Have you or someone you know dealt with itchy and dry skin that’s so irritating you scratch it until it bleeds? You might have tried all the creams and ointments, yet nothing offers you relief. You’re not alone — an estimated 30 million people in the U.S. experience the challenges of combating eczema.1
I frequently saw patients with eczema and other skin issues, children in particular, who tried everything their doctor had to offer, yet none of the common eczema treatments seemed to permanently heal their condition. This is usually because conventional medicine only tries to superficially suppress outside symptoms with medications. In order to completely heal and reverse your symptoms, you must dig deeper and address the underlying cause or causes.
What is Eczema?
Eczema comes in many forms, yet it is usually identified by a red, itchy rash on the outer layer of skin. This is known as atopic dermatitis. According to conventional medicine, the cause of eczema is unknown. Not to mention, conventional medicine only treats the symptoms. Doctors may only prescribe medications or creams for eczema relief to reduce itching and prevent infection.
However, functional medicine takes a different approach. Eczema is an external symptom of an internal problem. Functional medicine practitioners work to address the true underlying cause of eczema – a malfunctioning immune system.
You see, eczema occurs when you experience inflammation, which is your body’s response to a perceived threat. Your immune system is so stressed by these threats that it goes into overdrive and attacks your own skin cells.
Many people who have eczema have asthma and seasonal allergies as well.2 These are also caused by inflammation and an overactive immune system. In fact, this is so common that doctors refer to this as the “atopic triad.”
As common as these conditions may be, they are far from normal. In fact, they are a sign of an underlying health problem inside your body that’s manifesting itself on the outside. In almost a decade of experience as a functional medicine physician treating thousands of patients, I have seen that the most common cause of skin issues is a gut infection such as Candida overgrowth, Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), or leaky gut.
The Gut-Skin Connection
Your gut has a huge effect on your immune system. In fact, 80% of your immune system is housed in your gut. That’s why one of the major causes of autoimmune diseases such as eczema is a poorly functioning intestinal tract.
Think of your gut as a drawbridge. It’s naturally semi-permeable to let teeny-tiny boats (micronutrients) pass through your intestinal wall and into your bloodstream. External factors including certain foods, infection, toxins, and stress can break apart the tight junctions in your intestinal wall, leaving the drawbridge open. Once that happens, you have leaky gut.
When your gut is leaky, much larger boats that were never meant to get through (toxins, microbes, and undigested food particles) can escape into the bloodstream. Your immune system marks these foreign invaders as pathogens and attacks them.
The inflammatory response triggered by an overactive immune system can be seen anywhere in the body. In the case of eczema, it is the skin that is affected. Gut inflammation can also impair the protective function of your skin. This can increase the severity of inflammation and worsen eczema symptoms.
Fortunately, leaky gut syndrome can be treated using functional medicine’s 4R approach:
Your goal is to get rid of anything that’s harmful to your gut. I can’t stress enough that a gluten-free diet is critical to your gut health. In addition to avoiding gluten, you’ll also want to ditch dairy. Most adults are lactose intolerant or sensitive to the casein proteins in dairy products. Other gut-destroying and inflammatory foods include alcohol, corn, soy, refined sugar, GMOs, and highly processed foods. These also need to be removed from your diet.
You also need to eliminate any gut infections caused by Candida overgrowth, SIBO, or parasites. Managing stress and avoiding toxins will also ensure you maintain healthy skin.
Restore what’s missing from your gut. Adding digestive enzymes and Gut Restore with Betaine and HCL to your regimen will help support optimal digestion and nutrient absorption, as well as assist your body’s intestinal repair and inflammation responses. Follow a nutrient-dense diet with plenty of organic greens, vegetables, and fruits, healthy fats, and quality proteins.
Repopulate the beneficial bacteria in your gut with the help of probiotic supplements to create a healthy gut flora balance that protects your gut wall and your immune system as a whole.
Providing the nutrients necessary to help reduce gut inflammation is essential. My most comprehensive weapon against leaky gut is To repair a leaky gut, I custom formulated Leaky Gut Revive®, which contains powerful gut-repairing ingredients such as l-glutamine, aloe, deglycyrrhizinated licorice, arabinogalactan, slippery elm, and marshmallow root. After working with thousands of patients with leaky gut. Leaky Gut Revive® is the perfect supplement for supporting a healthy gut lining.
Now that you understand how your gut plays a role in skin health, let’s discuss how you can treat the inflammation triggering your eczema, reverse the symptoms, and prevent flares. Here are the most helpful tips I give my patients who are struggling with chronic eczema.
1. Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
If you already eat a whole-foods based diet with organic fruits and vegetables and pasture-raised meats, you may have underlying food sensitivities triggering eczema. In fact, in children with eczema this is the most common underlying cause.3
In this case, I recommend avoiding inflammatory foods such as gluten, corn, soy, and dairy. Instead, focus on adding foods high in antioxidants, such as richly colored fruits and vegetables. In addition, there are foods with anti-inflammatory compounds including wild-caught fatty fish, nuts, avocados, and turmeric.
Some cases of eczema are so extreme, they need to remove meats that were fed a corn and soy diet. To avoid this, look for grass-fed, wild and pasture-raised meats and poultry. Studies show that diets high in fruits, vegetables, and fatty fish are associated with a lower risk for developing eczema,4 whereas diets full of processed foods increase the risk of eczema flares.
2. Eat a Low-Histamine Diet
If you or your child already follow an anti-inflammatory diet and are still struggling with eczema, the next foods to look at are high-histamine foods. You might already be familiar with histamine because antihistamine medications for allergies such as Zytrec, Allegra, or Benadryl provide quick relief of your symptoms.
Histamine’s role in the body is to cause an immediate inflammatory response. It serves as a red flag in your immune system, notifying your body of any potential attackers. Because it travels throughout your bloodstream, histamine can affect your gut, lungs, skin, brain, and entire cardiovascular system, contributing to a wide range of symptoms, including digestive issues, mood swings, and eczema.5
A number of healthy foods are high in histamine or release histamine in your body. Foods such as avocados, eggplant, spinach, tomatoes, bacon, and dried fruits or citrus which you may be eating regularly. I’ve seen many patients and their skin health make a dramatic turnaround after removing these foods.
3. Restore Your Microbiome
There is a lot of buzz in the medical community about how the gut microbiome can affect nearly every function in the body, from digestion to immunity, weight loss, mental health and more. Every day, more information is uncovered about the importance of maintaining balanced levels of gut bacteria.
Tackle Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth
The trillions of bacteria in your gut operate in a delicate balance. When that balance is disrupted, Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) can occur. This is when “bad” bacteria outnumber “good” bacteria in your gut. Overrun by infection, your gut no longer digests nutrients properly. Inflammation then rises and attacks your own tissues, including your skin.
Diets high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods, and low in fermentable fibers (prebiotics) can contribute to this overgrowth.
If you think SIBO may be the cause of your eczema, you can take this quiz to find out.
Beat Yeast Overgrowth
A disruption in your gut bacteria can also allow a yeast known as Candida, to thrive. When Candida over-colonizes your gut, it can become leaky, allowing the yeast to escape via your bloodstream. Once escaped, this yeast can affect your mood, hair, nails, and you guessed it, skin. In fact, researchers have taken skin cultures of eczema patients and more often than not, yeast was found in the samples.6
Two of the most common causes of yeast overgrowth are antibiotics and immunosuppressant drugs. These are both commonly prescribed to eczema patients.
If you think Candida overgrowth may be the cause of your eczema, you can take this simple quiz to find out.
I understand that identifying these root causes and making dietary and lifestyle changes to overcome them is a long-term solution. That’s why in my follow-up article, I write about how you can ease eczema symptoms in the meantime, protect your skin barrier, and address the environmental factors that contribute to uncomfortable symptoms.
- What is Eczema. National Eczema Association.
- Asthma and Eczema: Is There a Link?. Kristeen Cherney. Healthline. 2020.
- Food Allergy and Children with Eczema. Catie Coman. Nationa Eczema Association. 2017.
- A Traditional Diet Is Associated with a Reduced Risk of Eczema and Wheeze in Columbian Children. Alfonso M Cepeda, Stefano R Del Giacco, Sara, Villalba, Elmy Tapias, Rodolfo Jaller, Ana Maria Segura, Gloria Reyes, James Pottos, Vanessa Garcia-Larsen. NCBI. 2015.
- The Role of Histamine and Histamine Receptors in Mast Cell-Mediated Allergy adn Inflammation: The Hunt for New Therapeutic Targets. Elden Berla Thangam, Ebenezer Angel Jemima, Himadri Singh, Mirza Saqib Baig, Mahejibin Khan, Clinton B. Mathias, Martin K Church, Rohit Saluja. Frontiers in Immunology. 2018.
- Atopic Dermatitis and Fungi. Jan Faergemann. NCBI. 2002.