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The incidence of eczema, a painful skin disorder, is rising dramatically among 6- and 7-year-olds worldwide, according to several new studies from the Centre for Evidence-Based Dermatology at the University of Nottingham in England. A variety of inflammatory culprits — including increased exposure to environmental toxins, decreased exposure to good bacteria and allergen-heavy diets — may be to blame.

Children with eczema are more likely to also have allergic asthma and hay fever, and they’re more likely to suffer from sleep disorders.

Thomas Sult, MD, of the Institute of Functional Medicine, suggests five ways to prevent and treat eczema in children (the advice holds true for adults, too):

Optimize vitamin D levels. For children, Sult recommends supplementing with 1,000 IUs of vitamin D daily and, if eczema lesions are severe, treating with liquid vitamin D drops right on the sores.

Take probiotics. When we’re short on good bacteria in our gut, we’re susceptible to autoimmune disorders and their associated problems like eczema. Use a minimum of 10 billion organisms.

Eat the right fats. “One result of eczema is a loss of the barrier function of the skin,” says Sult. Healthy omega-3 fats, such as those found in fish, pasture-raised beef and dairy, flax, and nut and seed oils, lubricate our skin and help rebuild its barrier function.

Avoid synthetics. “Harsh detergents can take the protective layers off skin and contribute to irritation,” says Sult. Limit exposure to synthetic ingredients and known toxins (many of which lurk in conventional laundry detergent, body-care products and cleaning products).

Cut out gluten. “Gluten appears to have significant inflammatory properties, which is the reason it might be more associated with eczema,” says Sult, noting that inflammation taxes the immune system and can open the gateway to autoimmune disorders.

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