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Eating to Calm Eczema Flare-Ups

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Parenthood is a doorway to the most rewarding, challenging, and often worrying stage of a person’s life. The first time your child gets sick or hurt is an introduction to an utterly new level of stress.

When your child falls ill for the first time, you also begin your education on what to do, how to help, and when to seek the help of others.

Eczema: A Not-So-Great Discovery

As an infant, my daughter (now almost nine and fitting into her mother’s shoes) developed angry red splotches on her face and legs. Our pediatrician informed us this was likely eczema, also called atopic dermatitis or AD.

There are several different eczema types, including AD, the most common form, and dyshidrotic eczema, which causes small, itchy blisters.1Eczema Prevalence, Quality of Life, and Economic Impact. National Eczema Association. Accessed November 13, 2023. https://nationaleczema.org/research/eczema-facts We didn’t know much about eczema, so the journey to help our daughter began.

According to the National Eczema Association (NEA), over 31 million Americans have some form of eczema (about 9.6 million children and adolescents under age 18 have AD). A third of those diagnoses are considered moderate to severe. Also alarming: The number of children diagnosed with eczema has almost doubled since 1997, increasing from 8% to 15%.2Eczema (atopic dermatitis): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment. National Eczema Association. Accessed November 9, 2023. https://nationaleczema.org/eczema

What Is Eczema, Exactly?

Boston Children’s Hospital defines eczema as a chronic and relapsing inflammatory skin condition. Children with eczema often experience dry, itchy, and scaly skin that never entirely goes away. They also tend to have an environmental or food allergy.3What Is Eczema? Boston Children’s Hospital. Accessed November 13, 2023. https://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions/eczema

My daughter is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, which we discovered through allergy testing after she developed a severe rash from eating peanut butter. She has outgrown her allergy to eggs.

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When Does Eczema Show Up?

Boston Children’s found that 65% of children show signs of eczema in their first year. Ninety percent show signs within their first five years. Parents with eczema are also more likely to have children with eczema.4What Is Eczema? Boston Children’s Hospital. Accessed November 13, 2023. https://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions/eczema

The Rise of Ultra-Processed Foods

Because our daughter suffers from both eczema and food allergies, her mom and I wondered whether certain foods could be triggering her eczema symptoms.

With food being an essential building block in a person’s life, and chronic conditions like eczema becoming more frequently diagnosed, the study of their correlation has grown exponentially over the past few decades. What has also become apparent is how different the modern diet is from just 50 years ago.

A 2022 study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found the average American diet now includes a substantial amount of ultra-processed foods (UPFs).5Juul, F, Parekh, N, Martinez-Steele, E, Monteiro, CA, Chang, VW. Ultra-processed food consumption among U.S. adults from 2001 to 2018. AJCN. 2022;115(1). https://ajcn.nutrition.org/article/S0002-9165(22)00125-3/fulltext That quantity has steadily increased over the past 20 years.

Whereas the typical American diet once mostly comprised whole foods, a study in the British Medical Journal found 58% of calories in the U.S. diet now come from UPFs.6Martínez-Steele E, Baraldi LG, Louzada MLDC, et al. Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open 2016;6:e009892. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2015-009892

Another telling fact published in JAMA Pediatrics: Children born outside the United States have a 50% lower risk of developing AD, which increases if they move to and live in the States for 10 years.7Silverberg JI, Simpson EL, Durkin HG, Joks R. Prevalence of allergic disease in foreign-born American children. JAMA Pediatr. 2013;167(6):554-560. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.1319

UPFs on Our Shelves

So, what are UPFs? Simply put, they are foods modified with additional sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors or preservatives.

UPFs are mostly made with substances extracted from foods, like starches, sugars, and hydrogenated fats. Think about chips, cookies, or snack cakes—packaged products unrecognizable from their origins. With ingredients that read more like a chemistry book than a cookbook, UPFs prioritize shelf life over health benefits.

The most popular UPFs are easily accessible in any supermarket, convenience store, or fast food restaurant:

  • Processed meat, like cold cuts and hot dogs
  • Frozen meals
  • Soft drinks
  • Cereal, chips, and crackers

Food Allergies Are on the Rise

Dr. Josephine (Pina) LoGiudice, ND, LAc, owner of InnerSource Wellness and Acupuncture, PC, specializes in natural medicine and nutrition. As UPFs become more prevalent in the American diet, Dr. LoGiudice has seen a rise in food allergies and atopic disorders in general. “Rates of eczema in 1970 used to be 1 and 15,” she notes. “Now they’re 1 in 5.”

She adds that the “rise in C-section rates contributes to a dysbiotic microbiome (gut), along with food sensitivities and intolerances, early food introduction, environmental toxin burden, stress, nutrient deficient soils, antibiotic overuse, and of course, the prevalence of processed/fake foods.”

Managing Eczema at Home

A member of the Holistic Moms Association and Holistic Pediatric Association, Dr. LoGiudice prioritizes proper nutrition to fuel the body’s vast network of systems. “First and foremost, I always encourage a whole foods-based diet full of fruits and veggies,” she says. “Food is information for the body, similar to a computer chip. Food can turn on and off good and bad genes, so if a diet is filled with processed foods, the body is not getting the right information on how to function and heal.”

The NEA has pointed out a potential link between inflammatory foods and eczema flares, though the connection is poorly understood. However, what you eat also affects the health of your skin, your body’s largest organ.8Crane MW. Understanding inflammation’s role in atopic dermatitis. NEA. Accessed November 9, 2023. https://nationaleczema.org/blog/inflammation-atopic

My wife and I are always trying to improve our family’s diet. Because we both work, that’s easier said than done—especially at the end of the day (when kids are hungry and often cranky).

Broiled salmon with vegetables on plate

One reasonably simple goal is keeping foods that fight inflammation on hand and incorporating them into everyday meals. Likewise, we try to avoid saturated fat, refined grains, and sugar.

Stocking the fridge with anti-inflammatory food takes a little planning, but we always have blueberries, tomatoes, and leafy green vegetables, like kale or collards, on hand. My daughter loves fish, so we plan to start cooking more mackerel and wild-caught salmon. Both are packed with omega-3 fatty acids.

We’re also eliminating foods that aren’t real and leaning toward a Mediterranean diet, heavy on fruits, vegetables, legumes, and plant-based oils.

Dietary and Probiotic Supplements for Eczema Relief

Along with a healthier, whole-food diet, parents can treat eczema symptoms with specific nutrients, vitamins, and dietary supplements. Dr. LoGiudice suggests adding essential fatty acids, zinc, bioflavonoids, a probiotic supplement, vitamin D, a high-quality multivitamin/mineral, and homeopathy to your child’s diet to fight inflammation.

Variety of fresh vegetables

“Most of these have been studied to improve the impact of eczema on the body,” says Dr. LoGiudice. “I would also encourage stress management for the mother (if nursing) and child and an appropriate sleep schedule, along with sufficient exercise for age-appropriate children.”

She recommends starting with a hypoallergenic diet and eliminating refined sugars and processed food from the family menu.

A breastfeeding mom can modify her diet to decrease cytokines (inflammation-regulating proteins) that transfer to a child through breast milk. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and nuts helps keep inflammation at bay.

“I would then assess the child’s microbiome, along with determining factors in the child’s life that could contribute to leaky gut/gut permeability,” says Dr. LoGiudice. “I’d also encourage the family to use natural products to help support the skin’s microbiome and heal the tissue.”

Improve Your Child’s Skin Health

Several studies cited by the NEA found that 80% of children will “outgrow” their AD by adolescence or adulthood.9Kim JP, Chao LX, Simpson EL, Silverberg JI. Persistence of atopic dermatitis (AD): a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;75(4):681-687.e11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2016.05.028 Children diagnosed at a younger age with more severe eczema and those who live in an urban environment are more likely to have eczema throughout their lives.10Irvine AD, Mina-Osorio P. Disease trajectories in childhood atopic dermatitis: an update and practitioner’s guide. Br J Dermatol. 2019;181(5):895-906. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjd.17766,11Margolis JS, Abuabara K, Bilker W, Hoffstad O, Margolis DJ. Persistence of mild to moderate atopic dermatitis. JAMA Dermatol. 2014;150(6):593-600. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.10271,12Wan J, Mitra N, Hoffstad OJ, Yan AC, Margolis DJ. Longitudinal atopic dermatitis control and persistence vary with timing of disease onset in children: a cohort study. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019;81(6):1292-1299. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2019.05.016

In today’s fast-moving world, UPFs offer convenience, but they come with a cost beyond what you pay at the store. Leaving UPFs on the shelf may be the first step in relieving your child’s eczema, and an anti-inflammatory, whole-food diet will benefit the entire family.

Footnotes

This article is provided by

The Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. INM’s mission is to transform health care in the United States by increasing public awareness of natural medicine and access to naturopathic doctors. Naturopathic medicine, with its person-centered principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness overwhelming healthcare systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain optimal lifelong health. INM strives to fulfil this mission through the following initiatives:

  • Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of evidence-based natural medicine
  • Access – Connect patients to licensed naturopathic doctors
  • Research – Expand quality research on this complex and comprehensive system of medicine

About The Author(s)

Josh Fernatt

A writer/editor within FEMA’s Community Engagement and Risk Communication contract, Josh has worked as a technical writer and editor for the past 20 years. He specializes in translating technical content into plain language that is useful to the general public.

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