7 Interventions to Stop the Eczema Flare Before It Erupts

Get out of the Stress-Eczema Flare-Clear Skin-Repeat Cycle 

Is your life causing your eczema flares? Read on to find out if it is…

I believe it’s possible to teach old dogs new tricks. Yes, I’m referring to myself as an ‘old dog’ even though I’m not that old! However, it’s a fitting phrase to describe when I decided to retrain myself not to get stuck in the cycle of stress-eczema flare-clear skin-repeat.

My pattern was pretty obvious. I take good care of myself on every front except…drum roll…stress management. This is true for most of us, but this is a huge part of what I do to help heal people.

Yet, I wasn’t doing it for myself.

I was too focused on my job, side projects, and raising my son who was a baby at the time.

I dove into everything head first and never said no. I was all GO, GO, GO, 24/7.

Until my body would hit the wall from stress and I’d start get flare ups on my hands, wrists, forearms, stomach, and thighs. Tingling would turn into little red spots that itched so bad they’d spread out like an oil spill. Broken, inflamed skin would leave ugly patches.

I was especially embarrassed of my hands, wrists, and arms because people could see them. The palms of my hands and wrists were the worst unfortunately and people would sometimes look a little too long when I handed them payment, opened doors, or waved hello.

It’s amazing how many things our hands are involved in and how self conscious you can become once you’re aware that people are looking.

Gloves year round, anyone???

My usual approach was once I got sick of dealing with it, I’d really dial in my diet, take anti-inflammatory herbs, and engage in some stress reduction. That usually did the trick.

The itching would soon begin to subside, redness would retreat, and the bumps and patches would fade. After several weeks of being “good,” my skin would be clear again. AWESOME!!!

Then, I’d go back to my normal routine and inevitably have a flare up within a couple of months that was worse than the one before. It also started to get harder to treat.

Clearly I had a very short memory and I wasn’t learning from my past history!

Breaking the Cycle

After this cycle had been going on for over a year, I decided something need to change (there’s a longer version of this story that I’ll save for another day, but I’ll share the most important piece now).

The key change in retraining myself was managing my stressors. I needed to practice what I preached to my patients. Priority number one was establishing boundaries and stepping away from being a “yes” girl. I started to say “No” to many opportunities when I felt I had too much on my plate or felt I couldn’t give 100%. I also said “No” to social and family events if I was busy or starting to feel like I was being pulled in too many directions.

I also did a better job of decompressing and taking care of me, which meant giving myself breaks to exercise and have some quiet down time daily to do some deep breathing, journaling, or meditate (even if I had to sneak away to the “bathroom” to get it 😉). I also made consistent sleep a priority as much as I could with a nursing baby.

These are habits I’ve maintained to this day, except I don’t have to hide in the bathroom anymore for peace and quiet!

Stress management was the single biggest change I made to break the cycle, but I also developed strategies to tame a flare if I felt one coming on that I’m going to share with you.

7 Interventions to Stop Your Flare Before It Erupts

1. Clean your diet up. Most of us let our diet go when we’re under stress. Naturally, our bodies crave sugar and carbs to fuel our stress response (but we’re not running away from tigers and lions anymore). Sugar in general promotes inflammation, but so do gluten and dairy. I recommend eliminating these first if you haven’t already. Eating a diet focused on whole foods- meat, fish, eggs, veggies, fruits, and healthy fats will be supportive of calming inflammation.

If you’ve already pared down your diet, you might be sensitive to something else you’re eating. Start paying attention to how you flare responds to food. Do certain ones make you itch more? Do they give you other symptoms of inflammation like mucus production or joint pain? Is the response immediate or delayed?

Using a diary requires some effort, but it’s the best way to track the effects of diet and lifestyle. When I feel a flare come on, I open up an spreadsheet on my computer. I make columns for meals, immediate and delayed reactions, supplements, exercise, stress, sleep, and observations. I record everything that was notable and if nothing is notable I leave that spot blank. This way I can identify immediate issues, but also patterns that may otherwise be hard to see. This is actually how I figured out that I had a histamine issue.

2. Avoid Histamines. These nasty chemicals are produced in the inflammatory response and are part of the reason you itch. You can be consuming them in food or supplements like probiotics. There is a detailed list in my free triggers guide “Eczema: Seven Sneaky Sources Making Your Flare Worse.” Additionally, fish, seafood, cured and deli meats, aged cheeses, dried fruits, citrus fruits, pickles, and any fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut. Basically, if it’s aged in any way- pickled, preserved, fermented, dried, salted or cured, it contains histamines. That makes left overs a no-go too.

Unfortunately, bone broth which is very healing, also contains high histamine levels, so watch out for any histamine related symptoms including itching, runny nose, mucus or phlegm, redness, etc.

Some strains of the probiotic group Lactobacillus (L. casei and L. bulgaricus) are known to produce histamine which may aggravate your eczema. From my clinical experience, I’ve also seen patients have a histamine reaction to other probiotics too, so pay attention to how your body responds to them. Remember- everyone is unique and we’ll all have different reactions to different substance.

3. Consume anti-inflammatory foods (or their supplement form). I’m a big fan of food as medicine. Some of the best anti-inflammatory foods are herbs and spices, specifically turmeric, ginger, and garlic. Together, these are pack a triple threat anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and gut and skin healing punch. They can be consumed easily in meals- especially any Asian or Indian recipes, added to smoothies, pre-made tea bags, or in this healing tea/infusion recipe.

The supplement forms can be used too. Sometimes you’ll find an anti-inflammatory combo with all or a few of these ingredients or they can be used separately. I prefer to use them for specific actions when using them as separate often highly concentrated supplements. In this capacity is use turmeric (curcumin) for inflammation, ginger for gut healing and calming, and garlic as an antimicrobial.

4.  Avoid extreme temperatures. Whether you’re indoors or outdoors, or doing things like bathing or exercising, really hot or cold temperatures can have a negative effect on eczema. In the past, I’ve had a histamine reaction during exercise that resulted in extremely red and itchy legs in both summer and late fall. It’s really hard to workout when you stop to scratch every 10 seconds (plus people stare at your tomato red legs)!

Similarly, hot showers will do the same to me. I know when I’m in a flare to keep showers lukewarm or even cold.

5. Take a timeout. Not the kind where you sit in the corner and think about what you did wrong, but to similarly be still and contemplate. A couple of times each day take 10 minutes to just sit in silence while deep breathing. This doesn’t have to be a full on meditation (although if you want to- go for it because it’s amazing for stress reduction). The point is to let your mind quiet down and focus your intention to calmness and healing.

We spend all of our time in a stressed out, fight or flight mode (a.k.a. sympathetic nervous system ), which promotes inflammation, rather than the rest, digest, and reproduce mode (a.k.a. parasympathetic nervous system), which promotes healing. Chilling out, naps, eating, and sex are way more appealing anyway!

6. Laugh and play. Similar to the previous point, taking time to laugh and play does wonders for inflammation and counteracting the effects of the sympathetic nervous system. If you’re in a flare you might need to take a “personal day” from work.

Send the kids to school (if you have them) and just chill out watching funny movies or meet a comedic friend for lunch. When the kids come home, do something fun like playing games or something you all enjoy together. If you don’t have kids, grab a spouse, partner, or friend do your favorite activity.

The goal is enjoy life and put a smile on your face. There are lots of positive chemical effects that occur in your body when you smile, laugh, or share intimate moments with those you’re close with.

Bonus tip– if you’re a stay at home mom with a baby or small kids it’s hard to take a personal day. Instead of calling in sick to your boss, call a friend or family member to watch the kids for a couple hours (or more if possible) so you can focus on some fun or alone time. No running errands or chores- this time is for you to enjoy yourself!!

7. Pamper your skin with healing moisture. Once you get out of your not-too-hot shower, be sure to apply moisturizer ASAP. I’m a fan of my healing salve recipe, however, there are many options, especially if you’re just into the beginning of a flare. Coconut oil, shea butter, or a combination of the two may just be enough to get your skin going in the right direction. If you start to develop lesions, bumps, or extreme redness, the salve might be a better choice.

There are also many choices available online now too. I’ve had many clients tell me about creams and lotions that have worked for them. The key here is to get a clean and green one- avoid synthetic chemicals, dyes, and scents. Many of the good natural formulas have a base of coconut oil, shea butter, beeswax, and/or tallow (usually from beef) combined with essential oils or healing herbs. Going with a blend like this will help avoid topical reactions on the skin.

What remedies have you tried that have helped calm your symptoms down? Let us know in the comments section. Thanks!

Strict Elimination Diets are Possible- Part 2 of 4 (Working Out and Adjusting Your Program)

Week number two is in the books! There was definitely less drama on the skin side (no hives or red bumps= win), but there were definite peaks and valleys. Overall I’m feeling great for the most part.

Diet Observations

Monday was Day 8 and I felt amazing 90% of the time. I had lots of energy and significantly less itching than Saturday and Sunday. My workout was great and my brain was firing on all cylinders. The only bump in the road on this day was a little gas with my acorn squash at dinner. I plan on testing that again soon to see if it was random, or if I have issues with acorn squash.

I added in progesterone (only cycle days 15-28), DHEA, licorice root extract, an adaptogenic herb blend, and vitamin C to help support my hormones and adrenals again. Curious to see if it makes a significant difference in my symptoms.  I’ve been recovering from adrenal fatigue and major hormone depletion since the birth of my son 3 years ago. It’s considerably better, but far from 100%.

Days 9 and 10 were positive as well, with high energy all day, however, the itchy skin and runny nose seemed to be making a bit of a comeback. By the evening on Day 10, I considered the itching moderate. It’s strange too since there’s a completely random distribution- palm of hand, scalp, belly, or arm- really anywhere. There aren’t any red spots or welts of anymore, just itchy skin that isn’t even pink or red most of the time. I’m still trying to make the connection between certain foods and the itching flares, but there’s no obvious link yet. I have a few other theories on my itching too, but I’d like to see if I can eliminate the GI causes first.

Another Day 10 observation was that I have a harder time breaking down shredded beef than ground beef. I felt as if it was sitting in my stomach for a long time despite having taken my usual amounts of HCl and digestive enzymes. Seems odd, however, the ground beef is already in smaller pieces and easier to chew. I noticed by the end of the day my jaw hurt from so much chewing. I suspect I got a little lazy and wasn’t chewing enough by the end of the day which contributed to the poor digestion.

Day 11 was similar to the previous 2 days, except that I had a little more fatigue in the morning that I suspect was from a killer workout the day before. I knew I’d need to take it easy and do light recovery movements so I wouldn’t over stress my adrenals and nervous system. A positive was that my skin was looking clear and radiant. No sign of any acne or redness. Win!

Anyone that’s done an elimination diet knows eating out can be traumatic, so I was excited and nervous for Day 12. I went out to lunch with my sister which meant extra planning. Luckily, we are blessed to have some local, truly Paleo restaurants here which made my day much easier. Agra Culture Kitchen and Press is an amazing choice if you want healthy food in the Twin Cities. They cater to many diet variations- Paleo, gluten free, vegan, vegetarian, fresh pressed juices and Bulletproof coffee (which I really miss). They made my meal out of the house very easy and stress free. Anyhow…this day was short of miraculous. I was symptom free 90% of the day! No itching (my worst symptom), no runny nose, no NOTHING!!

My nirvana didn’t last on Day 13, sadly.  The itching resumed at a low level in the morning, but after breakfast it was gone again. The main issue today was that I was hangry (hungry and angry). This is usually a result of low blood sugar. I set myself up for disaster since I ate breakfast 2 hours late, which lead to a day of grouchiness (my husband didn’t appreciate it… sorry dear). Clearly my adrenals and blood sugar are still not 100% which I already assumed.

Meal timing and content are important when you have adrenal fatigue. If your calories or carbs are too low, you will feel fatigued and sluggish mentally. Eating at least every 4 hours is a good idea to keep blood sugar and energy levels even throughout the day. That’ll keep the people around you happier too!

Days 13 and 14 also brought perfect, Bristol #4 bowel movements. That’s another big win in my book.

Day 14 was similar to the previous day in that I started out itchy, but it went away fairly early in the day.

Week two was definitely better than week one with several wins and a decrease in symptoms. So far, so good.

Adjusting Your Program on the Fly

I never operate in a “set in stone” manner, nor do I expect my clients to either. Humans have a complex physiology with a seemingly infinite number of variables (many of which we don’t know much about yet). We need to pay attention and tune in to what is happening when we change the inputs (diet, supplements, exercise, stress, sleep, etc.) and adjust accordingly to our own individual needs.

Here are some of the modifications I’m making:

  1. Sticking to lower histamine foods given my reactions in week 1. The histamine issue may be worse than I thought, so I’m trying not to eat leftovers either (which sucks a bit since I’d mostly been making my meals for the day in the morning). Freshly cooked is best with histamine. I’ve also axed fish and shellfish for now which saddens me because I love them. I also realized I may need to test methylation, Candida, and my gut microflora as those can be causes of histamine issues.
  2. Adding in supplements when necessary. I realized I need to use more HCl and enzymes with certain proteins that I don’t seem to breakdown as efficiently. I add in one extra cap of each. I also added in a DAO enzyme supplement to help clear histamine when necessary.
  3. In order to maintain my energy and facilitate recovery post-workouts I added in an amino acid powder with no additives immediately after my workout, plus an extra meal later that day.

There will probably be more to come. The point is that you need to be alert to what your body is telling you and listen.

Hard Workouts are Possible on a Strict Elimination Diet

One of my biggest fears, and why I put this elimination off for so long, was that I thought it would kill my workouts and recovery. You can’t use protein powders like whey, beef or pea, and many supplements you’d replace those with are off the table as well.

This elimination is about as strict as they come, however, it doesn’t limit quantity which is helpful. I also wasn’t used to eating so many purely whole food meals in a day. I have a shake for breakfast half the time and always have one after workouts.

Surprisingly, my experience has been exactly the opposite of what I expected. I generally have more energy and feel more satiated during the day.

My workouts are 80% weight lifting and 20% metabolic conditioning. Certain days are definitely more taxing than others.  I do this 3 times per week and fill in the other days with hiking, sprinting, mobility work, or riding my mountain bike. As a rule though, I always have rest days and listen to my body. If I’m feeling really fatigued I don’t push as hard or I skip a day. I’ve suffered severe adrenal fatigue and really don’t want to go there again.

I eat my breakfast 60 minutes before my workouts to give enough time to digest. I adjust the portion down sometimes if I feel I won’t be digested enough. I’m also taking vitamins and supplements that support energy metabolism (which I also did before).

The second workout during week one was when I noticed a little more fatigue which could’ve just been part of the adjustment period, but I made some changes to be safe. As soon as my workout is done, I have my straight amino acid powder and try to eat within 30-45 minutes to replenish my muscles and prevent excessive soreness. To further aid in recovery, I often add in a fourth meal if I’m feeling a little hungrier.

Strength and endurance haven’t decreased 2 weeks in which I’m ecstatic about. I’m hoping I can maintain this throughout the duration.  So far, lots of energy and normal levels of post-workout soreness and fatigue.

Next week I’ll discuss supplementation and keys to success, as well as my progress update!