An itchy dry, flaky scalp is typically “seborrheic dermatitis” commonly referred to as dandruff in adults and “cradle cap” in babies. Most standard anti-fungal shampoos, topical steroids, and topical treatments such as selenium sulfide and pyrithione zinc typically only provide temporary relief because they are not addressing the root cause of the problem.
The fact that the body is out of balance must be addressed or the shampoo will simply not be enough. Although I do agree these shampoos are helpful for reducing symptoms while the actual cause is treated, they frankly are not the “be all end all”.
First of all seborrheic dermatitis is an inflammatory condition of the scalp that can manifest in the form of mild dandruff to dense, greasy scaling of the scalp. Mild cases of dandruff will typically resolve with the addition of fish oil, biotin and b-complex, zinc, and selenium, however more severe cases of seborrheic dermatitis will require further investigation.
The reason for this is that in babies the condition typically goes away after 6-8 months, but in adults the problem is almost always chronic and will just tend to relapse and remit while it worsens over time. So let’s get this figured out now, shall we?
This condition is commonly correlated with a yeast, Pityrosporum ovale, but that yeast is predominantly everywhere right? It is not some random infectious disease like Ebola, it is simply a common thing in our environment, which gets me thinking…why doesn’t EVERYONE that is exposed to P. ovale have seborrheic dermatitis?
The reason for that is that not everyone is pre-disposed to being susceptible to such a problem. There is a high familial correlation with this disease. Typically our diet, genetics, environment, lifestyle, and stress levels all contribute to causing an illness, and an illness just chooses to show up on the body somewhere to show us that we are out of balance. Whether we choose to listen to the message or ignore the message while suppressing it with shampoos and topicals or what not is up to us.
So what is out of balance? Most likely digestion and stress.
When I have worked with patients with very refractory cases of seborrheic dermatitis in the past they have all had food allergy components, especially to wheat, dairy, and citrus that needed to be addressed. For whatever reason imbalances in our gut always show up on the skin first. My guess surrounding this is that people are naturally pretty vain and will easily ignore a stomachache, but not a skin problem. The body is very wise when sending messages. Also since 70% of our immune systems surround our gut in the form of “Gut Associated Lymphatic Tissue” or GALT, any inflammatory condition will improve by simply going on a trial hypoallergenic diet for several weeks and then testing for food intolerances once the condition has cleared.
Be sure to start a whole foods diet, avoid McInflammation whenever possible, and get all the Kitchen Table Villains out as they are sure to needlessly add to the inflammatory fire. Of added interest, this problem is predominantly male which suggests a male hormone component or imbalance. Most hormones are easily brought back in to balance by improving sleep and cleaning up diet and stress.
I would recommend that anyone with an itchy skin problem to read my article on eczema, as in my mind they are all basically all the same thing and tend to resolve by using similar traditional nature cure means (all my dermatologist friends officially hate me now for saying that).
Of course seborrheic dermatitis in adults has been shown with good research to improve specifically from taking zinc daily (start with 15-20mg, but you can bump it up to 50mg daily, yet I would not do this long term as it will throw your other minerals out of balance), as well as selenium (150-200mcg), biotin (10mg), Folic acid (10mg), and B12 (1000mcg), but we really need to address the cause of the inflammation, or most people will have to be on these supplements long term.
For mothers of infants with cradle cap that are breastfeeding you can ensure that you are not deficient in these vitamins and minerals by taking a high quality prenatal vitamin at the full dose (don’t take mega doses of ANYTHING when you are breastfeeding unless prescribed by your doctor!!!). But ultimately I would investigate food allergies, as a food you are eating is most likely upsetting the baby. Do add cultured foods like yogurt in to your diet to improve your digestion.
Topically a 5% Tea Tree oil shampoo has been shown to be effective, but I would make my own conditioner instead and let it sit on the scalp. My rationale for this is that shampoos are really drying and the scalp is already dry and irritated. We want the medicine to sit on the scalp long enough to kill yeast.
I would prepare a topical solution using aloe vera gel or borage oil and tea tree oil. Add about 20 drops of tea tree oil to a ten-ounce bottle of aloe vera gel. Shake that up and apply it to your scalp daily for 15 minutes.
Depending on your sensitivity, you can add more tea tree oil than that, however it should NOT ever feel like it is burning. Never apply any essential oils directly to your skin without diluting them in aloe or a carrier oil first as they are caustic and will burn you. If you ever experience burning, rinse it off immediately.
Topically aloe vera gel and borage oil have also been shown to be soothing for this condition. For babies you can rub their head with olive oil and then comb all the flakes out.
Remember that if you discover you have food allergies it is not the end of the world, you simply eliminate the food for a period of time while the immune system forgets about it (typically three months for those blood cells to die), take probiotics daily to reseed healthy gut flora, adopt better stress management coping techniques, and then rotate the foods that were causing the inflammation back in moderately.
As a final note I would like to add that you should NOT ever take any new supplements without checking with your doctor first, and be sure that you have the correct diagnosis before attempting any home remedies or self treatments. Heaven forbid my advice ever does more harm than good.
Dr. Nicole Sundene is a Naturopathic Physician and a graduate of Western Washington University for her undergraduate degree, and Bastyr University for her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine.
She believes we should utilize natural medicines to treat the root cause of disease rather than just treating symptoms, as symptoms are a message of imbalance sent from the body and will persist until they are properly addressed.
Dr. Sundene’s goal with Kitchen Table Medicine is to provide readers with the missing link in their health care experience. She works hard to share with everyone her latest health-promoting finds, tips, and tircks so that they can get the most out of life. Her mottos are “No hype...only help” and “Progress not perfection right?”
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