Unfortunately, products alone won’t cut it. Seb Derm, like eczema or psoriasis, can’t be cured. In fact, sufferers of most chronic conditions – whether they affect the skin or the insides (like IBS) – are going to have to deal with them for most of their lives. I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to find a miracle cure and spent a lot of time frustrated when one product after another failed to magic my problems away.
Over time, I realized three things. I think they’re the most important things I want to share:
- Chronic conditions should be managed not treated.
- Chronic conditions are ‘indicators’ or messages from your body.
- When managing chronic conditions, heal your body not the problem.
Most of the time, when you go to your GP you’ll get a treatment. I have no issue with this – it’s a first response. The problem arises when the first response becomes the only response. It’s a bit like giving someone a mop to clean up a leaky washing machine. You can keep mopping up the leak or you can have a look at the washing machine to see why it’s leaking in the first place.
Your GP has five minutes to spend with you on a busy schedule. And they don’t have a magic cure-all. They’re perfectly placed for a first response but if you’re serious about managing a chronic condition, I really believe you have to take some responsibility for your own health and wellbeing.
Often, chronic conditions are physical manifestations of an imbalance in your health. That might be something simple and visible like a poor diet. Or it might be something more invisible like long-term stress. These are the things I saw making a difference (both positive and negative) over one of the worst years of Seb Derm I’ve ever experienced.
STRESS. And again for emphasis…stress stress stress stress stress. This is my top trigger by a mile. It didn’t always have an immediate effect, but it always had an effect eventually. In the months preceding the worst of my symptoms, I worked full time, studied part time (including training 9-5 every other weekend), took exams and struggled for 18 months to sell a house that we desperately wanted to leave. I coped most of the time. Pretty well actually. And then almost immediately after things started to ease off and I began to relax….whoomph, my skin went completely haywire.
A body under stress produces a hormone called cortisol in the adrenal cortex. This is vital for our survival and extremely helpful if we’re under threat or (more likely in this day and age) facing a short-term period of intense pressure or activity. Cortisol helps us to get through. However, many of us find ourselves under periods of sustained, low level stress for months, sometimes even years at a time. During this period, your body continues to produce excess levels of cortisol but doesn’t process it or use it up in the way that’s intended.
Over time, high levels of cortisol will have damaging, inflammatory effects on the body. Interestingly, there’s no direct predictable correlation. Prolonged stress will affect people in different ways. For me, it triggers flare-ups in my Seb Derm. For you, it might cause digestive problems like IBS. The only thing we can confidently predict is that long-term stress will manifest itself physically. The hard thing is recognizing that two seemingly unrelated things are, in fact, connected.
Lack of sleep. This is often connected to stress. Stress leads to sleepless nights; lack of sleep puts the body under stress and leads to higher levels of cortisol. I definitely noticed that even during periods of mental calm, getting too little sleep would trigger a mini flare-up due to the cortisol produced by being under physical strain. So staying up late to finish a good book too many times was a no no!
Poor diet. Feeling worried, tired and overloaded is almost a guarantee that your diet will slip down the list of priorities. For me, as soon as I felt the pressure go up, I would fall back on “quick”, “easy” and soothing foods. Too much pasta and toast. Too many takeaways. Nowhere near enough fruit and veg. I’ve put “quick” and “easy” in inverted commas because I realized over time and some drastic overhauls that it can be just as quick and easy to eat well. The truth was harder to admit; i.e. I was eating pasta and takeaways because I felt sorry for myself and wanted to eat them.
No one ever said this was rocket science. I didn’t stumble on this knowledge in some tiny, battered copy of an out of print book in the corner of a dusty academic library. However, being under pressure and feeling negative and down about yourself can easily blinker you to things that are simple, effective and right in front of you. Do a little honest digging in your life and find your triggers. They might be the same as mine but they might not be.
The following are things that have worked for me and may work for you. We’re looking for long-term solutions here; things that you can easily keep up in order to stay healthy and balanced. If you hate yoga, it won’t work for you. Just find something else that addresses the same end goals (i.e. a calm mind and a relaxed body).
- Gentle, low-impact forms of exercise. The most obvious choice is yoga but you might like to investigate pilates, tai chi, gentle stretching or walking outdoors instead. The idea is that you give yourself some time to focus on easing tension in your body and clearing your mind. I’ll revisit walking and stretching in a future post.
- Meditation. This can be a tricky idea for some. If you want it to be, meditation can have a fulfilling spiritual element. If that’s not for you (and it isn’t for me), meditation is simply about finding a way to slow and clear the mind. It’s about switching off the white noise for a bit or just learning techniques to acknowledge it quietly without engaging. Very often, meditation is about focus on the breath, which can be a hugely effective way of achieving some much needed calm. I’ll feature some tips and useful sources of information in a future post.
- Treat yourself. Find ways of making yourself feel looked after. This might involve getting a massage or a facial, or it might be as simple as taking the phone off the hook, hiding the ‘to do’ list in a drawer and wallowing in a bath with a book. It’s amazing how just thinking about an indulgent bath as a legitimate treatment for Seb Derm changed my whole perspective on whether I had the time!
- Eat with inflammation in mind. I’ve blogged in the past about giving up sugar for two months. My intention was to break some toxic eating habits, create better ones and wrest back some control at a time in my life when it felt like I didn’t have very much. The effects were quite profound. I had better skin, sleep, moods and emotions within a matter of days. The links between sugar and inflammation (and inflammatory disease) are increasingly being researched. You’ll do yourself no end of favours if you cut back or give it up altogether. You can get more inspiration here. As well as avoiding ‘inflammatory’ processed foods, you can focus on eating foods that have anti-inflammatory properties like oily fish (rich in Omega-3), cruciferous veggies (that’s things like broccoli, cabbage and kale), berries, turmeric and oats. I wrote about Dr Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet pyramid in a previous post. You can find out more here.
- Targeted supplementation. Generally I believe that you shouldn’t use supplements as an alternative to a well-balanced diet. But there were a couple of things that helped me with building up an overall resilience to the stress I was under. They were: a really good probiotic (for digestive support) and supplements focusing on immune support (like zinc and Vitamin D in the winter months). You can find out more here.
- Get some good sleep. I’m planning a post at the moment about how to ensure that you prioritise sleep and maximizing the quality of the sleep you do get. Suffice it to say, a few early nights will always have a positive effect.
- Let your skin be your guide. There’s lots of advice out there about how often you should shower or wash your hair. A lot of it suggests we’re all washing a bit too frequently and that we can help our skin and scalp by easing off and shampooing a little less. For some people, this works a treat. For others (me included), washing my hair every 3-4 days or even every other day is miserable when I have a flare-up. It gets itchy, I scratch it and then it ends up being flakier, itchier and even bloody, which just isn’t helpful. I usually wash my hair every day now. To counter this, I use very gentle shampoos and indulge in a rich oil mask at least once a week. I also try and ease off blow-drying a couple of days a week. The message is do what’s right for you. If you’re doing too much or too little of something, your skin will probably tell you.
- Avoid dark clothing. Ok, this one’s a joke (well, kind of). Having a flaky scalp is so grim at times. Sometimes you just have to give in and accept that white or patterned is the way forward during the worst times. Why add to your stress?!
I’ve realized that Seb Derm is my barometer for health. It tells me when I’m getting it wrong, like an early warning system, which I now feel is a much better situation than waiting until I get really sick. This is not to say that I get it right all the time. That would be unrealistic and probably a bit miserable. But appreciating where I need to ensure I stay balanced makes me feel I have some degree of control over a chronic condition. I know what I can do to help and even knowing why I’m having a flare-up makes me feel like I’m in the driving seat a bit more. I still eat sugar, I just strive for less and look for alternatives. I still stay up too late occasionally, but I’ll try and get a few early nights over the next week.
The most important thing is that I no longer regard my Seb Derm as that something that happens to me or something I have no control over. It’s something I can manage.
Thanks for sticking with me through this series. I’d love to hear from people who’ve had their own experiences with seborrheic dermatitis. If you’ve any tips to share, please do leave them in the comments.