Healthy skin is like a healthy garden: healing eczema with herbal medicine and acupuncture

By Rhea Dykoski, L.Ac, Dipl.O.M.

Keeping skin healthy is a lot like keeping garden soil healthy. I came to this conclusion as a result of two experiences: working on an organic farm and learning how to heal my own inflammatory skin condition with herbs, nutrition, and acupuncture.

The most important part of a healthy garden is healthy soil. The main things that distinguish unhealthy soil from healthy or fertile soil are the presence of thriving microbiota and humus. In healthy soil, fungi and bacteria (microbiota) create humus, the structure that retains moisture and stores nutrients. The microbiota also digest stones, making their minerals available for plants. Microbiota are sensitive and easily damaged. Conventional farming techniques apply harsh chemicals to the soil, killing the microbiota. When the microbiota die, humus is no longer created. Without humus, the soil dries out and minerals wash away, leading to further dependence on chemicals.

The microbiota of the soil are just like the microbiota in your digestive system. The digestive microbiota break down food, provide access to vitamins and minerals, and protect the surface of your intestines. When digestive microbiota are damaged, whether from processed foods, food sensitivities, antibiotics, alcohol, stress, sleep deprivation, or other factors, needed nutrients will not be available and the digestive tract will become damaged by undigested food.

A damaged digestive system can lead to many illnesses, including illnesses of the skin. Inflamed intestines and stomach become hyperactive first and sluggish later. In Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, when the digestive system is sluggish it is common for dampness to accumulate in the body. For people with eczema, dampness is accumulating in the skin.

What is eczema?

The long-term effects of eczema, a delayed allergic reaction causing red, itchy, flaky skin patches, are similar to having a patch of infertile soil. The names eczema and dermatitis are used interchangeably, but technically eczema is a type of dermatitis. Traditional Chinese Medicine calls eczema shi zhen (damp eruption), since it is weeping and is often a result of congested fluids accumulating in the body.

Eczema-affected skin may be moderately to very itchy. Eczema is most commonly located in damp or oily parts of the body, such as the inner elbow and scalp. An eczema patch weeps fluid, whereas healthy skin retains or sweats fluid as needed. Inflamed tissues require more of the body’s energy than healthy tissues and produce more waste materials.

New flare ups of eczema are often very red and itchy with papules (red bumps) that can crack open and weep fluid. Chronic inflammation and weeping depletes the tissues, which over time become dryer and take on a dull red color with thicker crusted skin. In the long term, eczema is a major drain on the entire body, leading to premature aging.

How herbal medicine and acupuncture can help eczema

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are three main types of eczema:

  • The Spleen Damp type
  • The Heart Fire type
  • Liver Wind type

The appearance of your eczema patches and your general health symptoms will give clues to the type of eczema you have and this diagnosis will guide the treatment plan. For example, if someone has a history of chronic stress, prolonged anger, oily skin, or a red tongue tip, I would consider the Heart Fire type first. If someone has puffy or thin skin, has digestive complaints, or is frequently fatigued, I would think of Spleen Dampness first.

Since eczema is a condition that can be caused by many underlying factors, during an initial consultation, we discuss all of your health symptoms, even ones that seem unrelated. We also discuss the health of your family to look for inherited weaknesses and discuss your current diet as well as your childhood diet.

Acupuncture can help eczema by promoting healthy circulation of blood and fluids, reducing inflammation, and strengthening the immune system.

However, acupuncture cannot add missing nutrients or microflora. This is why herbal medicine and nutritional therapy are often needed for healing skin conditions. Herbal medicine can add nutrients to the body and influence the blood and body fluids more directly than acupuncture. Herbal medicine is typically used for 2–4 months to sustain the effect while your body heals.

Dietary changes can also heal the skin. It usually takes much longer to see a change in your skin from dietary changes, but this is the most important technique for long-term strengthening of your skin and digestive system.

The most effective method for healing eczema is a combination of long-term dietary changes, herbal medicine to guide the healing process, and acupuncture to open energetic blockages.

For more information

Xu, Yihou, Dermatology in Traditional Chinese Medicine (2004).

Fukuoka, Masanobu. Sowing Seeds in the Desert (2012).

Jeavons, John. How to Grow More Vegetables: Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine (1995, 5th ed.).

Author’s Note

I’m very happy to have recently joined the Red Clover Clinic. While writing this article, I thought of how great “red clover” is as a name for a healing center, since red clover is an excellent herb for healing the soil and for healing the skin, including eczema. It is an herb which cools inflamed skin, remove toxins, and is rich in vitamins and minerals.