Throughout your career as an early years professional, it is very likely that you will have at least one child in your care that suffers with eczema. It can be distressing for many children, and for some – in severe cases – painful. You and everyone in your team all play a key role in helping parents care for their child’s skin and trying to reduce the discomfort of eczema.
Eczema (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 presents itself in many different forms and it varies hugely from individual to individual. Affected skin can range from dry, scaly and itchy to weeping and bleeding. It can be hereditary (although not always) and has a strong link to other inflammatory conditions such as asthma, rhinitis and hay fever.
Here are some top lifestyle and nutritional tips that may be beneficial in your setting – you can share these with parents too!
When the signs of eczema appear, it’s important to identify the root cause of the problem and work to address it, to help support the body to find a resolution. Main triggers include external irritants like perfumes, washing powders, toiletries, paint, dust mites and pet hairs; and research suggests that 80% of sufferers have an underlying food intolerance, which can affect digestive health and immune function.
If needed – and with a little imagination – some of the more unusual foods listed here can be ‘hidden’ and incorporated into your regular recipes for meals and snacks!
Food allergens/sensitivities – If eczema develops in early childhood, there’s a strong link to suggest that cows’ milk (and dairy products in general) are 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 or 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, test for food intolerances and/or try an elimination/rotation diet.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids – Research has shown that individuals with eczema have an altered fatty acid metabolism and low levels of omega-3, which are essential for reducing inflammation in the body.
Top Tip: Try and include oily fish, such as sardines, salmon or herrings into your weekly menu 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 cell growth, immunity and reducing inflammation.
Top Tip: Include zinc rich foods into your meals and snacks – 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 that can be incorporated into your diet 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 Brussels sprouts.
Vitamin E – Low levels of vitamin E are associated with slow skin healing and research highlights that individuals who take in extra vitamin E see 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 at meals and snack times.
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 but if a child is deficient, parents could consider a supplement.
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, using a variety 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 all the different approaches can be invaluable, not only within your setting but to help to educate parents too.
The above list of food and tips has been kindly provided by Katharine Tate, “The Food Teacher”.
We have designed some allergy placemat templates for you to use, if any of the children in your setting suffer from food allergies.
Download our free allergy placemat templates here.