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!