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Atopic Dermatitis & pH


Just what does acid/base balance have to do with atopic dermatitis?

It is easy to think of a skin disease as just a skin disease, but the skin is actually a lot like a canary in a coal mine; it is often the first place in the body to show there is imbalance elsewhere. It is perhaps the ancient Chinese who understood this concept best with an insult they saved for particularly bad doctors. "That doctor is so bad," they would say, "that he treats the eye when the eye is sick, and the foot when the foot is sick." What the ancient Chinese understood, that we often miss, is that the symptom of an illness itself is not, necessarily, the illness, but the sign of something amiss elsewhere in the body.

As the outermost layer of the body, the skin serves as the definitive barrier between us as individuals and the world around us. As such it can tell us a lot about what is going on throughout the body and atopic dermatitis could very well be a sign of imbalance within. Before we investigate what might be causing such internal imbalance, let's look a little closer a little closer at the problem on the outside - what, exactly, is atopic dermatitis.

What is atopic dermatitis?

Atopic dermatitis is a skin condition that generally first strikes younger children and is related to eczema, but is not eczema. It is a chronic disease that may be the result of an immune system that isn't functioning optimally or is functioning improperly. On a very basic level, atopic dermatitis is all about inflammation. Whenever you see redness, heat, pain and swelling, you can be sure you are dealing with an inflammatory disease.

Atopic dermatitis is often associated with a syndrome of related conditions such as asthma, food allergies, and hay fever. There is a familial tendency for this syndrome, where one or more of the associated conditions may appear in either the child with dermatitis symptoms or in a close family member. Atopic dermatitis can strike at any age, but is most common in children and younger adults. It is, however, a disease that people tend to outgrow, and it is rare to find it in anyone over the age of 25.

Atopic dermatitis often appears as a red patchy area that can become weepy and crusted over. It is often found on the face, scalp, in folds on the body, hands and feet, and can often be mistaken for diaper rash. In older children, it can be found in the crease of the elbow or the back of the knees. If scratched frequently, the rash can develop rough, raised, areas and a leathery appearance. The rash is often very itchy, which can lead to increased scratching (the so-called "itch-scratch cycle") that tends to be worse in the evening and through the night. Children with this disease often have a hard time sleeping because of the constant itching.

While you can look for creams and other topical treatments for atopic dermatitis, there are underlying imbalances that you may also want to consider as you try to improve this condition.

It is all about balance - pH balance

Your body likes balance; in medical terms, this is called homeostasis. Though the root suffix in this word means "static," there is never total stillness in living systems. Rather, the balance is a dynamic one that the body works constantly to maintain throughout , regulating conditions such as how warm the body is (an average of 98.6°F), how much sugar is in the blood, and innumerable other variables. One of the key balances the body must regulate very tightly is the acid/base balance in the blood.

To understand acid/base balance in living systems, you need to have a bit of understanding about what acids and bases are. In order to be able to rate how strong an acid or base is, scientists issign a value referred to as pH. This value is measured on a logarithmic pH scale that ranges from 1 to 14, with the strongest acids at the low end of the scale (1-3) and the strongest bases at the highest end of the scale (11-14). Falling in the middle of the scale is water, which has a pH of around 7.0.

The body likes to keep the blood somewhere around a slightly basic, or alkaline pH of around 7.3-7.4. But functionally, the body is constantly generating acidity - that is, positively charge hydrogen ions - through breathing, digesting, and many other normal metabolic processes associated with everyday life. Whenever the body tissues become too acidic, the body will employ natural, inbuilt mechanisms to rid itself of the acidic ions.

Unfortunately, it is our eating and lifestyle habits that tend to throw off our acid/base balance; most of us eat way, way too many acid-forming foods. When you read that, your brain probably jumped to thinking about acid-like foods such as citrus fruits, but fruits are not the real culprits we are looking for; in fact, it is largely through a lack of friuts and vegetable foods in our diet that we throw off our acid/base balance. Our bodies have evolved over many millennia to function best in an alkaline enviroment. As a result, we stay healthy when we remain in a basic or alkaline state, and the opposite is true when we are in an acid state.

As Felicia Kliment, author of the book The Acid-Alkaline Balance Diet, suggests:

"When acid wastes in the body accumulate, they can cause the body's organs to malfunction and break down."

The types of foods that tend to push us toward a more acidic state include proteins (particularly animal-based proteins) sugars and grains, (especially refined grains) and those that that tend to bring us back into balance are fruits and vegetables. As noted above, we humans evolved over millions of years eating a largely plant-based diet.

So it's only natural that eating more acidifying foods means that the body has to work hard to get rid of the excess acid ions. And while the conventional medical community is unlikely to alert us that eating too many sugars, grains, and proteins are a problem, you can actually measure what is happening in your body by using pH strips and testing your urine or your saliva.

When you are in balance and eating enough alkaline-forming foods, then the pH of your urine is basic or neutral, when you are eating too many acid-forming foods, you urine or saliva is acidic. At DermaHarmony, we now sell testing kits that can help your follow the changes in your pH.

Being naturally curious, kids enjoy experiments such as checking their own acid and base levels. You can make it into a game. Let them eat their normal diet and then check their pH and then have them change the next day by adding in more fruits and vegetables and see how it changes their pH.

The body burden of excess acid

Because the body is in a state of dynamic balance and able to constantly make small corrections, an acidic state is really not a problem if it happens from time to time - or is only very mild and addressed appropriately with an alkalizing diet. The problem arises when this is the only state we put our body in - for as the years go by, the body organs naturally become less adept at countering this chronic, low-grade metabolic acidosis. After all, many of us (and many of our children) eat a diet containing little but grains and proteins.

When the body is out of balance, it produces symptoms to let you know something is amiss; atopic dermatitis can assuredly be one of those symptoms. In fact, some health professionals think that many cases of skin diseases may be the result of such core imbalances. In the words of naturopath Christopher Vasey, author of The Acidic-Alkaline Diet:

Before they are neutralized by alkaline substances, the acids irritate the organ with which they come in contact. Inflammation, sometimes quite painful, results, as well as lesions or hardening of the tissues. This primarily affects the organs charged with elimination of strong acids, such as the skin and kidneys. Many cases of eczema, hives, itching, and red patches on the skin are due to the irritation caused by excessive acidic sweat.

The body suffers from the lifestyles that we choose to lead. It is unfortunate, but true, that many of the foods that taste good to us are also not the best for us. When we eat foods that push us out of balance and into a more acidic state, our whole body starts to suffer. The lungs, skin and kidneys are the major body organs that deal with balancing acid and base throughout the body. Vital nutrients are used up whenever excess acid is present in the body.

Toxins also tend to accumulate when the body is in an acid state, as other organs are taxed, and this imbalance can lead to a prolonged excess of inflammation in the body.

Reverse the trend

To put the brakes on too much acid and atopic dermatitis try adopting a more holistic approach. While all of the following are helpful, you don't have to do it all at once. Even a step-by-step approach will help to reverse the condition of low-grade acidosis and improve overall health - including that of your skin.:

  • Get out in the sun. While we have all learned that sun exposure is harmful, it is more likely that the opposite is true. Not having sun exposure may lead to more diseases than too much sun exposure. We derive essential nutrients from sun exposure. Obviously, you should avoid being in the sun long enough to burn — but there is no question that getting some exposure every day is what Mother Nature intended for us.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables. You may have heard this so often you can no longer "hear" it. But it can hardly be said often or loudly enough — you need to include more fruits and vegetables in your diet! If you are a parent, try to encourage some fresh fruits and vegetables with every meal. Smoothies are a great addition to children's diet and can be enjoyed at any time of day. If you think it is impossible to get enough fruits and vegetables in you or your child, consider supplementing with a high quality pH-balancing formula. (For more information, read our dermatitis and diet section.)
  • Fish oils — not your grandmother's cod liver oil. When it comes to skin conditions, it is hard to overestimate the importance of essential fatty acids, commonly referred to as omega-3's. High-quality fish oil supplements are a superb source of essential fatty acids, and they can be flavored or delivered in capsules that most children will willingly tolerate.
  • Remove food allergens. The most common food allergens for people with atopic dermatitis are peanuts, eggs, milk, seafood, soy, and chocolate.
  • Drink water.Water not only helps with acid/base balance, but also helps keep toxins moving out of the system.

The skin, it turn out, is a great early-warning system for all of us if we heed its alarms. You know this is true when you look at people who are healthy because their skin has a glow and radiates health. Atopic dermatitis is a message to us all to take a closer look at our health and lifestyles — and that of our children — and see what we can do to improve the both of them.

There is much you can do to lesson or eliminate atopic dermatitis from your life or the life of someone you love.

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References:

Chan, L. 2008. Atopic dermatitis in 2008. Curr. Dir. Autoimmun., 10, 76-118. URL (abstract): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18460882 (accessed 11.08.2008).

Kliment, F. 2002. The Acid–Alkaline Balance Diet: An Innovative Program for Ridding Your Body of Acidic Wastes. NY: McGraw–Hill.

Vasey, C. 1999. The Acid-Alkaline Diet for Optimum Health: Restore Your Health by Creating Balance in Your Diet. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Principal Authors: Scott Olson, Naturopathic Doctor
Date of Publication: 3/5/2007
Updated: 06/07/2011

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