It started as a small patch of red skin on her neck when she was about three months old, shortly after her first round of vaccinations,"
Leyla Mehmet, 35, recalls. "Then it spread to her chest, her back, her tummy, her legs, her feet—her entire body was covered in it."
Leyla, from Southgate, North London, is talking about her daughter Alara, whose eczema was so bad "it looked like she'd been dipped in a deep fat fryer".
"People would gasp when they saw her and give me dirty looks," Leyla remembers. "We stopped going to mother-and-baby groups, to the shops—anywhere at all actually."
Alara was prescribed various steroid creams and emollients for her eczema by her GP, but her sore, red, itchy skin persisted. "I'd bathe her, cover her in creams and wrap her head-to-toe in bandages up to five times day," Leyla explained. "I followed the doctor's advice, but nothing worked."
Eventually, Alara was referred to a dermatologist, who recommended oral steroids. But Leyla didn't like the idea of her daughter taking powerful drugs with such a long list of side-effects, so she turned them down. The only alternative, the dermatologist said, was to "get used to it" and learn to manage the symptoms as well as the emotional side of the condition.
"She told me there was a chance Alara might grow out of it, but probably not till she was much older, or she could have it for the rest of her life."
Refusing to accept there was nothing she could do, Leyla made a list of alternative treatments to try and started to make her way through them. By this time, she had already researched eczema extensively and made a number of lifestyle changes—switching her washing powder, changing her bedding and getting rid of chemical cleaning products—that she had read could help with the symptoms. But while they did help a bit, every part of Alara's body continued to be covered in eczema.
Leyla also had Alara tested for allergies and discovered she was allergic to cow's milk. Cutting it from her diet, though, still didn't solve the problem.
After various alternative therapies also proved fruitless, Leyla finally decided to visit the traditional Chinese medicine practice she passed every day on her way to and from work. "They used to give out leaflets at Southgate tube station," Leyla said. "Eczema was on the list of conditions they claimed to be able to treat. I thought I'd give it a try."
Leyla made an appointment with Dr Elizabeth Chang at the Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine & Acupuncture practice and took Alara, who by this time was two years old, along for a consultation.
Refreshingly, Chang didn't just hand out yet another cream; instead, she diagnosed Alara with a digestion problem and told Leyla this would need to be addressed to clear her skin. She told Leyla to feed Alara only foods that were easy to digest, like boiled leafy vegetables, and to avoid nightshades like tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines. She also prescribed a herbal tea for Alara to drink twice a day, which included honeysuckle, peony and gardenia root, and advised Leyla to stop washing Alara so frequently and covering up her skin all the time.
"She said Alara was over-dressed, over-washed and over-creamed," Leyla recalls, "and I needed to expose her skin to the sun as much as possible."
Despite initially thinking that Chang was "crazy", Leyla decided to commit to her unconventional therapy wholeheartedly, and wasted no time in changing Alara's diet and "stripping her off".
"She was toddling around in just knickers a lot of the time", said Leyla, "and I would only wash her when I really had to."
Getting Alara to drink the herbal tea was the most challenging thing. "We [Leyla and her husband, Mo] would have to tackle her to the floor to get her to take it. We eventually solved the problem by giving her the mixture in a syringe."
Less of a chore was Chang's recommendation to get Alara out into the sun. Leyla and Mo took her on holiday to Spain and let her play in the sea with no clothes or bandages on. "We really noticed a difference in her skin after that," said Leyla. "It had started to heal."
After six weeks of following Chang's traditional Chinese medical approach, Alara's skin had changed dramatically. She still had patches of eczema, Leyla said, but it was nothing like it had been before.
"We started taking Alara to the park, to the cinema, to mother-and-toddler groups—it was great to have the freedom to do normal things again. Before, she couldn't even sit in a car without her skin reacting."
Alara's skin continued to improve over the months until, about one year later, it was 100 per cent healthy. "By the time she was three, her skin was perfect," said Leyla. "Her eczema had gone completely."
Amazed by what she had witnessed, Leyla decided to train in herbal medicine and is currently a few months away from graduating from the College of Naturopathic Medicine with a diploma.
"All I knew was that I had to understand what I had experienced and know how to do it, so that I could give this gift that the herbalist gave me to other people."
Leyla's goal is to set up her own herbal clinic and specialize in helping people with chronic skin conditions like eczema.
As for Alara, she's now a healthy, happy four-year-old and big sister to brother Junaid. She no longer has to take herbs or follow a special diet, and she's had no eczema relapses.
"She's free to be a kid," said Leyla. "She can get wet, muddy, dusty, stroke cats and dogs, wash her hands with soap, run around naked and do all the things that 'normal' kids can do," said Leyla.
Alara's TCM prescription
EAT: Boiled leafy greens, bone broth, vegetable soup, white meat once a week, white baked fish once a week
AVOID: All fruit (except apples and melons), fried foods, nightshades
DRINK: Herbal tea twice daily (six-week course), water
DO: Expose skin to the sun regularly (taking care not to burn)
DON'T: Wash or cover up the skin too much
Eczema fact file
Atopic dermatitis—better known as eczema—is an inflammatory skin disorder that can affect anyone at an age and any part of the body.
The symptoms of red, scaly skin and intense itching can profoundly affect quality
of life for both sufferers and their families.1
Although often considered a childhood condition, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia recently concluded that eczema is "probably a life-long illness", and symptoms in children may continue well into their second decade of life and often even longer.2
Steroid-based creams, the usual treatment for eczema,
can cause irritation, discoloration and thinning of the skin with long-term use, while topical immunomodulators like tacrolimus and pimecrolimus—newer options for treating chronic eczema—have both been linked to skin cancer.3
The TCM approach
The traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) way of treating eczema is very different from the conventional Western approach. As Dr Elizabeth Chang, the herbalist who treated Alara, explains, "Chinese medicine sees eczema as an internal problem, not just an external one. You need to balance the whole body in order to heal the skin."
There is no one-size-fits-all treatment, says Chang, who trained as a haematologist in China before specializing in herbal medicine and acupuncture, and moving to the UK. "Each patient is treated individually, depending on his or her symptoms—whether the eczema is dry and itchy or wet and sore, for example—and on how long they've had it, and whether they're a man, woman or child."
While Western medicine focuses on topical treatments like creams, emollients and covering the skin in bandages to manage the symptoms, the TCM approach is to deal with what's causing the eczema in the first place. "I always say: you get rid of the problem from the root," says Chang.
Often the cause is diet and digestion, she says. "Oily foods and foods with a lot of salt and sugar just add fuel to the fire. With dry, flaking, inflamed skin, you need to eat foods that will hydrate you from the inside out. And drink lots of water." Also, people can be allergic to lots of different foods, which can present as eczema, Chang says.
With Alara, the very plain diet of boiled veg and limited meat and fish she was recommended was intended to boost her digestive system, help with detoxification, and hydrate her body and skin. Chang also prescribed 12-14 different Chinese herbs to be brewed and taken as a tea—herbs with calming, balancing, cleansing, hydrating and anti-inflammatory properties such as honeysuckle, peony and gardenia root.
Not constantly washing and covering up the skin was an important part of Alara's treatment too. "The skin needs its natural oils," says Chang, "and it needs to breathe."
In the two decades that she's been at her North London practice, Chang says she's had great success with treating eczema—usually with a mixture of dietary advice, herbs and acupuncture.
This has been mirrored by a number of positive clinical studies evaluating TCM for eczema. In a pooled analysis of seven randomized controlled trials, Chinese herbal medicine was shown to be significantly superior to both placebo and conventional Western medicine in reducing the severity of atopic dermatitis (eczema)—with no serious adverse effects.1
Useful contacts and resources
Dr Elizabeth Chang
Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture
4 Chase Side,
London N14 5PA
Tel: 020 8886 5391
Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture UK (ATCM)
Suite 12 Brentano House, Unit 5 The Exchange
Brent Cross Gardens,
London NW4 3RJ
tel: 020 8457 2560
College of Naturopathic Medicine (CNM)
www.naturopathy-uk.com; tel: 01342 410 505