Eczema: Discovering the Root Cause
I was recently approached by Jenny Leak Miller from Pool Mom to share some advice for babies suffering from eczema especially during bath time. Specialists often recommend limiting or reducing the amount of time spent in baths or the pool because water can aggravate eczema prone skin. But time in the water is important for kids to learn to feel comfortable, especially in babyhood. Jenny wondered, is it possible to treat eczema so that it doesn’t interfere (as much) with important time spent in the water? What should parents consider about a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach to eczema?
My immediate thought, it’s an internal issue. Water is not the cause of eczema––it may be exacerbating the problem but there’s a much deeper issue here.
I wanted to share what I wrote for Pool Mom because eczema is such a common aggravation; it doesn’t matter if you are an infant or an adult, this information still applies and I’d love for as many people to have it!
I’d like to begin by thanking Jenny for asking me to share some thoughts about how Eczema is thought about differently in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Chinese medicine views any skin disorder as the result of an imbalance within the body that affects overall health. It is believed that internal organ* disharmony of the Spleen, Lungs, Stomach, Heart, as well as Blood, combined with external pathogenic factors like wind and heat can cause eczema.
*It’s important to note that in TCM “organs” are not the same as the specific organs as we know them in Western culture. In Chinese medicine “organs” are thought of a combination of systems that perform specific tasks in our bodies.
In Chinese medicine, there are many different types of eczema, and the characteristics of the skin are clues to the imbalance that is happening inside of the body. For example:
- Invasion of Wind: Skin disorders are characterized by their sudden appearance and itching
- Accumulation of Dampness: Skin becomes puffy, bloated, or weepy
- Too much Heat in the Blood: Skin has a burning sensation, is red, dry, or swollen.
Different combinations of these internal pathogens (Wind, Dampness, Heat) produce different forms of eczema. For example, if the skin is weeping and hot, the cause is likely to be Damp-Heat.
In both infants and children, the most common type of eczema is caused by Damp-Heat, a result of having a weak Spleen and Stomach. Now you may be wondering, how is it possible at such a young age to have an imbalance of organ function? And the answer––food! Chinese medicine holds food as a major culprit for internal balances of our bodies.
It can begin with the mom when she eats too many fatty, spicy, fried or sweet foods, or overindulges in fish/seafood. These eating habits will contribute to the mom developing a weak Spleen. This may occur before pregnancy, or it can develop during pregnancy as well as while breastfeeding. When the mom’s Spleen is weak it does not produce enough energy (Qi) and that insufficient energy is passed along to the baby, causing the baby’s Spleen function to become impaired at a young age.
What does this mean for the baby? A week Spleen cannot take the food and fluids that are consumed and transform them into usable energy. Instead, Dampness and Heat combine (called Damp-Heat), and together they start to accumulate internally. Dampness and Heat are unhealthy forms of energy that are capable of causing disease if not treated properly and balanced out. When there is too much Damp-Heat for the baby’s body to handle, in this case, it eventually gets pushed outward and gets trapped in the skin––causing eczema lesions.
It’s important to note that the child’s eating habits will also play an important role in eczema developing and how quickly. Certain food can provoke this skin disorder such as:
Too much sugar, starch, or dairy products: Refined carbohydrate foods and dairy are classified in TCM as Dampness generating food in the body, which may present as weepy/oozing or blistering skin.
Hot spicy food: Spicy foods can cause more dryness due to its nature and ability to consume fluids, resulting in too much Heat internally. Fluids are the body’s source of energy that nourishes and moisten the skin.
Too many fatty or greasy foods: Fatty and greasy food inhibits the body to produce enough Spleen and Stomach energy (Qi), resulting in weakened Spleen and Stomach functions.
Remember––the baby started off with a weakened Spleen due to insufficient energy from its mom. If the child consumes too much dairy, sweet or spicy foods, this diet continues to weaken the Spleen further, resulting in more Dampness and Heat which causes more eczema outbreaks. Yikes, it’s a vicious circle!
This internal development of Wind, Heat, and/or Dampness is one direct way eczema can develop, but it isn’t the only way. Like Western medicine, Chinese medicine also recognizes airborne/respiratory allergies––dust mites, mold, seasonal pollens, animal dander, etc.––as possible causes for eczema and are considered during a treatment consultation. TCM treats eczema with acupuncture and herbal medicine, but it also believes food therapy is a very important preventative measure for eczema outbreaks and part of the treatment process during its recurrent stages.
What is food therapy? Food therapy is the process of reducing or eliminating some foods while increasing the intake of others.
In order to get the most out of food therapy, it is important to determine which internal pathogen is more predominant: Damp or Heat. More weepy or oozing lesions indicate more Dampness. When Heat predominates, there may be more redness, but there will also be more itching and dryness. Chubbier babies who tend to sweat more tend to be prone to a Damp condition. Their eczema will likely have more oozing and the lesions will form yellow crusts when they dry. Thinner or weaker babies have a tendency to develop the drier type of eczema where Heat is more predominant. This type of eczema will have drier lesions with flaky crusts that look like they have white or gray “bran-like” scales on top. The skin might crack or get bloody scabs if scratching is intense. In infants who are dependent on formula or in children who eat a lot of sugary foods, milk, and dairy products, fatty or greasy foods, there will also be an underlying weakness of Spleen and Stomach function. The TCM pattern of Damp-Heat accounts for most cases of acute eczema regardless of the age of the patient.
However, the TCM pattern of Heat in the Blood is also a possibility during the childhood phase as well as the adolescent/adult phase. Though some Damp-Heat may also be present, this pattern presents as the drier type of eczema, with more redness and even more intense itching.
Once you have distinguished what type of eczema is presenting itself, it’s time to utilize food therapy.
AVOID or drastically reduce foods that may cause Dampness in the body. Foods such as:
- Dairy (including milk, cheese, yogurt)
- Rich meats (e.g. beef, lamb, sausage, etc.)
- Fried or greasy foods
- Saturated fat and sugar
- Concentrated juices (especially orange & tomato)
- Tofu and other soy products
From the TCM perspective, excess consumption of any or all of these foods weaken the energy of the Spleen and encourage the development of Dampness and Damp-Heat.
Now you may be wondering, what SHOULD my child be eating?
If the type of eczema is aligning with Damp-Heat these foods that are Cooling or known to relieve Dampness (which are often bitter and/or aromatic foods) can help counteract this type of condition. Examples:
- Aduki beans
- Bitter Melon
- Bok Choy
- Daikon radish
- Green Tea
- Mung bean
- Summer squash
- Winter Melon (Wax Gourd)
If eczema is aligning more with the drier (Heat) conditions these Cooling foods may prove helpful:
- Daikon Radish
- Green Tea
- Mung Bean
- Napa cabbage
- Seaweed (Kelp)
Remember, food therapy is a very important preventative measure for eczema outbreaks and part of the treatment process during its recurrent stages. It’s not the only option, however. TCM is most effective when using food, herbs, and/or acupuncture in combination. Consider a consultation with a TCM specialist. There are thousands of Chinese herbs used for medicinal purposes and it takes a certain degree of knowledge and experience to prescribe the optimal combination of herbs that would address the conditions of a particular patient.
While it may seem overwhelming or difficult at first, the effort will be worth it. This low impact intervention therapeutically addresses sensitive skin conditions without the side effects associated with Western treatments.