Herbal medicine for skin conditions
Medical herbalist, Lyn Blythe, looks at how herbal medicine can be helpful in the management of eczema, psoriasis, acne and rosacea
Writing an article on herbal medicine to address skin conditions is trickier than you perhaps might imagine! I think it’s fair to say that medical herbalists spend the majority of their time pondering over what is causing and exacerbating a skin condition in a particular patient. This is complicated by the fact that the exact causes and exacerbating triggers are highly individual. For example, two people with eczema are unlikely to have the same underlying combination of causes, so will usually be prescribed a different combination of herbs, selected for that individual. So, what follows is an attempt to generalise.
What is Herbal Medicine?
Herbal Medicine is made from plants such as echinacea and St. John’s Wort, and has been used for thousands of years. Medical herbalists combine the benefits of this traditional use with information emerging from modern scientific research to address most conditions seen by GPs. A benefit of herbs is that they are generally well-tolerated and safe, with a gentle action, yet can be amazingly effective.
General approach of the herbalist to skin conditions
Herbalists rarely use topical applications alone to address skin problems (eg. creams, ointments, oils, powders). Almost invariably herbal medicines, herbal teas and other measures such as dietary changes will also be suggested.
The skin is the largest organ of the body, and is not just a protective covering. One of the many functions of skin is to help the body eliminate waste substances from the body. Modern-day herbalists still use remedies such as dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and burdock (Arctium lappa), traditionally felt to support this function and so improve skin complaints. This is not the sugary “dandelion and burdock flavouring” often found in the shops nowadays though! Remedies should be introduced gradually.
The importance of good diet and digestion to health, including skin complaints, cannot be overstated. It is becoming increasingly apparent that a healthy bowel flora population is equally as important. It is possible to create a vicious circle of poor health because good digestion requires healthy bowel flora, but healthy bowel flora requires good digestion! The key to overcoming this potential problem is to attempt to identify causes of gut symptoms, such as intolerances to some foods – not least because intolerances can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which can then, in turn, lead to development of more intolerances. Clearly it is also advisable to drink plenty of water.
Other general factors for consideration when thinking about triggers of a skin complaint include hormonal influences, allergy and stress.
Although easier to say than to do, the underlying cause(s) should be sought. Food intolerances may be involved, for example, poor digestion of cow’s milk in children, often with associated low stomach acid secretion (hypochlorhydria), zinc deficiency and altered bowel flora composition. In addition to dietary triggers, other possible triggers include heat, stress, hormone fluctuations, some metals, soaps and other chemicals. As always, the combination of causes will vary from person to person. It is important to try to avoid scratching the area as this increases the itch, and can lead to secondary infection.
Following measures to identify triggers, a herbalist will usually combine several herbal medicines (tinctures) to produce an individual, tailor-made, medicine. A mix of dried herbs (tea) may also be used. There are hundreds of potentially appropriate herbs to choose from, the selection being based on the entire medical history of the person (eg. tendency to high blood pressure, allergies, previous medical conditions). Some frequently used for eczema include red clover (Trifolium pratense), cleavers (Galium aparine) and nettle leaf (Urtica dioica).
The choice of topical application is determined mainly by whether the skin is weeping or dry. In the case of dry skin, creams or oils can be used (without chemicals). These are commonly based on chamomile (Matricaria recutita), marigold (Calendula officinalis) and chickweed (Stellaria media). Mint (Mentha piperita spp) may be added for a cooling and slightly anaesthetizing effect. Cooled chamomile tea or witch hazel (Hamamelis viginiana) lotion can be used for weeping eczema.
Possible causes of psoriasis are many and varied, so attempts to address it must consider factors such as dietary triggers, poor digestion plus nutrient deficiencies and altered bowel flora, stress, hormones as well as environmental factors, such as cold climate. Flare-ups often occur following respiratory tract infections. Much has been written recently regarding vitamin D deficiency and immune function.
Herbs used to address psoriasis are similarly many and varied, reflecting the myriad of individual causes. This can necessitate a certain amount of “trial and error”. Herbs frequently used include burdock, Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) and yellow dock (Rumex crispus), usually in the form of tinctures in a medicine taken orally. Others to try include cleavers, red clover, nettle leaf and heartsease (Viola tricolor). Additional herbs will be added in order to address exacerbating triggers such as stress, or co-existent health conditions. Herbalists may use pokeroot (Phytolacca decandra), but this is not generally available.
Although herbs are used topically too, as is the case for eczema, topical application alone is unlikely to have a significant, long-term effect, but nonetheless aims to reduce plaques and inflammation. Choices include marigold, plantain (Plantago lanceolata), thuja (Thuja occidentalis), echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). The tinctures can be added to a cream base.
Acne vulgaris (common acne)
This is the acne commonly seen in adolescence. Although clearly affected by hormonal changes, it is also advisable to improve diet, for example, by reducing refined foods and increasing water, fruits and vegetables.
Herbs which have been used (as tinctures) include dandelion root, burdock, cleavers and echinacea, although herbalists will usually add others too, in accordance with the rest of the person’s medical history or tendency to other health complaints. Sometimes chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) is used. Research is beginning to throw light on this traditional use, supporting a potential hormone-normalising effect.
Cooled chamomile and/or marigold tea can be tried as a wash. Both these herbs contain constituents which studies suggest have an anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory effect. Marigold tea is made by brewing a dessertspoon of flower heads or petals for 10 minutes in a warmed and covered pot, then straining and cooling. If you are buying marigold, make sure the petals have retained some of their orange colour. Those which have been stored in a manner that allows their colour to fade will also have lost many of their active constituents. Another useful topical application is witch hazel.
Although known as acne rosacea, this is a very different condition to common acne. It can be exacerbated by stress, hot climate or temperatures, spicy foods and alcohol. There may be upper gastrointestinal symptoms such as reflux. The onset in women may be associated with pregnancy or the menopause, suggesting hormone involvement.
Having identified and addressed as many of these factors as possible, herbs which have been used include chaste tree, echinacea and yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Others will be added according to medical history and triggers. For example, if stress is believed to be a major exacerbating factor, herbs such as passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) or skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) may be used. Herbs used traditionally to “detoxify” will usually be used too, such as dandelion and burdock. As always it is important to optimise digestion and diet.
The same herbs used topically for eczema can be used topically for rosacea. Try on a small area first as the skin is likely to be sensitive.
Lyn Blythe BSc (Hons) MNIMH MCPP MCSP
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