If you live with eczema, you know how much of a nuisance dry, itchy, and inflamed skin can be. Eczema can be widespread and affect most of your body, or only a single part of your body.
There’s no cure, but treatment can control your symptoms. Many doctors agree that certain factors, like what you eat, can trigger flares in some people.
To be clear, your diet doesn’t cause eczema. But certain foods may exacerbate your symptoms.
If you’re living with severe eczema and looking for ways to better manage your condition, here’s what you need to know about eczema and diet.
What you put into your body can have an impact on your overall health. People who consume a lot of fatty or sugary foods may put on weight. Not eating enough fruits and vegetables may lead to a weaker immune system, putting people at risk for certain illnesses.
The connection between food and health also applies to eczema. The exact cause of eczema is unknown, but a malfunctioning immune system does contribute to the condition.
Your immune system protects your body. It attacks invaders like bacteria and viruses. During this process, it stimulates inflammation, which is how it defends itself.
Essentially, inflammation is your body’s response to injury or damage. Sometimes, your immune system overreacts and attacks healthy tissue. This is the case with eczema.
An overactive immune system causes a chronic inflammatory response, which affects different parts of your body, including your skin. If you’re able to control inflammation in your body, you could likely control eczema symptoms. So, what does any of this have to do with food?
To put it plainly, what you eat can decrease or increase inflammation in your body. For example, if you eat something you’re allergic to, your immune system will react by attacking the allergen.
During the inflammatory-immune system response, the body’s cells release histamine. This release can irritate eczema-prone skin because it can cause symptoms like itching and a skin rash or hives.
Therefore, it’s important to identify potential food allergies, such as dairy, nuts, gluten, or shellfish. This way, you can avoid these items and ingredients.
Interestingly, up to as many as 30 percent of people with eczema have food allergies. Some people only have mild symptoms when exposed to an allergen, but others can experience life-threatening complications like anaphylaxis.
To determine whether you have a food allergy, schedule allergy testing with an allergist. This involves exposing your skin to various allergens, and then monitoring your skin for an allergic response.
Another way you can identify potential problem foods is by keeping a food journal. This can help you pinpoint foods that may exacerbate your condition.
Let’s say you notice flares after eating nuts. If so, you may have an undiagnosed peanut allergy. Through an elimination diet, you’ll remove peanuts from your diet for a period of time, and then monitor your symptoms for improvement.
After symptoms improve, you can reintroduce this food back into your diet to see if symptoms return. Oftentimes, no longer eating a food that triggers an allergic response improves severe eczema.
A 1985 study evaluated 113 children living with severe atopic dermatitis, in which 63 of the children showed symptoms of a food allergy. When these children followed an elimination diet, avoiding foods that triggered an allergic response, researchers found their atopic dermatitis improved within one to two months.
The results of this study are similar to a , where 55 children with atopic dermatitis and possible egg sensitivity removed eggs from their diet. These children had significant improvements in their eczema symptoms four weeks after starting the elimination diet.
Still, these studies don’t necessarily mean that an elimination diet will improve your case of eczema. Elimination diets may work for some people, but more research on how they affect eczema symptoms is needed. If you think you may have a food allergy, talk to your doctor to see if this diet is right for you.
What if you don’t have a food allergy, but you still experience severe eczema flares?
Even when a food allergy doesn’t trigger eczema, your diet may still play a role in your flare-ups. This is because eczema responds to inflammation in your body, and certain foods keep your body in an inflamed state.
Identifying inflammatory foods that worsen your symptoms is a matter of trial and error. This is where a food journal is helpful. Write down what you eat and keep track of when your flares occur.
You may gradually recognize patterns, at which point you can remove foods that trigger inflammation.
An anti-inflammatory diet involves eating less foods that make inflammation worse, and more foods that fight inflammation.
One found that the standard American diet, a high percentage of carbohydrates and unhealthy fats, not only leads to an increase in fat mass, it can also lead to an increase in cytokines. These are proteins produced by the immune system that promote inflammation.
This has led researchers to believe that consuming a standard American diet puts one at risk for chronic inflammation, even in the absence of obesity. More research is needed to determine how much this type of diet affects humans, though.
Inflammatory foods include:
- saturated fat
- refined carbohydrates, such as white rice, white pasta, white bread, pastries, and pizza dough
- processed meat
- red meat
- artificial sweeteners
These types of ingredients are found in some margarine brands, fried food, cookies, doughnuts, processed snack foods, and some salad dressing.
Foods that help fight inflammation include:
- whole grains
- green tea and coffee
- nuts and seeds
There’s no cure for eczema, but it is controllable. If you feel that your eczema isn’t improving with your current therapy, see your doctor and consider other alternatives. You might need a different drug, or you might need to adjust your diet.
If you can identify a food allergy or foods that worsen symptoms, eliminating them may lead to fewer flares and clearer skin.