Eczema is one of those horrible conditions where there is no one treatment which works for everybody. Annoying as it is, you will probably have to try lots of different things – ruling out particular foods, washing powders, fabric types – before you find the best way to prevent or alleviate the symptoms of eczema. That’s why it is helpful to know of all possible preventions, remedies and treatments in order to see what works (if anything) for your child.
If, like many parents, you’re constantly researching possible treatments for eczema, you’ll probably be aware of certain ‘alternative’ remedies like Aloe Vera which do, thankfully, seem to work for some children. Along the same lines, there has been much discussion about the potential benefit of probiotics in treating eczema, and herein lies the good news. A new study has found that certain probiotics can be helpful in the treatment of eczema.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts which are thought to have various health benefits, including preventing and treating a range of conditions. According to NHS Choices, they are ‘usually eaten in yoghurts or taken as food supplements, and are often described as “good” or “friendly” bacteria. Probiotics are thought to help restore the natural balance of your gut bacteria when it has been disrupted.’ But, as with most ‘health’ products, the advertisers have jumped on the band wagon and you’ve probably noticed all the new probiotics products being marketed to kids, along with optimistic sounding claims about what each can do. Despite this, it seems to be widely accepted that probiotics are helpful in treating diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome and a number of other gut-related problems.
Research into probiotics and eczema
A few years ago there was a study which showed that there was some benefit in giving probiotic supplements to expectant mothers, and continuing to treat the child once it was born. While helpful to people who knew their children were likely to suffer eczema in early childhood, this conclusion was of little use to the large number of us whose children developed eczema unexpectedly, or who hadn’t made the connection until the eczema appeared. Further studies tried to find out whether probiotics could be beneficial if introduced after the birth, however the results up to now have been inconclusive.
Now, the latest published study (April 2015) used two probiotic strains – Lactobacillus paracasei and Lactobacillus fermentum. These were given singly or in combination and tested against a placebo in children between 0 and 18 years with moderate atopic dermatitis (eczema). After three months, children in all the probiotics groups showed improved eczema symptoms, with the benefits remaining for a month after the child stopped taking the probiotic supplement. There were particular improvements in the under 12s group – thought to be because intestinal microbiota may be less amenable to alteration from probiotic supplements as we get older. However, the full age range of participants saw improvements in their eczema, including a reduction in the size of the affected area as well as less oozing, scratching, dryness and redness. Importantly, the study included quality of life measures, with the probiotic group experiencing better sleep, reduced symptoms and more positive feels and activities affected by their skin.
The study reported: “Regarding the effectiveness of probiotics in the prevention of AD (atopic dermatitis)… infants at high risk for atopy who received probiotics developed AD significantly less frequently during the first 2 years of life than infants who received placebo.” It concluded that “More (studies) need to be conducted to elucidate whether probiotics are useful for the treatment or prevention of AD.” Some commentators have pointed out the limitations of the study, highlighting the fact that the children were not asked to change their diet which could have affected the outcome of the study. However, the is consistent with the researchers’ own conclusion that more study is needed.
The study demonstrated that certain probiotics help eczema symptoms in most babies and children they followed so, as there are no health related disadvantage to giving your child probiotic supplements, it may be worth a try.
What are probiotic supplements?
Probiotic supplements for babies and children are produced as powders or drops which can be bought online or from health food shops. These can be either mixed with milk or food, or placed directly in your child’s mouth. From experience, the powders have a tendency to sink to the bottom of the cup. While this isn’t a problem for bottles and sippy cups, using a straw makes sure that they are actually ingested and not left at the bottom of an open cup.
When selecting a probiotic supplement for your child with eczema, remember that it’s the Lactobacillus paracasei and Lactobacillus fermentum strains which you’re looking for. These are found in a number infant probiotic formulations. However, as with all things eczema, things are not straight-forward and some probiotic strains included in these blends may not be helpful. Initial research indicates that some probiotic strains generate histamines, which can aggravate eczema. These strains include Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus bulgaricus which are found in a number of infant probiotic blends, largely because they help digestion. Here in the UK, eczema friendly L. paracasei is included in the Proven Probiotics infant range which doesn’t include either L. casei or L. bulgaricus. Both L. paracasei and L. fermentum are included in Aptamil formula milk, which again doesn’t include any histamine generating probiotics. There are also plans to make an L. paracasei and L. fermentum blend available on prescription, although this may well take time.
What about probiotic foods?
Probiotics are also found in certain food groups, notably dairy products. We like some of the recipes listed on the Parents website – the smoothies and yoghurt dips are both tasty and very easy to make. Please be aware that the study found benefit in treating eczema with the L. paracasei and L. fermentum probiotics strains. Probiotic food groups may not contain these strains, or may not contain the strains in sufficient concentration, to affect eczema. Also, many foods marketed as being high in probiotics contain high levels of histamine generating L. casei or L. bulgaricus so may aggravate eczema. These include fermented foods like aged cheese, sauerkraut and kimchi, and also chocolate, processed meats and wine (although this shouldn’t be a problem for children).
It’s worth approaching foods which are marketed as having health-giving probiotic benefits with a dose of skepticism. You only need walk down the yoghurt and snacks aisles of any major supermarket to see a number of foods marketed to parents extolling the virtues of their probiotic contents. The Parents website makes the point that the marketing is way ahead of the science and NHS Choices warns that ‘Probiotics are regulated as foods, so don’t undergo the rigorous testing and approval process of medicines’. NHS Choices goes on to say that this means we don’t know whether a probiotic yoghurt, supplement or tablet contains what is stated on the label, and whether the amount of ‘good’ bacteria is enough to have a beneficial effect. “There’s likely to be a huge difference between the pharmaceutical-grade probiotics that show promise in clinical trials and the “probiotic” yoghurts and supplements sold in shops, which may not live up to the advertised claims,’ the NHS states.
We all know how awful it is to stand by and watch a child suffer with eczema. That’s why it’s worth trying a range of treatments, including probiotic supplements, to see what works best. NHS Choices states that probiotics appear to be safe and that they shouldn’t cause any unpleasant side-effects in someone with a healthy immune system. With that in mind, we hope to have helped you on your journey to alleviate the symptoms of your child’s eczema.
If you have tried probiotic supplements or have any suggestions which would help other parents whose children have eczema, please do share your experiences with other parents. Either complete this form and we’ll get back in touch with you, or post to our Facebook page. Your comments will be greatly appreciated.