Eczema HACKS

June arrived and my eczema was still terrible. Summer is usually my best skin season, when longer days and humid air gives my skin a chance to suck up extra vitamin D and moisture. But on the eve of the summer solstice, I was still covered in full-body rashes that, like nothing else, make me feel crazy. They also make it hard, sometimes even impossible to sleep, making me feel zombie-like to boot.

I’ve had eczema all my life, with the strange exception of my adolescent years–I suppose my skin enjoyed all those fluctuating teenage hormones. And I’ve seen many doctors, from pediatricians to dermatologists, from general practitioners to nurse practitioners, and they have all prescribed the same thing: a topical steroid ointment (triamcinolone) and over-the-counter antihistamine pills like Benadryl. But don’t take too much of either, the doctors usually warn. The steroid can thin your skin and the antihistamines won’t be as effective. 

The past few years have engendered a lot of change for me, including moving from New York to Boston, falling in love with a life partner, moving from Boston to New York and in with my life partner, changing jobs several times, launching a startup, ramping down the startup, and starting to teach both graduate school students and middle school kids. Unsurprisingly, I’ve had many eczema flare-ups in this time; I remember my life partner, on one dry winter night as he treated my rash-covered back with the topical steroid, saying that my back looked like it had skidded on the street in a car accident. Serious road rash. 

I could have gone to the doctor to ask for stronger steroids and antihistamines, but I hated the idea of taking stronger and stronger drugs, especially as I’m still relatively young (though, as my best friend puts it, certainly no spring chicken). I want to save the strong drugs for really acute problems. I’ve never been comfortable with, nor have I had great experiences with, the long term use of drugs for chronic issues. 

So I spent many already sleepless, itchy nights looking up natural ways to deal with eczema. This extended to looking up natural ways to deal with high levels of histamine. I resolved to improve my eczema. I’m happy to report that as of October, my skin has improved enormously, all through changes in diet, air, water, and outdoor exposure. 

Diet was perhaps the most important change. I’ve stopped eating nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers), and I’ve minimized my intake of fermented and preserved foods. This includes beer, wine, pickled things, kombucha (which was particularly dramatic as I’d been a kombucha homebrewer), sausage, other cured meats, and most meat substitutes like tofu and switch. I avoid MSG, which is usually produced by fermentation. I try to minimize gluten. Finally, I try to minimize seafood: when I started paying attention, I realized that many seafoods trigger a histamine reaction like hives. I should probably also eat less sugar, so as not to feed certain kinds of gut bacteria, but I love sweets and haven’t noticed a dramatic change from reducing them–though I will admit I have never been able to eliminate them completely. In the end, I found the diet outlined by this article, at the web site Paleo Leap, to be the most effective in reducing my eczema flare-ups:

As a nearly indescriminate food lover, I do miss all the foods I now avoid. Knowing that I will be itchy later, I sometimes allow myself a tiny bite or sip of my forbidden if I’m not eating alone–and eating socially is perhaps the only time in which I’m exposed to foods outside my “modified paleo” diet. Fortunately, my partner and I eat mostly fresh foods most of the time, so other than giving up kombucha, the diet change wasn’t that difficult. When you’re rashes are so bad that they are weeping, you’re willing to try anything. 

There are a lot of theories as to what certain foods do in the body, and why cutting out certain foods is better for your body. I don’t really want to weigh in on that debate other than to say that after a lot of trial and error, I realized that I have a number of food sensitivities, if not exactly food allergies. I was stressing my body by eating all these foods to which I was sensitive, thus triggering something like an acute allergy response, exacerbating the histamine response of hives, which on my body often leads in eczema. 

While I was transitioning to my new diet, I used a food supplement called diamine oxydase, which is a protein that counteracts histamine. I used a brand called Histamine. Because the supplement is expensive– more than twenty dollars for forty capsules– and because I’d read that the supplement was not that helpful in the long term, I only used it at the beginning of my diet transition, especially since I happened to be traveling for a couple of weeks and couldn’t control my diet as closely as I do at home. 

On the way to this diet, I undertook a number of other experiments to improve my eczema, many of which were unsuccessful. Late last spring, I noticed that my skin improved while I was taking antibiotics for a persistent sinus infection; this led me to believe that my eczema was exacerbated by a bacterial imbalance. So, based on some reading in the New York Times, I tried a very mild bleach bath. I’ve also tried Epsom salt baths, Dead Sea salt and kelp baths (which I call my “sea simulation”), and oatmeal baths. Most of these skin treatments resulted in minor or no improvement, and many times these improvements were offset by the fact that showers and baths in and of themselves tend to make me itchy. (That said, I do intend to continue using Epsom salt for body aches and constipation, and my “sea simulation” bath in the cold months when there is no chance of going near a beach, see more below.) I even tried using homemade ghee (clarified butter) on my skin, but the animal protein smell and feel of the butter made me feel quite odd, and there was no skin improvement to offset the odd feeling. 

Another failed experiment involved sprouting peas in the dark to cultivate diamine oxidase at home. This enzyme, called DAO for short, is found in animal intestines–which is where it is harvested for Histame–and organisms undergoing rapid growth, like sprouting legumes. The rationale behind sprouting peas in the dark is that a lack of sun will make the peas work harder to grow, and this produce more DAO. The peas are suspended in water instead of soil to keep them cleaner. The trouble is that the peas decompose in standing water, which necessitates the water to be changed and the peas to be washed at least twice a day to avoid a rotting stench. This was just too much maintenance for me, and after forgetting the peas during a weekend trip and returning to some of the worst-smells we’ve ever had in our kitchen, I gave up on pea sprouting– all without ever having successfully eaten any home-sprouted peas. 

I also experimented with fish oil and liquid vitamins. I already take vitamin D for my skin and hair, and magnesium + calcium to offset the effects of pre-menstrual symptoms. Neither the the fish oil and the liquid vitamins, which I tried for the purpose of more rapid uptake by the body, produced noticeable results. 

There were other minor changes to my air and water intake that seemed to yield minor, but noticeable improvements. In the early summer, after switching from an open bedroom window (which is on the second floor facing a residential Brooklyn street) to an air conditioner, my skin improved immediately. This lead my partner, who was always sympathetic and kind about my issue even when I was the equivalent of an angry zombie, to purchase an air purifier for our bedroom. I didn’t notice much improvement with the air purifier, perhaps because an air conditioner was already installed, but especially when our room gets a bit dusty or when the window is open to some of the outdoor pollution from passing cars, the air purifier goes to work, and I’m grateful to have the added help. Based on the whole purification theory, I also purchased a cheap, tri-filtering shower head that is supposed to soften our very hard, copper-heavy tap water. When the shower is running, the water runs through three layers of beads that ostensibly remove particles, remove hard minerals, and add hydrating salt. I didn’t notice any dramatic improvements with the shower head, but I didn’t notice any negative effects, and it’s so fun to see the heads whirling in the showerhead that we continue to use it. 

Finally, the other “eczema hack” I tried, which was almost as dramatically successful as changing my diet, was “beach therapy.” I am fortunate to live only forty minutes from Coney Island, and we were fortunate to have a long, hot, mostly sunny summer, so for much of the season I aimed to go to the beach two to four times a week. I used to avoid swimming (or really bathing, as I’m not a great swimmer and I get rather lazy in the water) at the beach, but after reading about the positive effects of sea water on skin and hair, and after being driven to bathe in the ocean on a particularly sweltering day followed by my first non-itchy shower in months, I was convinced that a session of beach therapy required a 10-20 minute dip in the ocean. 

On really hot days, ocean bathing, combined with a bit of sunbathing and a day of eating mostly raw vegetables and fruits, left me feeling something pretty close to amazing– I wasn’t itchy, I was slim enough to fit into my summer shorts, and I was getting a great tan, not to mention healthy levels of vitamin D, magnesium, sodium, and other good minerals. I also often enjoyed a nap on the train ride to or from the beach, often slumped over the shoulder of my partner, who, when he joined for beach excursions, helped to keep me warm. 

But summer doesn’t last forever. Even in late summer, staying warm became a challenge–I catch chills easily, and I’ve gotten sick more than once from being too wet and cold. By mid-September, ocean bathing was no longer an option if I wanted to avoid catching a chill. It’s early October now, and I haven’t been to the beach in a couple of weeks; instead, I’m a little more vigilant with my vitamins, and I try to get sun through the window when I do my morning yoga. I want to bike to nearby Erie Basin (IKEA) Park more often, for there is high sun exposure and low crowd count there, but my fall has been quite busy, and the recent Hurricane Joaquin has dropped a spate of cloudy, rainy days– though thankfully no major storms or flooding. 

So with less sun, sand, and salt exposure, I do find myself a bit itchier than I was at the height of the summer, but so far it’s been tolerable. As the temperature decreases, I also eat fewer raw foods, which don’t warm my body enough in the winter. My fingers are crossed that the suite of the solutions I found this summer will hold me through the winter; if that happens, I will consider myself significantly fortunate, since the winters have been very hard on my aging skin for the last few years. If nothing else, a group of friends and I sensibly, wonderfully planned a trip to Puerto Rico in mid-January. What will I be doing there? Eating as many raw fruit and vegetables as possible and lying on the beach, of course!