My eczema is my body telling me that my habits need a tuneup.

In herbal medicine, it’s believed that the skin is a messaging system for the rest of the body. When something is wrong, your body sends a signal via your skin to let you know.

For me, this signal started with my hands.

I was on spring break in my first year of college, and my hands suddenly broke out in itchy, red bumps. They spread from my knuckles down to my fingers and wrists.

My hands swelled so much that it became painful to bend my fingers. I didn’t know what was happening, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

With some research, a trip to the doctor, and a diagnosis later, I found out I had developed severe dyshidrotic eczema, or pompholyx.

My body was trying to tell me something. Urgently.

I struggled with eczema for 2 years. It would come and go in waves, sometimes just a few spots on my knuckles, other times spreading across my fingers and the palms of my hands.

It wasn’t until my third year of college that I took steps to adjust my diet to see if I could manage the condition better.

I was never a junk-food-every-day kind of college student, but my sugar and alcohol consumption were high. I’d crave sweet things daily and get antsy if I wasn’t them eating regularly.

The first thing I changed was the amount of sugar in my diet. While sugar has not been shown to directly aggravate eczema, it seemed to make a difference for me.

By reducing my sugar intake, limiting the amount of alcohol I was drinking, and making vegetables the main event of every meal, I was gradually able to manage my eczema. I also began eating more fermented food.

Over time, I stopped craving sugar and started craving fermented food instead. My body began telling me what it really needed, not just what it wanted for an instant high.

Now in my mid-20s, I rarely have eczema flare-ups, my skin is clearer, and I have more energy. The changes I made to my diet had a huge impact on my eczema and my overall health.

Some people find that following a vegan diet can help their eczema. Others choose to cut out gluten, eggs, and shellfish.

Something I learned through the process of treating my eczema is that everyone’s body is unique. The diets that work for some people won’t work for others.

I quickly realized that extreme dietary changes made my eczema worse, so I learned to adjust my diet gradually.

I also knew that I couldn’t maintain any major changes to my diet unless they meant I could still have varied, interesting, and tasty meals every day.

I made a diet plan that allowed me to keep making food that tastes amazing, but is good to my body, too.

The changes that helped me include:

  • cutting out refined sugar
  • reducing simple carbohydrates
  • limiting alcohol consumption
  • increasing the variety and amount of vegetables with every meal
  • eating more whole grains like oats, brown rice, and whole grain pasta
  • upping intake of anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger
  • introducing more fermented foods into my meals

Although these changes coincided with improvements in my eczema, they may or may not improve eczema in others. We’re all different, and different things work for different people.

In the first year, I was vigilant about my diet. I avoided refined sugar completely and took a strict approach to what I could and couldn’t eat.

Over time, I’ve relaxed these measures (hello, Christmas!), but they’re still rules that guide my eating habits.

If I feel like I’m getting another flare-up, I revert back to this diet for a month or so and monitor how I’m feeling along the way.

Scientists are now beginning to understand the role of the human microbiome in the appearance of chronic conditions like eczema.

Recent studies have drawn a link between eczema and the health of the skin microbiome. However, there’s also evidence that gut health is a major factor in the cause and treatment of eczema.

Research has shown that gut health is closely associated with the appearance of eczema in childhood. This means that what we eat as children could increase our chances of developing childhood eczema.

As we get older, lifestyle factors can also affect our gut health and may lead to the development of eczema, as I experienced.

I worked on rebuilding my gut health by making changes to my diet, especially increasing my intake of fermented foods.

Fermented foods can bolster the gut microbiome by introducing friendly bacteria into the body.

While studies looking at probiotics to treat eczema have had mixed results, there’s a growing understanding in allergy research that probiotics and probiotic-containing food are important routes to reducing atopic disease in the Western world.

Fermented food intake has been linked to a reduced likelihood of eczema in adults. Researchers also found that mothers who eat more yogurt and fermented food during pregnancy can reduce the risk of eczema in their infants.

I’ve been making kombucha since my second year of college on the advice of a family friend. This introduced me to the world of fermenting, and I kept experimenting with new things from there.

Some of the fermented foods I now eat or drink daily include:

I also experiment with seasonal variations, like lacto-fermented lemonade, pineapple tepache, and fermented cucumber. Yum!

Having a wide variety of fermented foods and drinks on hand makes it easier to incorporate into every meal. Sauerkraut 7 days a week can get repetitive.

I find that the more fermented food options I have in my fridge, the more likely I am to eat them.

As well as upping the amount of fermented food in my diet, I also worked on increasing the quantity and variety of vegetables I eat every day.

The gut microbiome benefits from diets high in prebiotic foods. Prebiotic foods contain fiber that are resistant to breaking down in the stomach, and so they’re fermented by bacteria in the intestine instead. This helps stimulate the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria.

High fiber foods include fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.

Rather than only eating salads, which can get boring pretty quickly, I started taking inspiration from South Asian cuisine.

I began making more vegetarian and vegan dishes that were high in vegetables and had the added benefit of tons of anti-inflammatory spices.

Rebuilding the gut microbiome is a continual process. Every food choice you make has an effect on your gut health.

Research has suggested that your gut microbiota can change in as little as 24 hours.

By understanding the link between the skin and the rest of the body, it makes it easier to find a balance. I now see my eczema as my body telling me when my habits need a tuneup, whether that’s my diet, sleep, or stress levels.

Flare-ups are like a red flag, telling me that I need to take a break and reset. Nowadays, I make sure I listen.

Elizabeth Harris is a writer and editor with a focus on plants, people, and our interactions with the natural world. She’s been happy to call many places home and has traveled across the world, collecting recipes and regional remedies. She now splits her time between the United Kingdom and Budapest, Hungary, writing, cooking, and eating. Learn more on her website.