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How to eat well: when a change in diet is the best medicine

    According to NHS statistics, the incidence of eczema increased by 40 per cent in between 2000 and 2005, affecting over five million adults and children in the UK, and the numbers continue to grow.

    There is more than one type of eczema, the most common being atopic which affects parts of the body where there are folds of skin, typically elbows, the back of the knees, between the fingers, on the neck and face. The affected areas can become inflamed, red and cracked with thickened skin.

    The first stop is, as always, your GP, but diet can play a role in reducing the severity of symptoms. Atopic eczema is partially linked to a fault in the way the body processes fats. Dietary fats are converted from the original form into useable forms by enzymes resulting in prostaglandins, short-lived hormone-like substances. Prostaglandins can either quash or trigger inflammation depending on which type the body produces. If the enzyme is working then anti-inflammatory hormones are produced from eating fat, yet a faulty enzyme leads to inflammation of the type that typifies eczema.

    Increasing intake of omega 3 fats from fish, or supplementing in the form of fish or flaxseed oil can bypass the first enzyme. The remaining enzymes require several nutrients, especially zinc, B3 and B6, magnesium, selenium and vitamin C. In practice, I find that zinc is often the most active of these and so including zinc-rich foods is important (poultry, seafood, seeds and yogurt are all good sources).

    Poor quality food could also be an issue. A study in the respiratory journal Thorax suggested that eating fast food more than three times a week increased eczema. It is not clear if saturated fats, salt and sugar in junk food was the trigger or lack of the food it displaced — namely fruit and vegetables. But it is likely that what we eat plays a role here.

    It is possible that food allergies can trigger eczema. Common allergens in this scenario are dairy, soy and egg. Rather than avoid foods that supply vital nutrients, it is wise to work with your GP or nutrition professional to identify if there is a link to an allergy.

    Finally, improvements from dietary changes and targeted supplementation can take anywhere from six to 10 weeks to show, so give it time.

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