By Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D.
Did you ever have a long-term maddening itch that is so intense, especially at night, that you damage your skin with your frantic scratching? If so, you've likely experienced the miseries of eczema, psoriasis or other types of dermatitis.
These inflammatory conditions of the skin are slightly different conditions, but the terms are often used generically for any itchy, red, scaly skin problem. They can occur at any time in a person's life, often beginning in infancy and may sometimes continue unabated for decades. Most of them manifest as painful swelling and oozing of the skin, bleeding cracks, severe scaling, itching and burning. Some sufferers have described eczema as "the itch that rashes" and others say when they sweat, it feels as though acid is being poured on them.
Scratching that breaks the skin increases the risk of infection. Long-term scratching can cause the skin to become thick and leathery.
Causes of Eczema and Psoriasis
Eczema and psoriasis are potentially allergic conditions that can be triggered by environmental factors and dozens of other external irritants like the following:
- Laundry detergent
- Household chemicals
- Workplace chemicals
- Animal dander
- Metals (such as nickel in jewelry)
While psoriasis is most often linked with external allergic triggers, eczema is often caused by food allergies. The most common allergens include wheat, nuts, seafood, eggs and some fruits, such as strawberries.
Both conditions are often associated with food intolerances and multiple chemical sensitivities. If you have been regularly reading my articles, this will likely ring a bell, since food intolerances and multiple chemical sensitivities are often the result of dysbiosis or an imbalance of intestinal flora that causes yeast overgrowth. This is sometimes accompanied with widespread systemic effects.
Another major cause of eczema and psoriasis is SAD -- the dreaded Standard American Diet -- which is rich in sugar and processed and refined foods. This sugar-filled diet eventually begins to wreak havoc with many aspects of our health.
Science suggests eczema and psoriasis may be autoimmune disorders, which in allopathic medicine tends to be a "cop-out" diagnosis. Integrative medicine argues that our immune system does not attack a healthy body. However, the immune system will go into overdrive when the body becomes toxic. An example of this is the simple case of aspartame, the poisonous artificial sweetener. Most "diet" products contain aspartame, a substance that people take in hopes of losing weight or use as a "healthier" substitute for sweetened products. These people often end up with itchy rashes that can be indistinguishable from eczema.
A naturopathic doctor would say that in an attempt to eliminate aspartame, its metabolites are excreted to the skin surface where it causes irritation.
Characteristics of Psoriasis and Eczema
In the case of psoriasis, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes the condition as "an immune system disorder that affects the skin, and occasionally the eyes, nails, and joints." Psoriasis may also affect very small areas of skin or cover the entire body with a buildup of red scales called plaques. The plaques are of different sizes, shapes and severity and may be painful as well as unattractive. Bacterial infections and pressure or trauma to the skin can aggravate psoriasis.
Most treatments focus on topical skin care to relieve the inflammation, itching, and scaling. For more severe cases, oral medications are used. Psoriasis is common and may affect more than 2 percent of all Americans.
A particular type of eczema, called autoimmune progesterone dermatitis (APD), is a condition in which eczema flares when progesterone levels rise 3 to 10 days prior to the onset of menstrual flow. The condition then eases when progesterone levels drop during the menstrual period. Women with irregular periods may not have this clear correlation, thus making diagnosis more difficult.
APD also seems to run in families and the risk of eczema is particularly high in families with a history of asthma and hay fever -- a further indication the condition is related to a compromised immune system.
Eczema and psoriasis are both worsened by stress, but psoriasis is more affected by the weather. Cold dry winter weather worsens psoriasis, whereas sunny, hot, humid conditions make it better. In keeping with the autoimmune nature of psoriasis, when the person develops an infection, such as a sore throat or sinusitis, their psoriasis will often flare up.
Many classes of drugs, similar to the way that aspartame works, worsen psoriasis symptoms. These include antihypertensive ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers, Chloroquine (an anti-malaria drug), progesterone, indocin (the anti-inflammatory drug) and lithium.
In addition to what conventional medicine says about psoriasis, clinically, it is associated with a deficiency of zinc, magnesium, essential fatty acids and represents a high degree of toxicity in the body.
Conventional Treatment Doesn't Provide Much Hope
Conventional medicine will tell you that there is no cure for either of these conditions, although children with eczema will frequently "grow out of it."
Hydrocortisone cream or ointment is the most commonly prescribed conventional treatment for eczema and psoriasis. This is a strong and toxic medicine of limited effectiveness.
Long-term use of steroid creams can result in side effects, such as thin, fragile, dry skin and even suppression of the adrenal glands. For these reasons, medications of this kind can only be used for short periods of time, which is not very helpful to the chronic sufferer.
When studying homeopathy, I learned when you suppress a skin condition with cortisone, especially in children, the focus of the child's illness shifts from the skin to the lungs and they often develop asthma. Parents may be relieved their child's skin condition has cleared, but don't realize that they are substituting a milder condition for a much more serious one.
Using antihistamines, like Benadryl, can be helpful in relieving itching, but they cause drowsiness, so they're usually not appropriate for daytime use. UV light therapy has proven to be very helpful for some patients, especially for those suffering from psoriasis.
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