cultivating simple pleasures

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Today’s post is silly and short.

I remember the reoccurring theme in the French movie Amélie when the narrator tells us what each of the characters likes and dislikes. Because the protagonist Amélie grew up with no friends, she was said to have learned to cultivate an appreciation for the finer things in life, like collecting smooth stones for skipping, sliding her fingers into large burlap sacks of dried beans, and cracking freshly made crème brulée.

Well I too have devised my own version of weirdly satisfying simple pleasures for one living with eczema that I will share with you all so you can all be tantalized by these delicious (and mostly improbable) thoughts. Sorry if some of them are gross; I have a weird mind.

And so, without further ado, my current running list of cultivated simple eczema pleasures:

  • Dipping eczema flaky feet into those ponds of fish that lightly nibble dead skin.
  • Getting Elmer’s white glue all over the top of the hands and then pulling off the dried result (like we did as kids to our palms), and watching the dead skin pieces go with it.
  • Getting a Korean exfoliation skin massage and watching the bits of skin slew off (if this didn’t entail probably wrecking eczema-afflicted skin).
  • Having a lint roller for dead skin that can just roll the excess skin away.
  • Going into a mud bath equivalent of what was in the movie Spirited Away, and coming out all silky smooth as the mud deeply moisturized the skin cracks.

Then I have ideas for all these even more so crazy impossible scenarios, like a skin cheese peeler that only goes as deep as the dead cells and doesn’t hurt any new skin growth, and other weird things like that.

Clearly I’m feeling flaky these days. I’ve started to identify the fall season time as being when I identify most with a bear. I alternate between just wanting to roll up in blankets and hibernate for months and wanting to emerge to rub my itchy body on trees.

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Yeah, that’s me in a nutshell. Bears get me.

how to “solve” eczema

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Over the years I have gotten so much advice from well wishers about how to cure my eczema/topical steroid withdrawal (because in my case, the condition that changed my life was TSW, which was caused by the treatment of eczema). While some of the suggestions may be useful, more often than not they aren’t, and it may not be because the advice is something I’ve already tried or something outlandish. It may be more so because advice about a single aspect in my life to change doesn’t do anything impactful, because eczema’s root cause can be anything but singular.

I know some people are lucky: they remove the allergen (mold, gluten, soy, eggs, nightshades, dairy, dust), they decrease their stress, they exercise more, they find a supplement that really works, and bam, no more eczema. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.

My root cause seems to be tied to many different aspects, from overuse of topical steroids, to unresolved emotional issues after familial deaths, to increasing sensitivity to foods (on top of food allergies I was born with), to increasing discomfort with specific exercises and a sensitivity to heat and sweating, to insomnia and other sleep issues, etc. So being given a new product to try doesn’t really solve the other issues preventing me from quickly recovering from each flare.

What I do find interesting, is people that have learned to live with eczema (and/or topical steroid withdrawal) and the various lifestyle changes they have done to help keep their flares under control. I came across a post a while back called The Metaphysical Meaning of Eczema – Do People Get Under Your Skin, which I thought would just be talking about how my emotions cause my eczema, but I was pleasantly surprised to read the author’s inclusion of a whole host of other things she does in her life to help. Because yes, I am sensitive, both skin-wise and emotion-wise (I can now flare-up from heightened nervousness from public speaking, or due to misunderstanding over trivialities at the store) but, and I am indignant about this, my sensitivity didn’t cause my eczema, and it definitely didn’t cause my topical steroid withdrawal. It probably is the reason it takes me so long to heal (on top of the constant flow of changes in my life… e.g. getting married, moving 4 times, leaving my graduate program, buying a house, having a baby- all within the last 3 years). I have learned to be zen about skin-related sleep deprivation, about hives from foods I normally can consume, over having to adjust all forms of activity I enjoy, over forgiving myself for making “mistakes” that then provoked a flare, etc. I know I still have a ways to go to consistently help my emotions flow naturally and not build up stress, but I have made immense progress and my skin doesn’t always reflect that. Hence why I get up in arms when people try to reduce my condition down to me “just not doing x”.

Woof, okay so now that I’m done that rant, back to my initial idea around today’s topic. The point is, eczema can be a multifaceted b*tch of a condition, with varying twists and turns that dictate how it goes for different people. If you don’t believe me, try reading the experience of Daniel Boey in his book Behind Every Itch is a Back Story: The Struggles of Growing Up with Rash, or peruse any number of personal blogs out there these days about someone going through TSW.

My point is that while I am happy for people who find ways to rid themselves of eczema flares through a singular method, I find it frustrating when we see the gimmicks of “anyone can cure their eczema if they just do x!” and find it somewhat damaging to reduce all people with eczema into the same world because said singular solutions don’t work for everyone. I appreciate people that talk about the myriad of changes they have had to do, because it shows that the cause of eczema, as it is still unknown for the most part, requires different management for different people, hence why it is so hard to “solve”.

yoga for the atopically inclined

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This is a post I initially wrote after talking about the different alternative medicines and their content. I never ended up posting it because I had the baby and promptly forgot I wrote it. But without further ado, here is a post that focuses a bit more on the physical aspects of one of those holistic practices; yoga.

Though I love exercising, I am no stranger to avoiding heavy aerobically-intense exercise because of the nasty skin side effects that occur during a flare (the flushing sensations, the heating skin, the sweating/wetness in flexor surfaces, the rashes, and the insatiable itching). One of the times I got the best reprieve from my flares and related skin symptoms was February of 2016 when I was doing a 200-hour yoga teacher training. I took anywhere from 1-3 classes, 5-7 days of the week in rooms with high temperatures and lots of humidity. As I breathed through new poses and slowly worked my muscles and  focused on breathing and meditation, I felt stronger and better day by day. I won’t say my eczema went away because it didn’t, but the movements and concentration on my breathing did help my skin improve a lot, and in February no less (usually the winter months are worse for my skin).  At the same time, practicing that much yoga naturally made me want to eat cleaner because I felt heavy if I tried to practice after eating unhealthy foods (so at the time I tried out the Whole 30 Diet).

As I tried to recover from the particular cold, damp prolonged and lingering last bit of the Northeast winter weather, I decided I wanted to make use of my teacher training and research the best exercises to promote blood flow, skin healing, and stress reduction. My goal? To help my own skin maintenance (and the skin of anyone else who wishes to try this routine). So first I’ll give a brief explanation of some the theories behind how yoga can help eczema. Then later in the post I’ll show a few poses that have been said to be most beneficial to add to a yoga practice (and mostly ones that a beginner could do) to help the skin.

From my teacher training I learned that in yoga, there are 7 major chakras, or energy cluster points, that line up with the spinal column where nadis, or channels intersect. These channels carry prana or our life force energy. Of the 7 chakras, each corresponding to a respective spot on our spinal column, the 3rd chakra, Manipura is said to be unbalanced when we see skin conditions like eczema. Manipura is located in the solar plexus and corresponds to physical body parts such as the detox organs (liver, spleen, etc). When this chakra is unbalanced, as in it is underactive, people may feel a lack of control or a tendency to withdrawal from social situations. Poses said to help invigorate this chakra include core strengthening poses such as those that entail isometric contractions, and breathing focus. This can include poses that entail twists (because they engage the core muscles to be able to do the poses well, and are said to help with detoxing).

So first off, does yoga truly help eczema? Well, some studies have show that it helps reduce inflammation after moderate to strenuous exercise. Others indicate it helps with the glycation process (mentioned in my post about sugar’s effects on eczema), by increasing the muscles’ glucose uptake, and therefore reducing blood sugar levels.

Yoga also entails a lot of focus on breathing (which can be beneficial for both getting you to distract your mind away from the itch and improving circulation of O2). It also often includes a meditative component, and meditation has also been seen to help eczema. It can be useful for reducing stress levels and improving sleep as well.

In general all of those effects would help alleviate a lot of the issues that eczema comes with, and personally I got more into yoga because it was one activity that didn’t induce worser flares for me. Plus getting a good night’s sleep is huge, since we do so much healing when we are catching some z’s.

Here is my take on poses for eczema, though most of these poses are somewhat “general” because they are known to help symptoms of eczema (such as inflammation, bad circulation, stress), aka they benefit the skin generally. Then again, there is no “cure” for eczema in isolation, so getting up and moving and in this case doing yoga will most likely help with eczema too.

Here are specific poses I found listed on various websites that were said to help the skin (with photos of me demonstrating! Note: I won’t demo the twists as I am over 8 months pregnant at the moment).

Livestrong.com suggests a lot of inversions (or poses with the head below the heart) including:

  • Legs Up a Wall (beginner friendly. I only stayed here for a few seconds to take this picture before getting off my back because it’s not the most comfortable when 38 weeks pregnant).

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  • Camel Pose (can be modified to be more beginner friendly. Note: keeping your hips pushing forward so they are lined over your knees. Also note that I am not reaching for my ankles because I am too pregnant to keep good form attempting that so I’m just reaching my arms downwards).

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  • Wheel (needs a level of back/hip flexor mobility… wouldn’t suggest it for pure beginners and I will update myself doing it when eventually).

From healthline.com we have asanas for beginners to yoga with the intent to decrease stress (in this case for psoriasis, but stress is stress):

  • Child’s Pose (my big toes are touching and my knees are out wide as the mat, and I am sinking my hips down and back while reaching my arms forward. Though I am limited to how far I can stretch downwards by the baby).

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  • Salutation Seal (never knew it was called this, but essentially you sit cross-legged, keep your back nice and tall, and bring your hands to your chest like you are praying).

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And lastly, a few from HolisticVanity who brings up poses to help with inflammation:

  • Seated Twist (again I’ll get around to adding this photo)
  • Revolved Chair (ditto this one)
  • Warrior 1  (note that my lower back has a lot of curvature here, which is not ideal. The baby is pulled me forward and it’s hard to compensate, but generally you want to reduce some of that low back curving to make sure you are setting yourself up for the best alignment to continue the safest practice).

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  • Chair (note: I have my feet hips width distance apart to accommodate the baby, but normally the feet are together will a little space between the heels. Also I need to relax my shoulders down more and pull my ribs in to have better form, but my ribs are also flared out because I’m 38 weeks pregnant!!).

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REFERENCES

Beri K. Breathing to younger skin: ‘reversing the molecular mechanism of skin aging with yoga’. Future Sci OA. 2016 June; 2(2): FS0112.

NEA. “Can Mediation Help Ease Eczema Itch?” National Eczema Association, https://nationaleczema.org/meditation-ease-eczemas-itch/. Accessed 30 Jul 2018.

Vijayaraghava A, Doreswamy V, Narasipur OS, Kunnavil R, Srinivasamurthy N. Effect of Yoga Practice on Levels of Inflammatory Markers after Moderate and Strenuous Exercise. J Clin Diagn Res. 2015 Jun;9(6):CC08-CC12.

Woodyard C. Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. Int J Yoga. 2011 Jul-Dec;4(2):49-54.

Ziel, Erica. “The 5 Best Yoga Poses for Pregnancy and 4 to Avoid.” Livestrong, https://www.livestrong.com/article/332706-yoga-poses-avoid-during-pregnancy/. Accessed  30 Jul 2018.

skin-healing magic dirt

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Here’s little bit of writing for fun that I came up with during a bout of insomnia this week.


My mama always said you need to dig deep to really find yourself. What I didn’t realize was that she meant it literally.

The first warm weekend in New England, I found myself at Home Depot, my eyes scanning along the garden shelves looking for that perfect plant to take home with me. I had finally coaxed myself out into the sunlight and had witnessed what the winter had done to my yard, and knew it was time to help it heal. It didn’t take long for some hardy flower types to catch my eye and I quickly placed a bunch in my cart and wheeled them to the register. On the way I paused to think if I should buy gardening gloves, but then decided again it.

Soon I was at home, kneeling on the lawn scraping away layers of rock and gravel and old stiff mulch from my beds. As I gardened bare-handed I realized the dirt was getting everywhere, in my tiny cuts, stuck along the dry skin flakes, immersing my hands in their loamy fertileness. Though it was nothing like soaking in a warm bath, I felt comforted by the sun beaming down and the dirt encasing my hands. It felt natural and right, even though my hands were no less dry than any other day.

Later that afternoon as I washed the dirt off with soap, I realized my hands were cracking less and less itchy post-wash, unlike my usual discomfort from water and soap encounters. Though I still applied moisturizer, the effects of my gardening had already reduced some of the more persistent symptoms of my stagnant eczema, and I felt good. Obviously it was no cure, but the benefits of getting down and dirty with the dirt seemed to be somewhat relieving from the usual eczema grind.

It was nice to know that my non-flares hands were still down in their under the scrapes and wrinkles and redness and flakes, even if I had to dig down in the dirt to get to re-meet them.

 

there are germs on my skin! part 1

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A few years back I read a book called Farmacology by Daphne Miller. Miller is a physician who travelled around the United States to study farm practices and connect what she learned to how our bodies work as well as how the farming practices affect our health.

From that book I was inspired to learn more about sustainable habits and understand the complicated relationship between us and our land/food. I thought more about dirt and how we as humans wash and bathe excessively nowadays to kill all the germs, when some are not germs at all, but friendly non-harmful bacteria.

In 2013 I had a bad flare of eczema, and also got a staph infection. From thinking about the book again I realized that all systems have ecosystems of their own, including our skin, and that maybe the reason I had gotten a skin infection may have been because my natural skin cultures were not balanced (or in other words I had more of the bad kind of bacterias than the good). Studies are saying now, when you have a healthy mix of bacteria, they balance one another out and keep the “bad” bacteria in check, and as a result you get a strong skin barrier. When you lack the bacterial diversity, that’s when things go bad, and usually you’ll have an excess of Staphyloccocus aureus, which makes you more likely to have a skin flare. A study in 2013 showed that Staph a. makes a toxin that cause a release of other molecules we know are involved in the dysfunction of the skin in people with atopic dermatitis. It has become clear that unbalanced skin microflora can have particularly devastating consequences.

I’m going to briefly go into a little bit more about the skin and the skin biome. My information is coming from various articles including this one by NIH.

The job of our skin is to keep foreign organisms, dirt, etc out of our bodies. It has its own ecology with millions of diverse micro-organisms, some of which help the immune system learn which similar organisms are detrimental. As I said before, in healthy skin there is a balance of micro-organisms but when that balance gets disrupted it can result in infections or other skin issues.

Healthy skin is usually acidic and dry, and a cool temperature. Areas like the arms and the legs tend to be drier than other skin areas (like the groin, armpits, etc) and so they experience more temperature fluctuations. The acidity prevents certain bacteria, like Staphylococcus aureus, from colonizing the skin.  Other ways the skin fends off bacteria like Staph a. include using the hair follicles. The follicles have sebaceous glands that make sebum, a fatty substance that helps protect the skin by coating it with an acidic and antibacterial shield. Interestingly enough, in my experience, when my flares have gotten bad, I notice my hair (specifically on my arms and legs) falls out.

The skin is made up of multiple layers including the epidermis, which has a top layer called the stratum corneum that’s made of something called squames. Squames are the bits that are shed from the skin after about 4 weeks. I’d bet that the rate of squame shedding is what increases when someone has eczema, and the reason we shed so much when flaring/coming out of a flare.

Everything from clothing, antibiotic use, soaps, moisturizers, age, sex, exposure to environmental bacterias (like dirt and animals), and more can affect the micro biome.

A company that came up on my radar was Mother Dirt with their research partner AOBiome (I have no affiliation to either but I do think they are interesting!). AOBiome study chemicals in our modern skin/hair products and how they mess up our skin bacteria diversity. In particular, they look at a bacteria called Nitrosomonas that was on our skin before we used soap and detergents that messed up the bacteria’s ability to survive on us. AOBiome correlates that the decrease in this nonharmful bacteria is related to the increase in inflammatory skin issues.

Therefore, the goal of AOBiome is to create products that allow Nitrosomonas to live on our skin again, and at the same time help reduce skin inflammation. They are also researching eczema and how their products may be able to help (though according to their website they are still between phase I and phase II of 3 phases of product development). They are definitely a company to keep tabs on for the future.

 

REFERENCES

“AOB, Inflammatory Conditions, and Systenic Effects.” AOBiomeTherapeutics, https://aobiome.com/aob-inflammatory-conditions-and-systemic-effects/. Accessed 27 Sept 2018.

Grice E & Segre J. The skin microbiome. Nat Rev Microbiol. 2011 Apr;9(4): 244-253.

Kong HH, Oh J, Deming C, Conlan S, Grice EA, Beatson MA, Nomicos E, Pollet EC, Komarow HD, Murray PR, Turner ML, Segre JA. Temporal shifts in the skin microbiome associated with disease flares and treatment in children with atopic dermatitis. Genome Res. 2012 May;22(5):850-890.

Nakamura Y, Oscherwitz J, Cease KB, Chan SM, Muñoz-Planillo R, Hasegawa M, Villaruz AE, Cheung GY, McGavin MJ, Travers JB, Otto M, Inohara N, Núñez G. Staphylococus delta-toxin induces allergic skin disease by activating mast cells. Nature. 2013 Nov 21;503(7476):397-401.