eczema, my journey, pregnancy, skin biome, skin care, women's health, wounds and infections

breast milk for wound healing

agriculture animal blue sky breakfast
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As some of you may know I am currently nursing my 3 month old baby girl, and in doing so as she is my first, I’ve learned that leaking is a thing (sometimes it occurs when she’s nursing on one side- the other side will start to drip milk, and other times they seem to leak for no apparently reason at all). As I wear nursing pads in my shirts during the day, the problem begins at night when I’m in bed trying to sleep. The leakage then can be really annoying. So my most recent solution has been spreading the milk on my skin, because why not- it’s already leaking all over it anyway.

My less impulsive logic for trying this experiment came from some research I had been doing a few weeks ago about breastmilk and its health benefits for the baby. Fi got sick and I wanted to know how her immature immune system could handle sickness when she only intakes breastmilk as her food source. This search led me to an internet viral photo showing how a mom’s breast milk changed when her infant got sick. The 2013 study mentioned in that post talks about breast milk’s immunological function and explains how when the mom or baby get sick, the number of leukocytes (aka white blood cells) in the breast milk drastically increases to help protect them, because leukocytes help fight disease (which I found to be such a cool example of symbiosis. I personally have also noticed that breastfeeding seems to keep both me and the baby from getting too severe of sicknesses. In fact, my mom, mother-in-law, and husband each got sick after the baby was born yet Fi and I were fine!).

I also read an article by NPR addressing the breastfeeding versus formula debate for poor countries.  A point it stated made me more curious about breast milk; it said formula can cause increased risks of diarrhea and respiratory infections. I assumed this is so because it requires using water to make (and clean sources are not always available in impoverished countries) but maybe it’s also because formula doesn’t have the same chemical and bacterial composition to allow it to be readily accepted by the baby’s developing digestive and immune systems? By extension I supposed that breast milk had to have some component in it that generally allows it to not irritate the digestive and immune systems*… which is my big sign to think “MICROBIOME” (* this of course is excluding when the baby has allergies or sensitivities to something the mom is eating that is going into her breast milk). The article also talked about how it’s weird that we are constantly trying to research the benefits of breastfeeding when it’s as natural as “breathing, chewing, hearing, passing stool”. But we live in a society where we need evidence and so I decided to play the game of informal (and badly controlled) science to see if I could test my own theory, that breast milk may help with (eczema) healing.

I did not participate in the rigors of the scientific process because I am lazy and I doubt Fi would be content amusing herself long enough for me to do it, but instead I just dabbed some breast milk on my shallow cuts every now and then instead of using neosporin or leaving the cut alone. My observations: it would seem as though breast milk can help with reducing the pain of shallow cuts (I tried it on the cracks on my knuckles and outer ears, cuts on my ankles and hands), and helps to speed up the healing of said cuts. It does not moisturize (the spots I put it on tended to be drier the next day… though that could be because when cuts heal on me, they start skin flaking…) but overall, the spots I put it on did seem to heal up and achieve a cleaner scab and softer skin around it.

Apparent cons of this experiment? The milk can sometimes burn (but again, everything burns when it touches my inflamed skin spots… even water) and it’s also a little sticky but it dries sticky-free. Fun fact, I have a pet peeve about being sticky. I hate it. So much.

After this self experiment, I was more curious to support why I might be seeing the results I saw so I did some low level cursory research. Also speaking of research, I received my diploma the other day. I officially have a Master of Science in Health Sciences from MGH Institute of Health Professions. I am now a MASTER of science. The academic title of master seems somewhat archaic; I envision myself similar in status to an entry-level alchemist or and mage, as I have established myself in a trade, but it will still take years to perfect my craft. Anyway…

There’s not a lot of recent research being done (or at least it’s not readily available yet) but I did come across two recent ones. This first paper, of which I could only access the abstract, tested wound healing of the cornea (yes, of the eye) in mice using human breast milk, milk from mice, artificial tears, and the control group. The results were that the human breast milk caused the fastest healing, followed by the mouse milk. The other two groups (artifucial tears and the control) were still not healed by the end of day two. The other study I found was published in 2015 in Nature, and it was titled, “Human milk proresolving mediators stimulate resolution of accuse inflammation”. It came to the conclusion that the lipid mediator-specializing proresolving mediator profile (a ratio of sorts between lipid mediators and specialized proresolving mediators) in human milk helped the macrophages (or cells that engulf bad bacteria) to contain pathogens and remove dead cells (in a process called efferocytosis- my word of the day). It is important to note that this was seen in vivo (in mice), and that breast milk was not applied topically to the skin. If the results are applicable to humans, I see this study as being useful because people with eczema suffer high levels of inflammation internally not just on their skin, and because turning off the inflammatory phase is also important in wound healing (more on this in a later post).

After that article I backtracked and wanted to know more about what breast milk is, which led me to this document that included the various components of breast milk (though I can not find the professor or the molecular virology lab anywhere else on the web…). Also note that the tables say the various factors are tested “in vitro” meaning not in the organism (for example, secretory IgA from breast milk was probably removed from breast milk and tested in a petri dish against E. coli). Even so, the breadth of potential abilities of breast milk, due to its staggering list of factors alone was interesting in its own right.

In conclusion, though I don’t think breast milk applied externally heals the mother’s eczema or TSW, I do think it can help me with superficial wounds, especially when it’s the middle of the night and I am otherwise unmotivated to leave the bed even if I’ve been scratching.

 

REFERENCES

Arnardottir H, Orr SK, Dalli J, Serhan CN. Human milk proresolving mediators stimulate resolution of acute inflammation. Mucosal Immunology. 2016, May 9;9(3):757-766.

Asena L, Suveren EH, Karabay G, Durson Altinors D. Human Breast Milk Drops Promote Coreanl Epithelial Wound Healing. Curr Eye Res. 2017 Apr;43(4):506-512.

alternative/holistic medicine, eczema, exercise and activity, flare-up, food and nutrition, my journey, NEA, pregnancy, relationships, skin biome, skin care, sugar, topical steroid withdrawal, topical steroids, topicals, women's health, wounds and infections

my deviation from the beaten path

gray pathway surrounded by green tress
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Today’s post is all about trying to convey what life with eczema is like for me. The first thing I need to stress is that my condition was not always this severe. I can remember a “before”, as my condition didn’t start affecting my skin globally until I was 21 or 22.

So how has eczema affected me?

  • insomnia – Some nights I was unable to sleep until 6am. More recently off and on I have difficulty sleeping from midnight to about 6am.
  • food paranoia – Given that I have legitimate food allergies to peanuts, pistachios and cashews, I know how to deal with food allergies that cause anaphylaxis. What I don’t know how to deal with is the thought that some common food might have developed into being the cause for the severity of my skin issues. Also sometimes I’ll eat something that is usually fine for consumption, and I’ll break out in hives in my mouth inexplicably and the next time I consume said food, it won’t happen.
  • many different diets – I have tried the gambit of elimination diets, auto-immune diets, vegetarianism, paleo diets, sugar-free diets, low-carb diets, detox diets, etc).
  • food-related social repercussion – You have no idea how frustrating it is to have people think I am “just being picky” when I am avoiding certain foods or diets. It’s usually when I’m avoiding gluten, dairy, or soy or other common American-diet staples. What I don’t understand is why people think I enjoy avoiding these foods… do they not know my undying love for pizza and ice cream?
  • intimacy issues – picture not being able to cuddle on the couch while watching a scary movie without covering myself in a blanket to make sure my skin doesn’t touch my husbands. Long drawn out hugs? Nope.
  • skin-to-skin with baby issues – I have adapted to the lifestyle of needing to put a barrier between me and my baby’s skin. When I feed her, I throw a cloth on or wear long sleeves before I put her head on my arms. When I have her in a carrier, I try to put a layer between her face and my chest, or else I know I’ll have to take her out earlier as my chest will start turning red, flushing, and itching.
  • exercise limitations – Up until my junior year of college I was doing many different sports and activities including soccer, track and field, long runs on my own, ultimate frisbee, generically running around like an idiot, etc. Post-eczema life, unless I can get a flare to calm down for months, cardio is a nightmare. Hell, at this point in time, just going for a long walk in the summer induces itching everywhere that takes at least 10 minutes in an air-conditioned building to relieve.
  • summer nightmare – See what I mentioned about walking above and now just add that to general life in the summer. I do well if I don’t move, and if I avoid direct sunlight. Though I also need sunlight for vitamin D (and in my previous life I loved the sun) so I’ll pop outside for a few minutes to bask in the sun’s warm embrace and then I’ll overheat and have to come inside. At least the itching only starts if I sweat.
  • pain (cracked skin) – During certain stages of a flare I dry out (especially at night or after washing my hands or other random times) and my skin will crack. The worst areas are my hands (which will fissure all over) and my ears, as well as sometimes under my eyes.
  • obsession – I spend so much time thinking about my skin and worrying over if I am doing something to make it worse, or not doing enough. It gets exhausting really.
  • career switching – I dropped out of my physical therapy doctorate program because I just couldn’t deal with my skin. I wasn’t sleeping, I was uncomfortable sitting (more on that in a bit), and I couldn’t stand being in an air-conditioned room (see below), or being touched or coming in contact with another’s skin, which made it incredibly difficult to practice the hands on aspects of PT. I am now still in a stage of making my own career, which while exciting, is stressful when I have to talk about it because it’s not a clear cut “oh, yeah, I do X” anymore.
  • fear of infections – As my skin barrier is compromised so often, the risk of infections, primarily Staph, is high. I spend a lot of time wondering if I am infected and worrying when I catch a cold or something that I have contracted Staph (again).
  • hand washing (pain/itching) – Imagine how many times you have to wash your hands or use hand sani when you are a PT student working in a clinic. Doing dishes is irritating enough. Sometimes even just taking a shower will irritate my skin.
  • cleaning frequency – Given that I shed skin faster than the average human, I spend a lot of time cleaning to try to not live in my own skin dust filth.
  • social situation aversion – When I am flaring, I have no desire to go out, not only because I worry about the stares I get for physical appearances, but also because it takes so much energy to deal with varying temperatures, varying foods, varying stressors, usually a lot of sitting, the inability to play/dance without itching, etc.
  • general discomfort (pain, itch, smell) – Eczema this severe is uncomfortable. The obvious is that it itches, and not like a “I have a random little itch” but more on the level of if a swam of mosquitoes bite you all over your body but instead of having angry welt-y bite marks externally, they are all inside your body and not visible to anyone. The pain comes from the cracking I mentioned above, as well as the pain of the self-inflicted wounds from scratching too hard. When I have a bad flare, I develop this scent that I call the burning rubber skin that I loathe.
  • depression and anxiety – It’s no surprise that aggressive and long lasting flares take an emotional toll. As I spend time in pain, itching, paranoid about foods I eat, avoiding people, and unable to exercise and play as I normally would, sometimes my moods take a nose dive.
  • money spent – From skin care lotions and moisturizers, general soaps, bath products (bleach, epsom salt, apple cider vinegar), natural house cleaning products, dry brushes, the rebounder, to the doctors’ visits, etc, this condition isn’t cheap.
  • doctor visits (dermatologists, endocrinologists, neurologists) – There is something very frustrating about seeing many doctors and still getting no relief. I have moved a few times in the last past 4 years and as a result have an even larger number of individual doctor visits under my belt. The general consensus? I am fine (as in no underlying crazy cause of my skin issues like cancer), but I have eczema. Oh and have I tried using steroids creams? -.-
  • hormone imbalances – Since I spent so much time inflamed, I usually have a highly elevated level of immune stuff, like my white blood cell count. When my skin first started going haywire, I also have high cortisol level, which made doctors think I had a hormonal imbalance and first order an MRI of my brain.
  • forever fielding questions – “Have you tried X??” “What’s wrong with your skin?” “Do you use lotion?”
  • excoriation disorder (dermatillomania) – Due to very often having flaky skin, I have developed a picking disorder where I spend inordinate amounts of time trying to remove dead skin from my body. It’s become partially therapeutic and partially me trying to exert control over my uncontrollable presentation.
  • scratching OCD – I scratch all the time. In my sleep, when I’m stressed, when I’m relaxing. I don’t even notice I’m doing it sometimes.
  • scarring – Go figure from all that scratching I’d have scars.
  • ring wearing/jewelry/piercings – I no longer wear my wedding band on my left hand because the ring finger on that side is usually swollen. I wear it on my right now. I also had to take out my belly button piercing, my nose piercing, and all ear piercings except tragus one because the skin started itching so badly around them all.
  • hot inflamed skin with cold chills/shivering – One of the worst stages of a flare is when my skin is constantly wet and weeping and heated, but I’m losing so much heat that I am internal freezing and will shiver uncontrollably.
  • winter is bad – It’s hard enough to regulate my body temperature without the weather outside being frigid.
  • sensitivity to pressure contact (sitting/laying down) – This made PT school very trying. Hell, going to a doctors office and laying on the table, or sitting on a chair for too long made my skin feel terrible and heat up and start itching. This is even through wearing long sleeves and pants.
  • nervousness = flares – Some nervousness is good for keeping our brains alert. Unfortunately, any little bit of social nervousness (like before a practical or talking to new people) would cause me to start to flare and itch.
  • wrinkly, swollen skin – Still not sure why this happens (maybe it’s a product of topical steroid withdrawal) but the skin around my joints especially, on the extensor side, starts to look like that of an elephant.
  • discoloration – From redness to drying out gray/white, I am a veritable human mood ring.

And since people love me and will forever want to help, here is a list of what I have already tried:

  • topical steroids (for a good 20 years as this was the main accepted solution to eczema for decades)
  • topical medicines that are not steroids (Elidel/protopic, etc)
  • oral steroids
  • lotions/moisturizers (cetaphil, cera ve, aquaphor, dove eczema line, exederm, burt’s bees, obscurely-named-other-ones, etc)
  • going moisturizer free (actually does help with the red/weeping stage)
  • ocean water
  • chlorinated pools
  • naturopathy
  • acupuncture (including herbs, cupping, and massage)
  • diet (gluten free, soy free, dairy free, vegetarian, sugar free)
  • phototherapy (clinically done in light boxes, and just being in the sun)
  • antihistamines
  • sleep aid pills
  • yoga, meditation, and deep breathing
  • coconut and sunflower oil
  • bleach, epsom, and apple cider vinegar baths
  • antibiotics
  • collagen powder (edible)
  • collagen cream
  • wound care
  • probiotics

Update: I have not tried any biologics because I have been pregnant and am now nursing.

Despite all the shit that comes with eczema, there have been some silver linings in my experience including:

  • Having to deal with eczema year round has made me live much more seasonally. In the warmer months I try to take advantage of being able to walk outside for hours and garden to get vitamin D and get exposed to bacteria in the soil (and as stress relievers). In the colder months I turn to herbal teas and nourishing soups, and bundle up well to go on walks to get fresh air. I pay a lot more attention to what can grow when, and try to eat accordingly (like lighter foods in the summertime).
  • Having dealt with the difficulties of eczema for so long, in juxtaposition pregnancy wasn’t half bad (though to be fair my belly was small and I didn’t have morning sickness… but discomfort with sleeping? Aversions to certain foods? Tired randomly? Feeling generally uncomfortable? Yep, I was used to that all already).
  • In effort to control my flares, I am constantly open to trying new things (though my wallet isn’t!).
  • When I first came up to visit Jake, before we were dating, we had an honest conversation about eczema and I told him how bad it gets for me, and he still wanted to be with me. To this day, I’ve never had insecurity about my skin around him.
  • I have learned to really appreciate the good days. As a result, I’m generally even happier of a person.
eczema, pondering, wounds and infections

wound care treatments

teddy-teddy-bear-association-ill-42230.jpeg

Back in my physical therapy student life, we had guest speaker Pamela Unger come in to talk to use about the role of wound care in PT. Much of what we talked about I applied (in my head) to eczema and ways to help treat it for myself. I’ll share some of my thoughts below meshed in in italics with things I learned from Pamela, but note: these are ideas I came up with and are in no way necessarily endorsed or supported by research.

To begin, we need to know that wound healing normally has 3 phases: inflammation, proliferation, and remodeling. During all 3 phases there is vasodilation (aka the blood flow increases to help close up the wound).

The inflammation phase: As we with eczema have constant inflammation, this made me think maybe we are having trouble with this phase of wound healing in particularDuring this phase, the wound works to regain balance of its cells, and also fights to prevent infection, the latter which interested me because people with eczema are generally more susceptible to staph and other skin infections. Is it because our systems start attacking our own good cells and not just the infectious bacteria? Cellularly during this phase, inflammatory mediators are released (so do people with eczema lack these mediators?) and various cells like macrophages/neutrophils consume the bacteria, but presumably less successfully if patients with eczema get staph frequently. The intended results of this phase are that the bacteria and other foreign materials are cleaned out of the wound, and that inflammation is controlled.

During the proliferation phase, the wound starts to fill in and close. Cells called fibroblasts start making collagen (collagen is an important building block for skin cells), the extracellular matrix (a molecular substance that supports the structure of cells) is made, and there is new development of blood vessels (called angiogenesis). The intended results of this phase are that new blood vessels are made, the template for new cells is made (call the scaffold), and re-epithelialization occurs (which means epithelial cells move to form a barrier between the environment and the wound).

During the remodeling phase, the scar is developing and maturing. Cellularly, the collagen fibers start to line up and the skin becomes stronger especially to tensile stress (being pulled/stretched). The intended result of this phase is that the collagen fibers cross over one another adding strength to the wound. The only aspect of this phase that I think ties to eczema is when individuals have healed eczema scars that itch more than open or unhealed areas, but that would mean something chemical is happening and I don’t know why scar tissue would itch more than the other parts of the skin. Though I suppose it could also be assumed that if during a topical steroid withdrawal, the skin becomes excessively wrinkly, it could be a problem with collagen production? 

 

Now that we have the basics, we can talk about a chronic wound. I loosely decided that eczema is a chronic wound by this definition: a skin injury that fails to heal through the normal phases, in a normal amount of time.
A chronic wound can have one of two thickness classifications (usually applied to specific types of ulcers). The first is partial thickness, meaning the epidermis (or outer layer of skin) is broken, but the next layer (the dermis) may not be. A full thickness means the dermis is also broken as well as the fascia, and there may be a breakdown into the muscle/tendon/bone level. I believe generally eczema wounds are partial thickness, though I am sure there are some exceptions/particularly bad wounds that occur.

Generally wound healing can be stalled because of 4 main things:
1. a bacterial infection,
2. inadequate electrical potential (for we are beings of electricity! More on this and the idea of E-stim for eczema management in another post),
3. not having enough microcirculation (aka circulation of blood in the smallest vessels), or
4. too much pressure from interstitial edema (or swelling in between cell layers).

Other factors like age, nutrition, and topical/oral steroids also can slow healing. With nutrition, the biochemical aspects doctors check for wound care would be albumin, pre-albumin, hemoglobin, and hematocrit. They would also want to check that a person has enough protein, calories, and fluid in their diet. We know that when you have eczema, it is especially important to drink lots of fluid and have a balanced diet, but I am unsure if the four other biochemical factors have a correlation with eczema sufferers, though I would assume people with eczema would have decreased levels of albumin (because it’s a protein).

 

So how does one really maintain their skin health? Pamela’s big takeaways were to:
1. keep the skin clean and dry (a big reason we need to clean out the wound is because a biofilm (of bacteria) easily grows in a wound and blocks healing by messing up the chemicals needed to heal),
2. use warm water (not hot) on the skin (because hot water can cause us to have more water evaporation from our skin),
3. use daily hygiene techniques, and
4. MOISTURIZE.

For wound control, Dr. Unger broke it down to 4 steps.
1. Protect the wound surface. Think using gauze, bandaids, wet wraps, cotton clothing, etc. Wet wraps would also help keep in moisture. If excessive moisture, collagen can be useful for absorption (maybe that is why I was able to use a collagen night cream to heal my facial eczema when it was raw).
2. Control bacteria. She mentioned silver ions and slow-release iodine. I believe new eczema products are trying silver so another overlap may be indicated.
3. Control odor. Unclear if this is as application to eczema but she mentioned activated charcoal and I believe there are some eczema products that have charcoal (though I could be wrong).
4. Affect cells. She mentioned using collagen (though how it would apply to eczema wounds specifically, like if it should be orally taken or topically applied, I am not sure).

The last things Pamela mentioned in her wound care lecture that I thought tied well to eczema management were:
1. massage (it has been documented that massage can help eczema, though aggressive massage around a wound may impede blood flow and slow healing, rather than help. So if a person suffering from eczema has lots of open wounds, massage may be more detrimental than useful),
2. avoiding excessive pressure (as excessive pressure or friction can cause wounds, it stands to reason that slumping in a seat, or staying in one position for too long doesn’t help the skin of people with eczema. Getting up and moving seems to have more importance than just general health, mood boosts, and circulation!), and
3. keeping the eczema wounds moist rather than letting them dry out (in the past people believed wounds needed to air out and be dry, but Pamela explained this makes it harder for the wound to heal because it needs a level of fluid movement. I believe dermatologists would support this as I have heard /read about them saying that dry skin leads to itching, and scratching the itch is what causes the rashes).