If you've ever had poison ivy or poison oak, you know how terrible the sensation of long-term itching is. It's much like eczema, except that eczema is a condition that doesn't go away after a few days. If you have it, as millions do, you know how chronically uncomfortable it can be. The itch causes you to tear at and rend your skin. Pain is often easier to tolerate than the itching of eczema. Conventional medicine has long treated eczema as it does any other inflammatory condition - with steroids. But now conventional medicine has a much better alternative.

Unlike poison ivy and poison oak, which are external skin irritants, eczema occurs when your skin reacts to something inside your body. Doctor's don't have a clue to what it is in most cases, so they simply call the condition atopic dermatitis. The reason the cause is difficult to determine is because there are lots of ways to get it. One of the most common is allergy, usually to foods.

Your gut is designed to be your first line of defense against reactions to foods. However, lots of foods you eat might not be properly broken down completely. You can eat something like gluten (from grains) or dairy and the proteins get absorbed into your bloodstream. If they settle in your skin, and your immune system sees it as a bad guy, it will attack to get rid of it. That creates inflammation and itch. The proteins could also settle elsewhere, like your lungs. Then you could get asthma. Obviously, many cases of eczema could be resolved by dietary changes alone.

But there's a second cause of eczema that's quite common. Your skin can become more vulnerable if it loses its hydration (water). Dry skin leads to itching all by itself. Think of how your skin itches more in the drier indoor conditions during winter. Science has repeatedly shown how omega-6 fatty acids, such as evening primrose oil can ease eczema. It does so by providing more essential oils to the skin. It also acts as a moisture barrier, which helps to hydrate the skin.

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Well, medicine has finally come up with a way to treat the skin that uses this knowledge.

A fatty acid called palminitamide MEA (PEA) has wonderful anti-inflammatory properties. Researchers performed a study on 2,456 people, aged 2-70, with eczema on their forearms. They treated one affected forearm with an emollient called Eucerin. The other forearm received PEA. The study was not blind, meaning participants knew what was on each arm.
Researchers assessed itching, redness, scaling, dryness, thickening, and scratching of the skin. "With PEA cream, everything significantly improved or was eliminated," said Dr. Rebecca Smith at a meeting of the Skin Disease Education Foundation.

You know that I'm not a fan of prescription pharmaceuticals. However, I do like innovative pharmaceuticals that have far more potential to help than harm. This is likely one of the few. The main ingredient is designed to help restore the outer layer of your skin instead of suppressing inflammation (which is how steroids work).

If you have eczema, you might ask your doctor to give you a prescription of PEA. But don't start there. I'll have a few other alternatives you can try first in Friday's health alert. Don't miss it.

Family Practice News, November 15, 2006.

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