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Issue No 99
Summer 2004 
page 20

Herbs for Eczema
Anne Dougherty
Illustrations by Tristan Berlund

Glycyrrhiza glabra

Anne Dougherty is an herbalist and freelance writer. She and her partner run Grian Herbs
from their home in Montpelier, Vermont.


    The term “eczema” refers to a variety of skin irritations, of which atopic dermatitis is the most common. Fifteen million Americans have eczema, most of whom develop symptoms as infants or young children. It’s rare for initial signs of eczema to appear in adults over 30. While environmental factors often precipitate the condition, eczema more likely appears in a child whose parent also suffers from it.

Dry, itchy skin—especially around the eyes, inside the elbows, and behind the knees—characterizes eczema. It also seems that people with eczema have an overabundance of Staphylococcus aureusbacteria on the skin. Persistent scratching opens the tender skin to opportunistic infections.

Studies have shown that 80 to 90 percent of those with eczema have an overactive immune system, which triggers a histamine release in response to allergens that don’t bother most other people. Irritants that bring on this allergic response range from foods such as milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, and fish to materials like wool, soap, perfume, chlorine bleach, and dust. Stress is also a culprit. Emotional stress taxes the immune system, causing eczema flare-ups to occur.

In addition to an overactive immune system, eczema patients do not properly metabolize essential fatty acids (EFAs), according to recent studies. Low levels of certain fatty acids impede prostaglandin synthesis, which controls inflammation. One solution: 300 mg/day of evening primrose oil (EPO) can raise EFA levels and reduce the inflammation. Alternatively, supplementation with omega-3-fatty acids can optimize prostaglandin synthesis. Try taking ten grams of fish oil daily, or increase your dietary intake of cold-water fish such as halibut or salmon. Note that while EPO and omega-3 fatty acids have both proven effective in clinical trials, the latter option costs considerably less.

As with any allergic condition, eczema responds well to flavonoids, due to their antihistamine action. Antihistamines prevent the immune system from releasing substances that cause localized inflammation. Among the best flavonoids are quercetin (400 mg taken before meals) and grape seed extract (50–100 mg, taken 3 times daily). A recent study has shown that inulin, a polysaccharide contained within the root of burdock (Arctium lappa) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) activates the pathway of the immune system essential in destroying bacteria. This pathway is compromised in those with eczema, enabling opportunistic infections to occur at irritated sites. Try one-quarter teaspoon of tincture three times a day, or brew a cup of tea from freshly dug backyard roots (1 tablespoon fresh chopped root simmered in 8–12 ounces of water for 15 minutes).

Finally, licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a potent anti-inflammatory that you can use externally. Licorice acts similarly to the steroid hydrocortisone in reducing the inflammation and itching associated with eczema—and it’s 93 percent effective in treating atopic dermatitis. Try a moisturizing cream infused with licorice extract or a solid extract of glycyrrhetinic acid, one of the herb’s active components. Or try taking licorice internally: 1 teaspoon dried root simmered in 8–12 ounces of water for 15 minutes, taken two or three times a day. A word of caution, however: Licorice is contraindicated for those with liver or kidney disease and/or high blood pressure.

Managing a skin condition like eczema can be difficult, especially for young children. Why not turn some of the above suggestions into fun games to make treatment more enjoyable? Have a licorice tea party, or make applying cream a laughterfilled tickle fest. A cup of chamomile tea close to bedtime will also help relax the body and lessen scratching during sleep. Above all, celebrate your successes and educate yourself when a suggestion doesn’t work—and be happy and confident in what you do to take care of yourself.


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