Can food choices fight eczema?

by Oct 31, 2017Blog, Lifestyle

In 1925 my eight-year-old grandpa and his family boarded the “Barrabool”, a Scottish ship bound for the warmer climates of Australia. The reason? My pa’s body was so affected by eczema that he permanently had some parts of his body wrapped in bandages, and it was believed that the Australian sun would boost his vitamin D levels and heal his tattered body. Unfortunately, due to a series of circumstances, they settled in Victoria – not the best place for a vitamin D boost.

The “vitamin D hypothesis” as it’s known, still stands to this day – and hasn’t yet been proven one way or another. We certainly know that countries in regions on a higher latitude certainly have significantly more cases of eczema. But interestingly, results of studies where people receive vitamin D supplements in an effort to treat eczema show mixed results.

If you google ‘eczema diet’ you’ll receive a wide range of theories about how different foods (and supplements) can treat or exacerbate eczema, a skin condition that can cause itchiness, dry red skin and other symptoms.  As it’s a popular concern for mums and other people that I see in my clinic, I took the time to review the evidence of some of the more popular ones….

Does a healthy diet help?

Some research suggests that a diet high in fast food may increase the risk of eczema, especially in children who consume it regularly (three times per week or more). This is another reason why fast food intake should be limited.

Do organic foods help?

Research has not found that organic foods are any more protective against eczema than other types of nutritious foods, so when it comes to eczema it’s more important to focus on consuming a nutritious diet than on more expensive organic foods.

Can omega 3 help improve eczema?

Although there’s not enough evidence to make it certain, it seems that a diet rich in omega-3 fats is one of the best dietary strategies known for improving eczema. Unfortunately there are still a lot of unanswered questions such as how much omega 3 people need to improve their eczema. It’s believed that omega 3 may be beneficial because of its known powerful anti-inflammatory effect which may help to minimise flare ups. Leading dermatologist associate professor John Su explains “in animal models, it has been found to potentially benefit the immune system, to both prevent the development of antibodies (protein molecules mediating allergy) to some foods and to reduce the severity of allergic reactions”. Unless you have a seafood allergy, aim for regular (2-3 times per week) consumption of omega 3-rich fish such as salmon.

Would you recommend evening primrose oil?

Although the evidence hasn’t shown any clear benefits for taking evening primrose oil, some people believe that it has improved their eczema. Associate professor Su cautions “A major medical review did not find evidence to support the effectiveness of evening primrose oil in the treatment of eczema but suggested that it could in fact produce mild, short-term gastrointestinal side effects. It has also been associated with some other possible side effects like drug interactions, blood thinning and seizures.” So if you plan to trial a course of it, do so under the guidance of a health practitioner and keep an eye open for these types of side effects.

Would you recommend probiotics?

Research has found that our gut microflora impacts our immune defence systems, and consequently impacts upon eczema risk and severity. As a result it is thought that probiotics may be a beneficial treatment for eczema.  However Su highlights “The ideal combination of bacteria strain(s) in probiotics, the timing for it, and the duration of therapy is unknown”. Thankfully, lots of research is currently being undertaken in this area.

What about other nutritional supplements?

Selenium is a popular supplement for people with eczema as some studies have found that people with eczema often have low levels of the nutrient. However, when researchers have undertaken trials to see if selenium supplements provide improvement, the results so far have found that it doesn’t seem to make any difference.

Another popular nutritional supplement is zinc. The theory behind this is that our body uses zinc to boost immunity and control inflammation. One study found an improvement in eczema in people who had a diagnosed zinc deficiency. However, other studies show little improvement for people who have eczema, so it’s not a common recommendation.

Associate professor Su says “There is evidence for benefits of certain dietary measures in aspects of allergy prevention and management.” These include, he summarises:

• Dietary manipulation in cases of established food allergy or intolerance;

• The recent changes in infant feeding guidelines allowing earlier, cautious and gradual introduction of allergenic foods to infants without known allergies, in an attempt to allow babies to learn to tolerate these foods; and

• Encouraging breast feeding as a means of protection against eczema

“There is, however, much lay dietary advice that lacks scientific basis and that can be potentially harmful, so seeking advice from an expert can be valuable. More scientific studies are also required,” he says.

You can see that diet is an important factor when managing the symptoms of eczema in some people. However, even those who do benefit, a change in diet should be used in combination with treatments recommended by your health professional such as good skin care routines and prescribed medication.

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