be a tool to help with eczema.  However, be really cautious with steroids; they can cause thinning of the skin and ultimately the breakdown of skin if used incorrectly.

They do reduce inflammation, but even topical steroids can have some negative systemic effects on the brain, mood, bone health and more. They can even cause pain in some people.

Summary

Eczema is an autoimmune disorder that can be improved by healing the digestive tract, getting some sunshine, taking some vitamin D3, and testing for nutrient deficiencies.  Also, lock in the moisture in the skin with a great emollient and humidifiers.

Avoid toxins, chemicals, and perfumes, as well as harsh skin products. As with anything, consult with your healthcare provider before making any lifestyle changes.

Want to get started on all-natural ways of cleaning and healing your body?  Start with a Natural Solutions kit today.

 

 

19 Comments
  1. So many different food categories that can potentially affect the skin. I’d be interested to know how often medical providers discuss diet with their eczema patients.

    1. I bet it isn’t often, perhaps due to providers’ lack of time or training in that topic. Lucky for us, RD’s have that training! Thanks so much for reading my post! Heidi

  2. Wow, this is a very detailed post! I definitely want to take some time to read through everything, as my son has eczema! Thanks for sharing all this info. 🙂

    1. Thank you for checking out my post! Autoimmune conditions are challenging, but most often manageable with our new understanding of the gut-immune axis. Best regards, Heidi

  3. This is a great resource for people struggling with eczema. I really enjoyed how you incorporated nutrition solutions for managing the symptoms, as well as the importance of Vitamin D3. So many people don’t realize how much autoimmune diseases can be impacted by simple changes in their diets!

  4. This was so informative! I learned a lot more about eczema than I knew before.

  5. Love how detailed this post is. So many people do not realize that eczema is tied to nutrition. I have a friend who suffers from eczema and will share this with them.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *