Eczema, which is also known as dermatitis, is thought to affect one in five children and one in twelve adults in the UK. It’s a non-contagious inflammatory skin condition that can present in many different forms and vary hugely from individual to individual. The skin can range from dry, scaly and itchy to weeping and bleeding. It can be inherited and has a strong link to other inflammatory conditions such as asthma, rhinitis and hay fever. When the signs of eczema appear it’s important to identify the root cause of the problem and work to address it, to support the body to find a resolution. Main triggers include external irritants including perfumes, washing powders, toiletries, paint, dust mites and pet hairs and research suggests 80% of sufferers have an underlying food intolerance, which can affect digestive health and immune function.
Here are some top nutritious and lifestyle tips that may be beneficial:
- Food allergens/sensitivities – If eczema develops in early childhood there’s a strong link to cows’ milk and dairy products being a trigger. This can also be transferred via breast milk so breastfeeding mothers should also avoid it. Other common triggers are eggs, citrus and wheat. It’s also worthwhile avoiding/reducing exposure to preservatives, additives, food colourings and refined sugary foods.
- Top Tip: Parents could consider keeping a food and symptom diary to identify potential triggers and can also test for food intolerances and/or try an elimination/rotation diet.
- Omega 3 essential fatty acids – Research has shown that individuals with eczema have altered fatty acid metabolism and low levels of omega-3’s, which is essential for dampening down inflammation in the body.
- Top Tip: Include oily fish, such as sardines, salmon or herrings 2-3 times a week and perhaps get children making mackerel pate for snack time. Families could also consider a supplement rich in EPA and DHA. Avoid foods made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils like margarine and baked goods as these can increase inflammatory pathways in the body.
- Zinc – Low zinc is common in eczema. Zinc is required for fatty acid metabolism and therefore beneficial for reducing inflammation, cell growth and immunity.
- Top Tip: Include zinc rich foods such as fish, seeds, nuts, and chicken.
- Liver support – As the liver is the significant cleansing organ of the body, it’s valuable to focus on foods which support it to work efficiently to clear the skin.
- Top Tip: Liver-friendly foods include bitter foods such as rocket, lemon, beetroot, dark green or red leaves, garlic and radish. Cruciferous vegetables also support liver function and include broccoli, cauliflower, kale and Brussel sprouts.
- Vitamin E – Low levels of vitamin E are associated with slow skin healing and research highlights that 60% of individuals who supplemented across an 8 month period saw a significant improvement in their eczema.
- Top Tip: Increase vitamin E rich foods such as avocados, nuts, sweet potato, seeds and spinach.
- Eat a rainbow – Orange coloured fruits and vegetables are particularly beneficial as they contain beta-carotene, which can support skin health.
- Top Tip: Include sweet potato, butternut squash, melon, peppers, carrots, apricots and mango
- Vitamin D –Important for regulating the immune system, and reducing inflammation.
- Top Tip: Get children outside every day for some sun exposure. Foods like oily fish, eggs and cheese contain small quantities of vitamin D. Parents could consider testing and supplementation.
- Pre and probiotics – These support our immune system as 70-80% of immune cells are found in and around our intestines. Probiotics help to populate the digestive system with beneficial bacteria, whilst prebiotics help to feed said bacteria.
- Top Tip: Try prebiotic and probiotic foods including cottage cheese, olives, kefir, yoghurt, sour dough, banana, chicory and leeks. Parents could also consider a probiotic supplement.
- Minimise environmental triggers – reducing exposure to airborne allergens may be beneficial.
- Top Tip: Consider introducing hypoallergenic bedding, air filters, or wooden flooring.
- Stress and exercise – Stress can exacerbate symptoms so stress management techniques including exercise can be beneficial.
- Top Tip: Plan exercise for children daily and consider incorporating some mindfulness/relaxation into their day to support nervous system balance.
As with any condition, utilising a range of strategies can be hugely beneficial in helping to identify the root cause and manage signs and symptoms. As a childcare professional, being aware of different approaches can be invaluable and also help to educate parents.
About the author
The Food Teacher, Katharine Tate, has worked as a teacher and education consultant internationally in primary and secondary schools for over 20 years. Qualified as a registered nutritional therapist, Katharine, combines her unique education and nutrition expertise to offer schools, organisations and families advice, education programmes, practical workshops, and individual/family clinical consultations. Katharine also presents The Food Teacher show on UK Health Radio where she discusses the importance of food for health and wellbeing.
She has published 2 books: ‘Heat-Free & Healthy’ and the award-winning ‘No Kitchen Cookery for Primary Schools’. Look out for The Food Teacher at Food Festivals and events throughout the country during 2016.