It started on my right hand about 6 years ago. A dry, flaky patch in the center of my palm that got bigger and eventually spread up my fingers. At the time I was deep in the throes of nursing school, unaware of my own rocketing stress level. In addition to a few other triggers, looking back, I now realize that it was the perfect storm for the development of an autoimmune condition.
At first I just ignored my skin woes. I tried keeping my hands moisturized whenever I could, but between my job at a birth center and lots of clinicals, I was always washing my hands. They became cracked and constantly irritated. And They. Were. DRY. Finally I decided to do something about it. I went so see a nurse practitioner who looked at my hands, left the room for a few minutes, and came back with the suggestion to try a topical steroid cream.
I used the steroid for a few days and my symptoms improved. As soon as I stopped, the psoriasis came back with a vengeance. I could tell that it would not be a great long-term solution for me. For the next few years, my psoriasis continued off and on with exacerbations and remissions, which is typical of autoimmune disease.
Over time, my lifestyle improved as I studied about how to be well. I discovered how I could take steps to promote a healthy immune system to keep my symptoms at bay. Today my psoriasis is dramatically improved, and no longer the struggle it used to be. Targeting specific areas of wellness like alleviating stress, nourishment with whole foods, and natural topical products helped to reign in what I thought would be a difficult lifelong battle with this skin disorder. In this post I’ll share more specifics about what I learned during my personal skincare journey and resources I love for caring for my skin, both inside and out.
Discovering my root causes.
Over the past few years I’ve studied functional medicine, which is a fancy term for looking at chronic disease with a root-cause approach. During this time, I learned that many inflammatory skin conditions are a reflection of what’s going on inside a person’s body. A dry patch on my hand was actually my body’s signal for help.
We know that stress, certain medications, and even infections can act as triggers for this disease (source). An article from the National Institutes of Health states that “even though psoriasis etiology remains unknown, it is believed to be multifactorial with numerous key components including genetic susceptibility, environmental triggers in combination with skin barrier disruption and immune dysfunction.” Specific triggers that I believe contributed to my condition are genetics, stress, and gut health, linking back to immune dysfunction.
I have a family member with the same condition, so I have a larger genetic susceptibility. I experienced a tremendous amount of pressure during nursing school and life transitions, which contributed to high stress levels. And I had just taken a round of antibiotics for bronchitis. Antibiotics wipe out both the bad bacteria and good ones in our gut (source), and I didn’t take any active steps to improve my gut health after that time.
As I studied about the root causes of disease, I learned that healthy skin starts on the inside. I placed my attention there and discovered how to keep my psoriasis at bay by improving my overall lifestyle and using natural products. I’ll talk more about each of those.
From the inside out: looking at my lifestyle.
In today’s wellness world, there are so many products and loads of information vying for our attention. Seemingly magical cures are popping up out of nowhere, and it’s hard to know what to believe. As I learned to weed out the voices that were unhelpful to me on my wellness journey and listen to the ones that were, I placed my focus on a few areas that I felt were most important to my overall health, including sleep, stress reduction, diet, and supplements.
I learned how to prioritize sleep instead of counting it a luxury, getting at least 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night. You can read more about my sleep journey here. I worked on reducing stress by establishing self-care practices, like deep breathing, by not over-committing myself, and by focusing on doing a few things well instead of saying yes to every opportunity that presented itself.
From a dietary perspective, I stick to the mantra, “eat whole foods, not too much, mostly plants.” I cut out processed foods and decreased my sugar intake. While I am not entirely dairy or gluten free, I eat less of them and higher quality, organic sources of both. I place my largest focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, giving them the starring roles of my plate.
When it comes to specific supplementation, I bolster my gut health with a weekly supply of homemade kefir, which is delicious and easy to make. I take fish oil for improving intestinal barrier integrity, thus reducing inflammation. I regularly make delicious, healing teas from bulk herbs I purchase from Mountain Rose Herbs as I pursue my curiosity in herbal medicine. All of these routines are things I have built into my lifestyle gradually and sustainability. I don’t do them perfectly, but I do the best I can with what I have.
While there are many steps we can take to actively care for ourselves, it’s important to find specific ways that fit well with our lifestyle. As a nurse coach, I’m committed to meeting my clients where they’re at and helping them to achieve their wellness goals. If you’re interested in a great resource, consider checking out the book How To Be Well, by Frank Lipman. This book does an excellent job of outlining basic wellness principles in six main categories through attainable, realistic steps.
Natural skincare: what I use topically.
As I continued to study about natural skincare, I knew I had to address the products I was putting on my skin. Our skin is our largest organ, and it’s very permeable in nature. Therefore, it’s absolutely imperative to check what we’re using topically for irritating chemicals like parabens, phthalates, and fragrance.
Using cleaner products on our skin can be quite an uphill battle these days with so many irritants in soaps, cleaning chemicals, laundry detergent, perfume, and other products. In my quest to study natural skincare, I read the book Renegade Beauty by Nadine Artimus, which transformed the way I view my skin and my skincare routine. It brought me back to the simple art of nourishing my skin instead of using harsh cleansers or over-cleansing (yes, that’s actually a thing).
While there are plenty of cleaner products on the market today, I use a few DIY products with ingredients like jojoba oil, shea butter, castor oil, and essential oils. I do a facial oil cleanse each night with a simple homemade mixture (check out this post and scroll to the bottom for resources on oil cleansing). For my hands specifically, I make a hard lotion by melting beeswax, jojoba, and shea butter, and using that overnight for deep moisturization during the dry winter months. Here’s a video from Instagram sharing my hand moisturizing routine.
For store-bought products, my best go-to for becoming familiar with cleaner products is the Environmental Working Group at www.ewg.org. You can download their Healthy Living app to check out individual ingredients or products from different companies. Or consider downloading the Think Dirty app, which compares products and helps you to find out which ones contain harmful ingredients. As you discover which products work best for you, stay wary, and vote with your dollar.
That’s my story on how I learned about natural skincare, my journey with psoriasis, and what I did to improve my lifestyle and therefore, my symptoms. My routines continue to change over time, but my pursuit of sustainability, balance, and freedom does not.
I hope you’ve found a helpful nugget or two as you consider making changes in your own wellness journey and skincare routine. Perhaps that would look like switching over to a natural makeup brand or focusing on getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night.
As with any new practice, I’d encourage you to approach it as just that: a practice. One step in the right direction will lead you to the next. It’s a snowball effect and shouldn’t be overly complicated. Be gentle with yourself in the process and get the support you need to make the right lifestyle changes for you. Enjoy the journey!