A health covering, inside and out

Margaret Moss looks at the role that skin plays in allergy

What would we do without our skin? We would have lots of infections, if we were not protected with a layer called the epithelium, the skin which protects us on the outside, and which lines the cavities inside us. The heart, and the blood and lymphatic vessels, also have a protective lining, which is called the endothelium.

A guide to health

The skin is a guide to the health of the body, just as the coat of an animal reflects its condition. If the epithelium covering the outside of the body is in a poor state, surely something is also wrong inside too. Maybe we are deficient in one or more nutrients. Maybe we are exposed to too high a load of toxins. If we correct skin problems, we may also be preventing serious future diseases. The blood transports nutrients from our food to feed our skin, although sometimes it is useful to rub nutrients directly into the skin.

Training the immune system

We are exposed to traces of what our mothers eat while we are in the womb, and from breast milk. Ideally we transfer from breast milk to liquidised mother’s food, to mashed mother’s food, and then to pieces of her food.

This process teaches the immune system that these foods are normal, and protects us from developing allergic conditions like eczema. There is a window of opportunity to train the immune system in this way. There is no evidence for the advice to try one food at a time.

The allergic march

The allergic march is a progression of symptoms, for example, from abdominal pain as a baby, to eczema, to asthma and allergic rhinitis in later life. Allergies can also spread, so that instead of being allergic to, for example, just eggs, you may find yourself allergic to milk, wheat and peanuts as well.

If you avoid one allergenic food, you need to be careful not to start eating too much of something else, or you may become allergic to that. Dealing with some allergic conditions through nutrition may prevent others from occurring later.

Sore skin may be allergic eczema, because of an immune system that is not sufficiently calmed down by regulatory T cells. Alternatively, it may be a response to chemicals in foods, or to substances in contact with the skin.

Traditionally many parasites stimulated the regulatory system, to suppress the action of the immune system against them, and this suppressed allergic responses too. Now fewer of us have parasites.

Skin and the immune system need fats

Skin is made of cells, all with a fat and protein membrane round them, to protect the contents. So we cannot make skin without fat and protein. The membrane needs some cholesterol, to stop it being too floppy. It needs the liquid omega 3 and 6 essential fats to give it flexibility. Membranes also contain phosphatidyl choline, phosphatidyl inositol and phosphatidyl serine. These are available in lecithin, which is in eggs. Dry skin and eczema may simply relate to a lack of fat in the diet.

Nuts and seeds provide us with the omega six fat, linoleic acid, in order to mount an immune response to infection. Linoleic acid is converted to gamma linolenic acid, GLA. Those who have a poorly functioning enzyme do not convert enough, and have to take GLA in evening primrose oil. Without taking GLA, these people are susceptible to allergies, eczema and hyperactivity.

Evening primrose oil can be taken orally, and also bought in a bottle, and a little rubbed onto the skin. Power Health sells bottles of evening primrose oil. Dropper bottles of evening primrose oil are available, but are more expensive. It is cheaper to buy a bottle of oil, and a separate dropper bottle. These bottles  are available from pharmacies. Avoid rubbing evening primrose oil into skin where it is bleeding, but rub it nearby.

Some other oils also contain GLA, but their other constituents are different, and they are less well researched.  GLA is needed to make inflammatory chemicals, but also an anti-inflammatory one. Processing linoleic acid needs vitamins B1, 2, 3 and 6, vitamin C, the B vitamin biotin, calcium, magnesium and zinc. Those who hate vegetables and fruits are likely to become vitamin C deficient. Meat and fish are good sources of vitamin B3.

Pantothenic acid, which is also called vitamin B5, is needed for making the anti-inflammatory chemical cortisol. Any condition for which steroid drugs are prescribed may respond simply to pantothenic acid.

Flax and hemp seeds provide us with the omega three alpha linolenic acid, ALA, which converts, also using vitamins and minerals, to EPA, an anti-inflammatory fatty acid. Those who are inefficient at this conversion need fish or krill oil. It has been suggested that none of us makes enough EPA, and really we should all eat fish, or take fish or krill oil. Vegetarians need to optimise their production of EPA, by having flax or hemp seeds or their oil, together with the nutrients that are involved in converting ALA.

ALA is damaged by heat, and should be bought from a supplier that stores it frozen. ALA is useful in itself, as it appears to act against cancer. It should be eaten raw, as cooking damages it.

Moderation and balance in all things

Remembering Goldilocks can help us understand body chemistry. She didn’t want a very soft bed, or a very hard bed. She wanted a moderate one. A too high ratio of omega 6 to 3 encourages too much inflammation and too high a tendency of the blood to clot. A too low ratio encourages us to bleed too much, which is an issue for those Inuit people eating traditional diets. We need a moderate ratio.

This Goldilocks Principle often occurs in biochemistry. For example, we need zinc to process essential fats, but the zinc to copper ratio must also be moderate, as the two minerals compete. Otherwise there will be too little copper to keep the arteries elastic, and to make collagen for the skin, bone and ligaments. Too often people read articles saying, for example, that zinc prevents colds. They take zinc on its own, in addition to consuming zinc in meat, nuts and seeds, and it upsets the delicate balance between different minerals.

Others are told by doctors to take high doses of calcium, in addition to calcium from dairy products, and their magnesium levels drop, making them more susceptible to heart attacks and inflamed skin. Those who avoid green vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses and bananas are likely to be short of magnesium in the first place. Calcium and magnesium are both needed by the skin.

The threat of detergents

One threat to our skin is detergent. Soap and other detergents have one job to do. They are emulsifiers. They break down fat into smaller globules, so that it can be washed off more easily. Washing off the fat washes off the dirt that is attached to it. We need to wash our hands, as they touch dirt. We wash our hair, as it looks ugly if we don’t. However, most of the body does not need to come into contact with soap, shower gel or shampoo. Just wash it with warm water, to leave the protective fat in place. If you are lucky to have soft water, as we are near Manchester, hair can just be washed with a gentle soap, like hemp and lemongrass, or almond.

In a hard water area, I use Green People shampoo, which is available from The Healthy House. Unless you want to have dandruff or eczema, avoid any product containing sodium laurel sulphate, a very strong detergent, which removes the oil from your skin avidly. Many products in the shops contain this.

Recently a mother visited me with her baby. The child had an NHS recommended petroleum based product rubbed into the scalp, followed by shampoo. I remember a fruitless conversation I once had with a pharmacist. Nothing has been added to this product. Yes, but what is it, that nothing has been added to?  He did not seem to understand my question. Of course, the substance to which nothing had been added was from petroleum. Petroleum products will not deal with the causes of eczema, and then using shampoo will only make things worse.

If you don’t remove the oil from your skin, you are less likely to need to put oil on it.   If you do need to, avoid petrochemicals. Lansinoh lanolin is available from some chemist’s shops, with or without an NHS prescription. When cold it is a bit stiff. So in winter I warm it for a few minutes under the bedclothes, and rub a little on my hands before I go to sleep, to prevent the skin from cracking.

Vitamin E – first aid for skin

My first aid for skin is natural vitamin E oil, from a dropper bottle, for example from Solgar. Once wounds have stopped bleeding, vitamin E can be used to help them heal. Put it on sore skin, for example where there is a fungal infection. One client talked of “your magic vitamin E,” as it sorted out soreness of his outer ear and penis. Others use it for the vulva, for herpes sores, and even for a chicken pox or shingles rash.

If you have a sore throat, put 100 international units of vitamin E into your mouth, and do not eat or drink for an hour, to avoid washing it down too fast.  You can use a dropper bottle, or chew a capsule. Do this four times a day. Avocado is a rich source of vitamin E, and feeds the skin from the inside.

There are eight members of the vitamin E family, 4 tocopherols and 4 tocotrienols. It is the tocotrienols that have promising anti-cancer properties. They have been reported to prevent cells proliferating and migrating to other sites, cause cancer cells to commit suicide, cause tumours to reduce in size, act as antioxidants, and reduce the production of inflammatory chemicals by fat cells.

Solar keratoses are skin lesions that can lead to skin cancer. I have had clients whose keratoses disappeared when taking tocotrienols. Rice bran oil is a rich source of tocotrienols. Tocotrienols are also available from Allergy Research Group in capsules.

L-lysine for the throat and herpes sores

If you have a sore throat or cough, try chewing a 500mg tablet of L-lysine, for example from Lamberts. Don’t eat or drink for half an hour afterwards. I suggest doing this up to 3 times a day, when your symptoms are bothering you most, and then having an extra one at bedtime, to reduce coughing at night.

L-lysine is one of the building blocks of protein, known as amino acids. If you sometimes have herpes sores, chew one every bedtime to prevent outbreaks, and have another one half an hour before breakfast, if you have some sores. Herpes virus mistakes L-lysine for L-arginine, an amino acid which feeds it. L-lysine does not feed it, and the virus is starved of its fuel.

Epsom salts

Epsom salts is magnesium sulphate, an antihistamine, and putting a cupful of Epsom salts in the bath may soothe sore skin, even the misery of chicken pox or shingles. Those with eczema should start with a tablespoonful, and build up the amount if they can.

If you have a sore throat, put half a flat teaspoonful of Epsom salts from the pharmacy into a litre bottle of good quality water. Drink it in four glasses, spread through the day. Little tricks like this can make the difference between being able to work, and having to stay at home, if your job involves a lot of talking.

Bathing in Epsom salts also contributes to repair of the lining of the gut, as does consuming butter, fish oil and coconut oil. For bathing, buy larger quantities of Epsom salts, from an ironmonger’s or garden centre.

Dangers of new clothes

New clothes often contain formaldehyde. So wash them before you wear them for the first time. Avoid enzyme detergents, but use a gentle alternative, like Surcare or Boots or Granny’s soapflakes.

Vitamin D and probiotics

Vitamin D and probiotics help the immune system to mature away from the allergic mode, towards the role of fighting infection and cancer cells. Milk isn’t good for the arteries. So rather than using probiotic milk, use probiotic capsules or powder, for example from BioCare, Lamberts or Allergy Research Group.

In many areas, GPs will test your vitamin D. Because of recent research, what used to be regarded as normal is now seen as inadequate. Healthy people should aim to have a 25-hydroxy vitamin D level of 75 to 200nmol per litre (30 to 80 micrograms per litre), while those with problems should aim at a minimum of 125nmol/l (50 micrograms/l).

We do need exposure to the sun, so that vitamin D can be made in the skin, to protect us from allergies, infections, heart disease, depression, cancer and multiple sclerosis.  Sunburn is, however, to be avoided, as too much sun at once can cause skin cancer later on. Sunhats and long sleeves give useful protection, if we are to be exposed to a lot of sun, rather than creams with harmful ingredients.

Skin cancers

Skin cancers are apparent earlier than other cancers. If a drug company wants to hide any possibility that a drug increases cancer risk, it is tempting to report only non-skin cancers, and to keep the length of a drug trial short.

Given that statin drugs decrease the body’s production of the cancer preventing nutrients, coenzyme Q10 and vitamin D, those wishing to protect their skin from cancer may do well to resist pressure to take such drugs.

If a doctor decides to use liquid nitrogen to freeze off damaged skin, make sure you put a barrier between the liquid nitrogen and your nose. The aim of the treatment is to kill precancerous growths by giving them frostbite, and you do not want frostbite in your respiratory tract. Safety trials for drugs are inadequate, but safety trials for such treatments are not required at all.


Acne is related to Western diets, and is often caused by a deficiency in zinc. Zinc is needed for adolescents to mature sexually, and becoming a vegetarian at this stage means losing meat as a rich source of zinc. Eat nuts, seeds and pulses instead.

Taking some vitamin A may be helpful for those with acne, but excessive vitamin A is harmful. Some people build up toxic levels more easily than others. Drugs similar to vitamin A have been reported to cause suicide. One possible sign of lupus is a butterfly shape on the face, which may be related to toxic levels of vitamin A. Acne rosacea may be related to deficiency of digestive enzymes. Making these enzymes requires sulphate, and so Epsom salt baths are helpful.

Vitamin B, soreness of lips and vitiligo

Soreness of the lips and tongue suggests a deficiency of vitamin B2, which is also called riboflavin.

Vitiligo involves unpigmented areas of skin, often reversed by para-aminobenzoic acid, which is part of the vitamin B complex, although the quantities in a B complex tablet are inadequate to treat many cases. It needs to be taken as a separate supplement.

Rheumatic patches

Rheumatic patches are small areas of stiffness in the skin, or in the loose connective tissue just under the skin. They cause aches and pains, including migraines, back pain and the intense pain of shingles. They can be treated by injections of sodium salicylate into the patches themselves, from a doctor or nurse experienced in this, and by avoiding dietary lectins, especially in wholemeal wheat. Such treatment may well prevent later arthritis.

Biting insects

Vitamin B1, thiamine, makes you less attractive to biting insects, if you take 100mg a day. However, don’t take this dose of vitamin B1 if you have cancer. If you are bitten, use saliva to calm down the soreness. If the skin is very painful, you can use urine instead, a treatment that is also used for wounds by barefoot African boys out herding their flocks.

Healthy diet and moderate sun exposure

A healthy diet and moderate sun exposure are needed for healthy skin, and a healthy protective layer round our internal cavities, while avoiding exposure to harmful chemicals is crucial. Some of us need help from relevant oils, vitamins and minerals, or benefit from rubbing nutritious oils into the skin.

Margaret Moss
Chartered Biologist and Nutritional Therapist, Cheshire

First published in 2013

If this article was of interest you will find many other articles on unlikely allergies and allergy connections here – and links to many relevant research studies here.

For more on the more 'mainstream' allergies check in to our 'allergy and intolerance home page' – and for ideas on alternative foods go here.

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