Understanding Eczema and Dermatitis in Traditional Chinese Medicine
There are many different types of eczema and dermatitis. According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory, these can be diagnosed as different syndromes according to their various symptoms.
What these conditions all have in common is that they all cause inflammation and reddening of the skin. In TCM terms, this means that there is always an element of excess heat present. And because eczema and dermatitis affect the skin, in TCM, they are usually seen as disorders of the Lungs.
The Relationship between the Skin and the Lungs
In TCM, the skin and the Lungs are closely connected. They both play an important role in protecting the body from infection, and both are seen as respiring; the Lungs through inhalation and exhalation, and the skin through the opening and closing of the pores.
In TCM, most skin conditions can be attributed to an imbalance in the Lung system, and eczema and dermatitis are no different. Some people have a genetic tendency to develop Lung imbalances, and are therefore more prone to skin conditions. In other people, skin conditions can be caused by environmental or dietary influences.
Eczema and dermatitis are both forms of excess heat which can combine with other factors to cause symptoms on the skin and throughout the body. The most common of these combinations are wind-heat, and damp-heat. Let’s take a look at each one of these syndromes in detail:
Wind-Heat Affecting the Lungs
In this type of eczema, heat combines with pathogenic wind. Wind is an exterior pathogenic factor which causes symptoms such as itching and other allergic symptoms including sneezing, runny nose, and itchy eyes. People who suffer from atopic eczema are usually affected by wind-heat, meaning that in addition to symptoms on the skin, they are also likely to suffer from allergies and asthma.
Wind syndromes are said to be predominant in the springtime, a season when extra allergens are stirred up in the air in the form of pollen. This is why people with wind-heat type eczema may find that their symptoms get worse at that time of year.
The main symptoms of wind-heat type eczema are:
- Eczema may appear suddenly and spread quickly from place to place
- Eczema covers large areas with undefined edges
- The skin is itchy, scaly, and dry
- Eczema mainly affects the inner surfaces of limbs
- Symptoms are worse with stress, alcohol, sour food, hot weather
- Eczema may also be accompanied by constipation
This type of eczema is often due to an underlying deficiency of yin and blood, which leads the skin to become thin and dry. Therefore, the main treatment principle is to nourish yin and blood, while clearing wind and heat at the same time.
If you suffer from wind-heat type eczema, you should incorporate more nourishing, moistening foods into your diet. Increase your protein intake, and drizzle healthy oils (e.g. olive or flax oil) over salads and vegetables. Including some dairy produce in your diet may be useful, but in moderation as overindulging in these foods can harm your digestive organs. Avoid shellfish, which is very yang in nature and can stir up wind, and do not eat overly spicy food such as chili peppers.
Moisturize your skin often, and try adding emollient oils to your bath water. This should help to increase the moisture content of your skin, and help to prevent itching.
Damp-Heat Affecting the Lungs
In damp-heat type eczema, there is still an excess of heat, but in this case it combines with pathogenic dampness rather than wind. This means that the skin tends to be moist and oozy instead of dry, and seborrhoeic dermatitis is a classic example of this.
Pathogenic dampness can develop as a result of living in damp conditions, but it is more often caused by a diet rich in damp-forming foods. These foods put a strain on the digestive organs, the Stomach and Spleen, and excess fluids begin to gather around the body.
Because the Spleen and the Lungs are directly connected via the five element cycle, this digestive dampness can quickly spread to the Lungs, and therefore the skin. This causes damp-heat type eczema.
The main symptoms of damp-heat type eczema include:
- Eczema which is fixed in one location and difficult to treat
- The skin may be thickened and cracked, weeping or bleeding
- Skin can easily become infected
- Eczema mainly affects the nape of the neck and skin folds
- Symptoms are worse during pregnancy or menstruation
- Eczema may also be accompanied by diarrhea or loose stools
This type of eczema is caused by too much yin moisture gathering under the skin, and the main treatment principle is to clear the dampness and heat, while supporting the digestive organs.
Diet is the most important way to manage this type of eczema. If you have this type of eczema, you should avoid fatty foods, dairy produce, cold or raw foods, and iced drinks. Eat more warming, nourishing dishes such as soups and stews. Ensure that you are getting enough complex carbohydrates from whole grains or sweet potatoes, and include some gently warming spices such as ginger into your diet.
Ensure that you dry yourself gently but thoroughly after bathing in order to prevent more excess moisture from entering the skin, and check that your home is not affected by damp.
The Role of Blood in Eczema and Dermatitis
Although in TCM the primary causes of eczema and dermatitis are wind-heat or damp-heat affecting the Lungs, blood also plays an important role.
In TCM, the blood is responsible for moistening the skin. If blood is insufficient, the skin will become dry, itchy, and cracked over time. It is also important that the blood is able to circulate freely in order to deliver nutrients to the skin and remove waste products effectively.
If your eczema is due to blood stasis, you may have very dry skin with visible veins. One classic example of this is varicose eczema.
Ensure that your blood is healthy and circulating freely by incorporating more blood-building foods into your diet. These include red meat, liver, eggs, and leafy green vegetables.
Steroid Creams in Traditional Chinese Medicine
The most common treatments for eczema and dermatitis are corticosteroid creams such as hydrocortisone. These creams are very effective at reducing symptoms in the short-term, but since they do nothing to address the underlying imbalance, symptoms quickly return once you stop using them.
Using these creams all the time can cause problems such as thinning skin, increasing the risk of damage and infections. Many TCM practitioners also believe that using steroid creams pushes the inflammation deeper into the body, leading to other issues such as asthma.
Therefore, many eczema sufferers would benefit from a therapy which addresses the root cause of eczema, treating it from the inside, out. And that is where acupuncture and Chinese medicine come in.
Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine for Eczema and Dermatitis
Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can help with eczema in a number of ways. Your provider will make a diagnosis based on your individual symptoms, and work to rectify any imbalances in your Lung system or digestive organs.
Acupuncture and herbs can be used to reduce inflammation and improve your circulation, while removing pathogenic heat, dampness, and wind. These therapies can also help you to manage your symptoms such as itching, and can therefore relieve other problems like poor sleep. Along with your treatment, you will also be given personalized diet and lifestyle advice to help you to manage your symptoms between appointments.
Treatment with acupuncture and Chinese medicine works from deep within, meaning that progress can be slow, especially if you are used to getting quick relief with steroid creams. However, if you are willing to be patient and work together with your acupuncture provider, you may find that your symptoms improve more fully than before, and that you get much longer-lasting relief.