Your skin is considered the largest organ in your body and performs many vital roles in your health.
Your skin protects you from the elements, keeps you hydrated, helps regulate your temperature, and much more.
When you have skin conditions like eczema, it’s hard to ignore.
What can you do to help eczema naturally, including your diet?
We’ll cover that and more below, including foods to avoid that can cause or trigger eczema, and which foods you should eat that help eczema go away.
What is eczema?
Eczema, whose technical name is atopic dermatitis, is a skin condition that causes dry, itchy, and inflamed skin. Eczema can affect people of any age, but it’s most common in young children, such as infants and toddlers.
It’s estimated that around 10% of people in the United States have eczema. The prevalence of eczema peaks in early childhood. Once you have eczema, you’ll likely have it for the rest of your life.
With eczema, your skin can become so itchy that it starts bleeding from constant scratches.
Other symptoms of eczema include:
- Itchy skin
- Dry, sensitive skin
- Inflamed, discolored skin
- Rough, leathery, or scaly skin (often appearing in scaly patches)
- Oozing or crusting
- Areas of swelling
Psoriasis is another inflammatory skin condition that can be mistaken for eczema. An in-person diagnosis from a qualified healthcare professional (such as a dermatologist) is the best way to determine which one you have.
A combination of factors causes eczema. Immune system response, genetics, environmental triggers, and stress can all lead to an eczema flare-up.
There isn’t a cure for eczema, but you can manage it with medical treatment, natural remedies, and lifestyle changes. Eczema flare-ups are usually treated with prescription medication to help reduce inflammation.
If you have eczema, you might notice you have to pay special attention to the products that come in contact with your skin. You might need to experiment with different products, including laundry detergent, skin lotions, and even your diet.
What does eczema mean for my diet?
If you have eczema, you might be able to help reduce flare-ups and symptoms by eating foods that help fight inflammation.
While changing your diet might not cure your eczema, it can help reduce flare-ups and support overall good health.
Because there is an immune response factor to eczema, you might be at higher risk of having a food sensitivity or allergy as well. Being tested for food allergies is a good idea so you can avoid potential triggers.
If you have a food allergy, eating that food might trigger your eczema. However, food allergies don’t cause eczema. Also, avoiding foods you’re allergic to won’t necessarily prevent eczema flare-ups since they are two separate conditions.
A study was done on 169 patients with eczema (1). The food group that resulted in the greatest improvement in skin condition when removed were white flour products, gluten, and nightshade vegetables. When added to the diet, vegetables and fish oil resulted in the greatest improvement in eczema symptoms.
Foods to avoid that might trigger eczema symptoms
Eczema is associated with inflammation, so it might help to avoid foods that can be inflammatory as they may trigger your eczema symptoms.
Here are a few foods that you might want to avoid if you have eczema.
Refined grains (also called refined carbohydrates/refined carbs) are grains that have been stripped of their nutritious and fiber-rich outer layers.
They are lower in protein, fiber, and beneficial nutrients like iron and some B vitamins compared to whole grains.
According to a study, intake of refined grains was associated with increased markers of inflammation (2). Whole grain consumption was inversely related to inflammatory markers.
Examples of refined grains include white bread, enriched pasta, white rice, and any grain product not using whole grains (muffins, tortillas made with white flour, etc.)
Foods & drinks high in added sugar
A high-sugar diet can promote inflammation, which might impact your eczema (3).
Sweet drinks like soda, sweetened tea, coffee, and fruit-flavored drinks are packed with added sugar. To add insult to injury, if you have eczema and blood sugar problems like prediabetes, type 1 diabetes, or type 2 diabetes, chronic high blood sugar leads to inflammation as well (4).
Sugary drinks are one of the biggest sources of added sugar in a typical Western diet. One 12-ounce can of standard cola provides 33 grams of added sugar, which is beyond the daily recommendation of fewer than 25 grams of added sugar per day for women and close to the limit of fewer than 36 grams of added sugar per day for men.
Sugary drinks aren’t the only sources of added sugar. It’s estimated that 60% of packaged foods contain added sugar of some form.
Some of these processed foods don’t always appear unhealthy, but things like yogurt, cereal, bread, and other foods often contain hidden added sugar.
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Nightshade vegetables (only if you’re sensitive)
As we mentioned earlier, you might be more prone to food sensitivities if you have eczema. Nightshade vegetables are one of the more common food intolerances, along with lactose and gluten.
It might be worth cutting back on nightshade vegetables to see if it helps ease your eczema symptoms.
Nightshade vegetables include:
- All peppers
- Goji berries
- Ground cherries (these aren’t very common and aren’t the same as regular cherries)
- Potatoes (except sweet potatoes)
- Red spices (curry powder, chili powder, cayenne powder, red pepper, paprika)
- Tomatoes (all varieties, including tomato products like marinara, ketchup, etc.)
Gluten (if you’re sensitive)
Gluten intolerance might accompany eczema in some cases. If that’s true for you, you should avoid anything that contains wheat, rye, and barley.
Gluten-free products are becoming more widely available as gluten-free diets become more popular. They contain gluten-free grains such as rice, soy, potato, bean, and other gluten-free flours.
A note on dairy
You might be surprised that dairy isn’t on this list. While dairy is commonly thought to trigger eczema, there aren’t scientific studies to back this association. In fact, one study showed an improvement in eczema symptoms with milk consumption (5).
You should avoid the dairy aisle if you notice dairy triggers your eczema (or if you have a milk allergy or intolerance), but dairy doesn’t cause eczema.
Foods to eat that might help with eczema
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are well-known for their anti-inflammatory benefits. Eating healthy fats such as omega-3 fats might improve your skin’s condition (6).
You can eat omega-3 fat sources whole, or you might prefer to take them as a supplement such as fish oil or an omega-3 complex.
Some whole food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Chia seeds
- Cod liver oil
- Algae oil (vegan)
- Flaxseeds/flaxseed oil
You might be surprised that olive oil isn’t on this list. While olive oil is a heart-healthy choice, it isn’t as high in omega-3s as flaxseed oil.
Fruits & vegetables
Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, which help fight inflammation. As mentioned in the study earlier, participants with eczema noted an improvement in their skin when they increased their vegetable intake.
Studies suggest that fruit and vegetable intake can help reduce markers of inflammation, which may also translate to inflammatory skin conditions like eczema (7).
Are there specific diet plans I can follow?
The Mediterranean diet is a great example of an anti-inflammatory diet. A Mediterranean diet is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids and is lower in added sugar and saturated fat than a typical Western diet.
Another option is to try an elimination diet to assess which foods might impact your eczema. In an elimination diet, you’ll exclude one type of food at a time, such as gluten, dairy, nightshades, etc., for several weeks.
If you notice an improvement in your eczema when eliminating a particular food, it warrants staying away from it long-term since it might trigger your eczema.
Eczema and food allergies and intolerances
Eczema doesn’t cause food allergies, nor do food allergies cause eczema. These two conditions can be associated with each other, as it’s estimated that up to 30% of people with eczema have a food allergy.
If your eczema is linked to immune system response, then it might also be activated when you eat certain foods, which causes a food allergy.
The most common food allergens are:
- Cow’s milk/dairy products
- Tree nuts
You might notice that gluten isn’t on this list. A true gluten allergy is quite rare, but many people feel like they have a gluten intolerance. The same is true for other food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance and histamine intolerance.
Food intolerances aren’t life-threatening like food allergies are. Food intolerances can cause distressing symptoms that can be detrimental to your health, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, gas, bloating, headaches/migraines, and heartburn.
If you have these symptoms when you eat particular foods but haven’t been diagnosed with a food allergy, then you likely have a food intolerance.
Natural remedies for eczema
Prescription treatments can help with a bad eczema flare-up, but the best medicine is prevention. You can help reduce the frequency and severity of eczema flare-ups by helping your skin not to be so irritated.
Here are some natural remedies to help keep your eczema at bay.
Keeping your skin moisturized is one of the best ways to avoid irritation. When skin is dry, it can become itchy, leading to scratching and even abrasions from breaking the skin. Once the skin is broken, you’re more susceptible to skin infections.
Your dermatologist might recommend a specific moisturizer for your eczema. In general, you may want to avoid moisturizers and skin products with the following ingredients (according to some dermatologists):
- Cocamidopropyl betaine
- Essential oils
- Propylene glycol
Coconut oil and sunflower oil are great natural moisturizers. You can even find recipes for homemade eczema creams, which might include ingredients like shea butter, coconut oil, and manuka honey.
Avoiding hot baths & harsh soaps
Hot baths and foaming soaps can dry out your skin, stripping it of the natural oils it needs to stay hydrated. Lukewarm baths and showers are better for your skin, even if you don’t have eczema.
Bubble baths, foaming body washes, and other bath products can also dry your skin and worsen eczema.
While there is no cure for eczema, you can try to help reduce symptoms by eating an anti-inflammatory diet and avoiding any diet-specific triggers.
Having eczema means you might be more likely to have food intolerances or allergies, so allergy testing might be a good route to take as well.