You’ve likely heard about the link between good health and what you eat, and the importance of changing your diet when there’s a problem. For example, if you have elevated cholesterol, you should go easy on cheese and red meat, both of which are known to be high in unhealthy saturated fat, and instead opt for lean poultry and veggies.
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If you have a skin condition like eczema (the most common type that you’ll also hear referred to as atopic dermatitis), can changing your diet help reduce symptoms like itchy or red skin?
Sometimes. “Some people do have a specific intolerance or allergy to something in particular, and that can cause eczema outbreaks,” says family medicine specialist Saadia Hussain, MD, who likens it to someone whose asthma is triggered by allergies.
“If they come across a certain type of plant, something in the environment, or a certain type of animal dander, their asthma will act up. It’s the same thing with eczema,” says Dr. Hussain. “There could be something that their body just doesn’t react well to — and when that happens, they get an eczema outbreak.”
Digging into which specific foods trigger eczema symptoms is more difficult because everybody has different sensitivities. What bothers you and causes an eczema flare might not have a similar effect on someone else.
However, Dr. Hussain says, “anything with anti-inflammatory properties is good for most inflammatory skin conditions,” a category that includes eczema, psoriasis and dyshidrotic eczema. For example, spices like turmeric and ginger are known for their anti-inflammatory benefits.
It depends. No diet or foods will cure eczema, but you can modify your diet to try to keep the symptoms at bay — much like you would changing your diet to address another chronic health condition. Also, drinking plenty of water (eight 8-ounce glasses a day) is key to eczema outbreak prevention and to help moisturize the skin for treatment.
Anti-inflammatory diets have many benefits, including pain relief and easing the symptoms of chronic conditions like fibromyalgia. These diets are also especially helpful to address the symptoms of eczema, which can be caused by stress, your immune system overreacting to allergens, or irritants in your environment.
Anti-inflammatory diets limit dairy, whole grains, red meat, flour and sugar, but emphasize vegetables and fish. In fact, going vegan (or keeping nearly a fully plant-based diet) is also a good route to take.
Medical professionals have long praised the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, which stresses lots of veggies, whole grains, legumes, fish with omega-3 fatty acids (like salmon or tuna) and olive oil. “It’s more plant-based and includes a lot of fish,” says Dr. Hussain. “It’s got a lot of nuts, which is where you’re getting your protein from.”
The Ayurvedic diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet, in that it focuses on nonprocessed foods and includes fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. This diet, however, emphasizes spices like coriander, cumin, ginger, turmeric and cinnamon. “All of those are act as anti-inflammatories,” Dr. Hussain says. “All of these spices are very, very good for you.”
You may be wondering if an elimination diet — where you remove various foods from your meal rotation and then gradually add them back in to see what brings about an allergic reaction — might help. “There is no evidence to suggest food allergens are related to eczema,” says Dr. Hussain says. “So generally we do not recommend elimination diets, especially in kids.”
Unfortunately, there’s no specific diet that can help symptoms of dyshidrotic eczema, which is sometimes called dyshidrosis. This type of eczema is often found on your hands and is caused when your skin becomes dry and dehydrated from exposure to chemicals or things like hand sanitizer.
Dr. Hussain says the usual treatment is a high-potency topical steroid or UV therapy. However, because dyshidrotic eczema causes you to develop small blisters and cracked skin, you should stay away from acidic foods — for example, citrus fruits — that can cause additional surface irritation.
“If you’re going to be working with anything that has a high acid content, as with food preparation, we recommend putting on vinyl gloves,” says Dr. Hussain.
This kind of eczema can also be caused by sensitivities to substances like nickel, cobalt or chromium. While striving to remove just those minerals from your diet isn’t the best route to take, switching to a plant-based diet can help. “You’ll automatically end up eating foods that don’t have most of those types of minerals in it,” says Dr. Hussain.
Gluten is found in many foods, including things that are expected — brown rice, bread, chips, baked goods — and surprising things like soy sauce and salad dressing. For some people, switching to a diet lower in gluten might be helpful. “Gluten can worsen everything,” says Dr. Hussain. “Anytime people have chronic GI issues or skin issues, and they’ve been worked up and everything is negative, the next thing I tell them to do is try to cut gluten out of their diet. Sometimes just doing a gluten-free diet, you might notice that your skin or your chronic GI condition gets better.”
Above all, watching what you eat goes back to making good choices.
“If you’re eating healthy, you’re trying to stick to something that doesn’t have preservatives, isn’t manufactured and isn’t packaged,” says Dr. Hussain. “When you go to the grocery store, stick to the periphery when you shop. The first thing you see when you walk into a store is fruits and vegetables. Then you hit the dairy section, and then the meats and poultry, and then you’re out the door.”
However, Dr. Hussain stresses that pairing a well-balanced diet with regular exercise is always the best route to take.
“If you try to do that, and make it a part of your lifestyle, it’s going to help you with every disease,” says Dr. Hussain. “That includes eczema. That includes your risk of heart disease and diabetes, as well as high blood pressure and mental health problems. Our body was not built to be sedentary, and our bodies were not built to put all these processed foods into them.”