Autumn is associated with the Metal element. The metal element is about healthy boundaries, thus the organs corresponding to this element – the Lung and Large Intestine – are all about taking in what is beneficial, and releasing what is not. The skin is our first line of defense against pathogenic invasion, so healthy skin is much more than “skin-deep.”

This seems like an opportune season to share some pearls of wisdom I’ve been gleaning from Mazin Al-Khafaji, arguably the world’s leading Chinese Medicine expert on skin diseases, and the teacher of the dermatology certification program I’m currently undertaking.

It’s been so inspiring to study with Mazin, including photographic tracking of case after case of severe skin ailments cured by Chinese Herbal Medicine. Western dermatology often has very little to offer other than steroid and antibiotic treatment, and it seems negligent that more people don’t know that they have more options available for their health.

Atopic eczema is a particularly pertinent skin condition to consider, as it appears so related to
how our bodies respond to our modern environments. Atopic eczema was quite rare in the 1920’s, and is still much less prevalent in non-industrialized countries. Today, approximately 10-30% of children in modern industrialized societies suffer from some degree of atopic eczema, and the incidence is rising. While this used to be a condition with primarily childhood onset, adult onset is on the rise as well. It can even appear in some primates when there has been a disturbance in the environment and diet.

“Atopy” refers to a hypersensitivity of the immune system that can often lead to multiple symptoms including eczema, allergies, asthma, hives, and food allergies. While atopic individuals are over-responsive to allergens, they are under-responsive to pathogens and so are also more prone to bacterial, viral, and fungal infections.

Its incidence increases with C-section delivery (perhaps due to the baby not being anointed by the protective microbiome in the mother’s birth canal), lack of breastfeeding (dendritic cells in breastfeeding women sample bacteria from the gut and feed it to the baby), and industrialized foods (a large percentage of antibiotic resistance has been linked with antibiotics in our food!). Antibiotic use before age one doubles the chance of developing this condition. Earlier introduction of a wide variety of foods gives a better chance of not developing atopy. Thus a disruption of the healthy microbiome on the skin and gut seems to be an important factor in the development of this disease.

Western medicine attempts to treat this condition with steroids, which can seem like a miracle in the short term but over time thins and damages the skin, making it less resilient. Steroids also suppress immune function, so while it reduces the inflammatory response, it can also cause bacterial, viral, or fungal infections (which atopic individuals are more susceptible to and have more of on the surface of their skin) to spread.

Treatment with Chinese herbs involves a longer course of treatment, but it re-establishes the equilibrium of the body’s immune response and shows much better results long-term. It’s also best to treat atopic eczema at an earlier age (as an infant or child), to correct how the immune system is responding earlier on and before more serious damage sets in.

Learning to treat atopic eczema and other skin diseases from Mazin – and getting clinical results with my own patients – has been so inspiring. I want people to know that there are effective treatment options for them other than steroids and antibiotics!

Remember that dry and damaged skin can set the stage for pathogenic invasion, so take care of your skin this fall (the season associated with the pathogen of dryness). Our skin gets most of its nourishment from the atmosphere, so apply non-mineral-oil based lubricants that will allow moisture to seep into the cells. For more tips on general skin care, read here: 7 Tips for Healthy Skin.

Prajna Choudhury, L.Ac

Photo Credit:  “Pearls_Shell” by derrico_jewelry –

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