Complementary Therapies
Dietary Supplements, Foods, Herbs, and Teas

Claims that “all natural” products can safely treat — or even cure — eczema are widespread. The truth is that if a food, herb, or tea could cure eczema, it would be making headlines worldwide. Your dermatologist would tell you about it. The products marketed as “a miracle cure” or as a “breakthrough discovery” do not cure eczema. Some can even be harmful. Here is what the science shows:

Dietary Supplements
Researchers have looked at the effects of borage oil, evening primrose oil, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin E, and zinc. As all of these supplements are said to relieve eczema, researchers were surprised by the findings. Most supplements had no effect. The most noticeable effect was seen in one study in which adults with moderately severe atopic dermatitis took borage oil. The patients who were given 500 milligrams of borage oil every day for 24 weeks noticed a slight improvement. Those given the placebo did not experience this slight improvement.

Even evening primrose oil, which earlier studies suggested could relieve eczema, did not prove beneficial. Researchers are, however, cautiously optimistic about one dietary supplement.

Preliminary studies indicate that probiotics may benefit children with atopic dermatitis. A few studies indicate that taking a supplement containing probiotics — when used along with medication — may help reduce the severity and extent of atopic dermatitis in children. While these findings are promising, more research is needed. Each study tested a different blend of probiotics. The appropriate blend and dose for treating atopic dermatitis have not been determined.

When it comes to diet, dermatologists recommend that patients with eczema:

  • Eat a healthy balanced diet

  • Know their food triggers

To learn if food can trigger a reaction, dermatologists recommend that the patient (or parent) keep a food diary. If a certain food seems to trigger a flare-up, conduct your own research. Remove the food from the diet and see what happens. Does the eczema subside? Does the eczema flare when the patient again eats the food?

Foods that can potentially trigger atopic dermatitis, especially in children, include nuts, milk, eggs, soy, and wheat. It is important to realize that these foods do not trigger eczema for everyone.

If a food triggers eczema and needs to be removed from the patient’s diet, dermatologists recommend that a healthcare provider carefully monitor the diet. Children can suffer from severe protein and calorie deficiencies when placed on an elimination diet, such as one that substitutes rice milk for milk.

Herbs and Teas
While herbal products are often marketed as “natural” alternatives, this does not mean they are safe.

Blends of Chinese herbal medicines that have proven effective in controlling atopic dermatitis also have proven toxic. One poison unit in London reported 21 cases of liver toxicity in patients taking Chinese herbal medicine to relieve skin conditions. Two patients who used Chinese herbal medicine to treat their eczema developed end-stage kidney failure and needed kidney transplants.

Herbal creams also can cause unwanted side effects. Some herbal creams that claim to control eczema and psoriasis are effective because they secretly contain potent corticosteroids. Long-term use of potent topical corticosteroids can cause thinning skin, dilated blood vessels, stretch marks, infection, and excess body hair.

Reports of serious side effects after using chamomile, a common herb, also have occurred. Said to calm the skin and alleviate itch, many people try to get these benefits by either applying chamomile to their skin or drinking chamomile tea. Some who do this develop an allergic reaction. A few cases of anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, have occurred. Anaphylaxis makes blood pressure drop suddenly. Breathing becomes difficult. Some people lose consciousness, and some die.

Drinking regular tea appears to be most beneficial — and without life-threatening side effects. A study conducted in Japan found that several patients who continued their treatment plan and began consuming one liter of oolong tea every day saw significant improvement. Of the 118 patients with recalcitrant (not responding to treatment) atopic dermatitis who completed the study, 63% showed marked to moderate improvement after one month. This effect was noticed after 1 or 2 weeks.

Speak with Your Dermatologist First
If supplementing your diet or trying an herbal product seems appealing, be sure to speak with a dermatologist before trying one of these therapies. A food supplement or herbal remedy can interact negatively with prescription and over-the-counter medications. Some products can be harmful. Stopping your current treatment to try an alternative treatment can cause serious side effects.

More Information
The Truth About “Other” Therapies for Atopic Dermatitis

All content solely developed by the American Academy of Dermatology

The herbal creams that claim to control eczema and psoriasis often are effective because they contain potent corticosteroids.





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Page last updated 4/4/07

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