Eczema (also known as atopic dermatitis), is a chronic inflammatory condition that causes dry, irritated, and itching skin. While it is most commonly diagnosed before the age of 5, more than 10% of both children and adults currently suffer from this condition (1). Psoriasis, although much less common than eczema, is the most common autoimmune disease in America. It currently affects more than 2% of the population, and it is estimated that 20-30% of those suffering from psoriasis will be diagnosed with the debilitating condition psoriatic arthritis later in life (2). Lastly, 85% of teens and 20% of adults suffer from acne, with over 20 million Americans having it bad enough to cause permanent scars (3). Many doctors consider skin conditions to be annoying but relatively benign diseases that can be treated easily with over-the-counter or prescription-strength topical steroid creams. But unfortunately, this treatment lacks long-term curative effects, and it can actually be very detrimental to overall health.
As a naturopathic physician, I love treating people with chronic skin conditions. The main reason for this is because I know a patient whose only complaint is a skin rash has a high level of vitality and is therefore likely to heal quickly. How do I know this? Because the imbalance in the body is presenting on the very OUTER layer: the skin. Let me explain further to help this make sense. In the case of eczema, the cause is usually one or more triggers (such as a food or environmental allergy or intolerance) that the body is reacting to internally. If a person has a robust immune system, he or she is able to push this internal reaction all the way out to the skin, where it is the least likely to cause damage to vital organs like the heart, lungs, brain, and kidneys. This is likely why we see eczema and skin rashes so often in infants and children —they generally are born healthy and strong. But as we age and are exposed to chronic stress, environmental toxins, allopathic medications, and pathogens, our vitality gradually decreases. This means that our bodies slowly lose the ability to push reactions all the way out to skin. Diseases then begin to affect our internal organs instead–getting sequentially more and more severe and difficult to reverse. Unfortunately, steroid creams and other medications often have a suppressive effect on the body’s natural expulsive mechanisms. Also, because they temporarily relieve us from symptoms, their use distracts us from looking for the true cause of disease processes. Therefore, they actually hasten this internal progression of disease.
Let’s explore a very common example of this phenomenon. Imagine baby Andrew, who we will say is born with an intolerance to dairy products. At age one, his mother begins to transition him from breast milk to cow’s milk. Since he is genetically intolerant, his body immediately creates an internal reaction against this new offending food in his belly. But Andrew is young and healthy, so this inflammatory reaction is pushed all the way out to his skin, where he develops an itchy and irritated skin rash. His concerned parents immediately take him to a dermatologist who diagnoses eczema and recommends daily applications of a topical steroid cream. After two weeks, baby Andrew’s rash is completely gone, and his parents are delighted that the cream “cured” their son. But did the cream actually cure anything? Andrew still has a milk intolerance and because he is believed to be cured, his parents continue to feed him milk on a daily basis. The inflammation caused by milk can no longer be pushed all the way out to the skin because the biological function of steroid cream is to inhibit skin inflammation. So instead, Andrew’s inflammation must now go somewhere else. Like it commonly does in many children, the inflammation goes instead to the creation of inflammatory mucous in his ear canals, and he developed chronic ear infections (otitis media).
The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) as well most current medical literature states that antibiotics are rarely helpful in the treatment of otitis media. This is because most cases are not caused by bacterial infections, but rather by chronic inflammation. But unfortunately, antibiotic therapy is still the most common otitis media treatment in America. So between the ages of one and three, Andrew is treated with 10 different courses of antibiotics by his physician. Meanwhile, he continues to consume dairy products, which of course are the real cause of his inflammation and mucous production in the ear canals.
Finally, to his parents’ great relief, Andrew’s earaches begin to subside. Again, they consider him “cured” and breathe a sigh of relief. But as he grows older, he begins to develop chronic nasal congestion and allergies. The inflammatory mucous continues to move further and further internally, and at age 6 he is diagnosed with asthma. We have been taught by conventional medicine that all of little Andrew’s problems: eczema, earaches, allergies, and asthma, are completely different diseases. But they are not actually different at all. They are all ways that Andrew’s body is attempting to express his dairy intolerance. But as his immune system is suppressed over and over again by steroids, antibiotics, and other medications, the inflammation moves deeper and deeper, getting more and more severe and difficult to treat.
Unfortunately, little Andrew’s story is not at all uncommon. I bet you or someone in your family has experienced a similar chain of events, though the resulting internal diseases may be different. Sometimes the initial skin condition goes away completely, as it did in Andrew’s case. Other times, it simply becomes less severe as other physical problems emerge. Either way, when a patient comes to my office for treatment of a chronic skin condition, my main focus is always on finding and treating the underlying cause. This cause could be a food intolerance, like in Andrew’s case, but it could also be a one of many other things. Some other common causes of chronic skin conditions are: hormone imbalances, liver detoxification problems, environmental toxicities, nutrient deficiencies, inflammation and autoimmunity, mental-emotional trauma, and gastrointestinal permeability (also known as ‘leaky gut’). I’m not interested in prescribing creams or lotions that will make the skin condition go away tomorrow, and I inform my patients of this. Once they fully understand how the healing mechanisms of the body work, most are more than happy to try natural therapies and give their body time to start healing itself.
Dr. Katie Nuckolls is a naturopathic physician and owner of Thrive GI: Natural Digestive Medicine in Vancouver, Washington. She currently sees patients that live in Washington, Oregon, and Arizona using telemedicine. For more information, visit our contact page or schedule a free 15-minute consultation online.