People who suffer from skin conditions experience frustration and embarrassment on a daily basis. It's no secret that eczema and psoriasis are known to cause both physical discomfort and emotional distress. Many lose hope because although there are countless therapies available - each often promising their own miracle cures – the outcomes that result are often disappointing.
Recognising the frustrations, Naturopath Paul Keogh explores a fresh approach to managing skin complaints, using Chinese herbs in combination with nutritional and lifestyle approaches, to help restore healthy, glowing skin.
Did you know that the skin is the largest organ of the human body?
On average, it has an area of two square metres and a total weight of four kilograms. It is made up of two layers: the epidermis (outer layer) and the dermis (inner layer), which lie over a base of subcutaneous (fatty) tissue that connects to the muscles or skeleton beneath. Within the dermis is a complex system of nerve endings, blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, sebaceous glands, sweat glands and hair follicles.
The skin forms an important protective barrier for our internal organs and serves numerous vital functions. It is the first line of defence against pathogens and harmful substances in the external environment. It also provides insulation, plays a role in temperature regulation, controls fluid loss via evaporation and acts as an excretory channel for elimination and detoxification. Nerve receptors in the skin allow for important sensations including touch, heat, cold, pressure and pain. The skin also synthesises important substances including vitamin D and melanin.
Common Skin Conditions
Eczema and psoriasis are some of the most common conditions affecting the skin. Dermatitis encompasses a range of inflammatory skin conditions - including eczema, contact dermatitis, seborrhoeic dermatitis and neurodermatitis.
Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is characterised by chronic inflammation of the skin involving defined red rashes that feel hot, itchy and dry. Fluid filled vesicles can also develop along with oozing and weeping. With prolonged scratching, the affected skin becomes scaly and crusty. Triggers include diet, lifestyle or genetics, and other factors such as stress and heat may exacerbate the condition. Eczema most commonly affects people who suffer allergic disorders like hay fever or asthma. In Australia, around 30% of the population will develop eczema at some stage during their lives.
2. Contact Dermatitis
Contact dermatitis is a hypersensitivity reaction involving acute or chronic inflammation of the skin caused by a chemical irritant or allergen. The skin is commonly very itchy and appears red, swollen and inflamed. A scaly crust may develop on the skin as the inflammation subsides over time.
3. Seborrhoeic Dermatitis
Seborrhoeic dermatitis is characterised by inflammatory scaling of the scalp, face and other areas. It is often associated with a fungal infection of the skin and may involve genetic, emotional or hormonal factors. ‘Cradle cap’ in babies and dandruff are both types of seborrhoeic dermatitis.
Neurodermatitis is a self-perpetuating skin disorder involving chronic scratching that produces thickened, cracked and dry skin. The skin progressively becomes itchier, leading to a ‘scratch-itch’ cycle, where the person affected cannot stop scratching. People may have skin disorders (like eczema) or nervous conditions (such as anxiety).
Psoriasis is a chronic, hyper-proliferative skin disorder characterised by dry, red, well-defined patches with silvery scales. It is an autoimmune condition where immune factors within the skin are overactive, causing skin cells to proliferate and build up on the skin’s surface faster than they shed. This build up forms typical patches called ‘plaques’ that can appear anywhere on the skin but most frequently affect the elbows, knees and abdomen. As with other inflammatory disorders, stress can trigger and aggravate psoriasis.
4 Chinese Herbs to Soothe and Heal the Skin
The health of our skin is a reflection of our inner health and the health of our internal organs. From a Chinese energetic perspective, skin conditions like dermatitis and psoriasis develop from excess of ‘damp’, ‘heat’ or ‘wind’. ‘Damp’ may appear as fluid-filled vesicles or swelling in the epidermis, which can weep and ooze. This ‘damp’ causes itching and generates ‘heat’, which is synonymous with redness and inflammation. In chronic cases, this can also cause damage to Qi (vital energy) and Blood, which then become deficient and fail to nourish the skin. Blood deficiency also generates ‘wind’, which causes dryness and itchiness of the skin. The relentless ‘heat’ (inflammation) associated with many skin conditions not only damages the integrity of the skin but also depletes the skin’s defensive energy (‘Wei Qi’), making it more vulnerable to pathogenic invasion and infection.
Chinese herbs can offer effective, long-term relief from these skin complaints. While most remedies attempt to relieve symptoms externally via topical applications, Chinese herbs work internally to nourish and heal the skin.
Detoxify the Skin
Arctium lappa (Burdock) is a primary herb to treat skin conditions and is used in Chinese medicine to clear ‘heat’, resolve ‘damp’, dispel ‘wind’ and eliminate toxins. In Western herbal medicine, it assists detoxification and provides powerful anti-inflammatory actions that benefit dermatitis and psoriasis by repairing and cleansing the skin.
Blood Tonic Herbs
Nourish and Revitalise the Blood
Blood tonic herbs are important for resolving skin conditions like dermatitis and psoriasis, which often involve some degree of Blood stagnation. Angelica polymorpha (Dong Quai), Paeonia lactiflora (White Peony), Rehmannia glutinosa and Fallopia multiflora are renowned Blood tonic herbs that work to nourish and invigorate the Blood to help restore skin radiance and vitality. Fallopia is traditionally prepared by cooking the root for several hours in black bean juice and yellow rice wine. This method enhances its nourishing properties to augment the restorative effects of the herb. Extracts made in this way are ideal, compared to raw root extracts, which can retain mildly toxic compounds.
Relieve Itching and Dryness
The addition of Tribulus terrestris (Tribulus), Schizonepeta tenuifolia (Japanese catnip) and Saposhnikovia divaricata (Wind protector) relieve itching and dryness. Energetically, Japanese Catnip and Wind Protector release the exterior and clear ‘heat’, ‘damp’ and ‘wind’ to enhance the body’s resistance to irritation. Tribulus encourages the smooth flow of Qi and dispels ‘wind’ to relieve itching.
Regenerate the Skin
Energetically, Astragalus membranaceus (Astragalus) helps to dispel toxins from the exterior and regenerate skin. It also tonifies Qi (vital energy) to enhance resistance to infection. Glycyrrhiza uralensis (Licorice root) has important immune regulating and anti-allergic effects. However, its inclusion in most formulas is to harmonise the other herbs in the combination.
The above herbs are exceptional for helping manage eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis and hives (Urticaria). They also help to clear mild to moderate acne and minor boils as well as reduce skin thinning and improve skin texture and tone, which diminish with age.
Natural Solutions for Skin Conditions
Caring for the skin with botanical extracts and natural essential oils complements and reinforces the effects of internal therapy with the help of Chinese herbs.
Aloe Vera helps to relieve inflammation and itching, whilst cooling and moisturising the skin. Hydrastis canadensis (Golden Seal) and Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower) are excellent anti-microbial herbs. Propolis repairs the skin tissue and has important anti-inflammatory and antiseptic effects.
Essential oils like Tea Tree, Eucalyptus and Lemongrass all have powerful antimicrobial properties. Combining these powerful ingredients into a nourishing cream-base is a very helpful, prompt-acting, topical remedy, especially useful while the herbal combination takes effect.
Lifestyle and Diet Tips For Skin Health
When dealing with skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, avoiding potential triggers that can exacerbate the symptoms is imperative, including:
Be gentle on your skin
It is wise to choose gentle, chemical-free personal care and cleaning products. Minimising stress and exposure to excessive heat is also important; hot showers and air conditioning dry the skin. Getting some sunshine can be beneficial as it stimulates vitamin D production to support skin repair.
Consume nutritious, wholesome foods
Good nutrition is essential for healthy, radiant skin. It is important to consume a balanced diet that includes skin-nourishing foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are great for your skin! A high-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement complements a healthy diet and helps assure the skin get all the nutrition it requires.
Include omega-3 fatty acids
Essential fatty acids are vital to healthy skin. Fish and flaxseed oil supplementation provide beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation and allergic reactions.
Keep everything in moderation
It is wise to avoid exposure to potential allergens, and ingestion of excessive alcohol and greasy, fatty or deep fried foods, which can trigger or aggravate skin complaints. Combining the above recommendations with plenty of pure water to keep the skin hydrated, as well as regular exercise, you will be well on your way to developing healthy, radiant skin!