Eczema and diet (gluten free)

Eczema has been known to be affected by diet in many cases especially in the case of children. Eczema can be triggered or made worse by many things like house dust mites, excessive humidity or dryness, pollen, stress or by eating certain foods amongst others. In the case of many children with severe eczema, food maybe one of the causes but in the case of a few children it maybe their only trigger.

When Aiyana’s eczema became worse in June 2012, we did her blood allergy test which looks for specific allergen-related antibodies (IgE or immunoglobulins which is one of the 5 sub classes of antibodies) in order to identify her allergy triggers. I was really hoping that by finding out her food triggers we would be able to control her eczema which was worsening and slowly spiralling out of control. But I also knew that food is very rarely the only trigger and hence changes in diet alone cannot by itself help control eczema without the support of a good skin care and moisturizing routine.

Her results came back positive for most of the 29 allergens we had tested her for  showing high IgE levels for tree nuts (like hazelnuts, walnuts), house dust, sesame seeds. Her total IgE levels were higher than normal and surprisingly the test showed positive results for wheat, oats, lemon as well. As her pediatrician put it so well when she explained the results to us- “ Aiyana’s skin is like an angry person, such a person will react to most triggers at this point in time”. By the time we had got these results, we had seen her skin condition deteriorate continuously since October 2011 in spite of trying out the entire range of moisturizing and topical corticosteroids arsenal as and when required but to no avail. I decided to control her diet for the next year or so in the hope that it would help improve her eczema since it has seemed to help some other children. Since surprisingly for us she had a high positive outcome for wheat in the test, I really hoped that it might have been a key trigger for her eczema becoming worse over the past year or so.

In any case I was determined to leave no stone unturned in trying to control and improve her eczema. Hence I made certain changes in her diet, the most difficult part of which was making it “gluten-free”. I have decided to share my learnings that I gained by doing a lot of research on this unique diet, its availability in our country and ways in which I made sure Aiyana was able to follow this at home and more importantly outside as well.

GF

LUCKILY for us, we did a much more accurate skin scratch test for her in May this year and gluten was ruled out as an allergen and slowly we were able to introduce wheat and other forms of gluten without any issues. 

Gluten free??

In a country like India where allergies and diet restrictions are not very common and awareness is very low, the challenges of following a “gluten free” diet increases manifold. And when I had to explain dietary restrictions to a 6 year old child (and to others around us) and ensure that she follows it, I had to  make a lot of changes to the way we thought about food. Gluten is the protein complex found in wheat, barley and rye whereas oats is inherently gluten free but invariably suffers from cross contamination with other such grains. It gives elasticity to the dough, helping it keep its shape and And it is found in, well almost everything and I mean EVERYTHING!! I never knew it was all invasive till I had to list down foods that did not have gluten.

All the breads, pastas, noodles, Maggi, cakes, desserts, all the kinds of Indian breads like naans, rotis, wafers, biscuits and a host of other child friendly and convenient foods were a complete NO NO. The positive things about this was that a) it automatically made me look for healthier alternatives and more home cooked foods without high levels preservatives, sugar, fats and salt b) my daughter did not have coeliac disease which is an autoimmune disorder affecting the small intestine which has reduced inability to absorb nutrients from the food and only a COMPLETELY Gluten free diet helps. In fact, I had not even heard of this condition till I started to find out more about gluten free diet. Even now I have heard of just once child having this condition which is still comparatively rare in India. For a person having Coeliac disease, even a very small exposure can lead to seizures, osteoporasis and growth issues in children. In my daughter’s case I did not have to worry so much about cross contamination in the kitchen or the dust from wheat, maida (refined wheat flour) affecting her health since it did not affect her to that extent.

We never truly realise what we have till we have till we have to live without it

However, food was to become a huge challenge for us. I changed our flour options from wheat to others like jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet), ragi (finger millet) but not completely successfully. For a child who is accustomed to the taste of wheat, it is a HUGE change.And it is definitely easier said than done. I started making pancakes, chapatis (a type of Indian bread) out of jowar, unsuccessfully tried to give her other food options made of ragi and bajra. She just didn’t like the taste. Luckily, a diet followed predominantly in southern India is made of rice and includes dosas, idlis and uttapams (a kind of crepe, a steamed preparation and a kind of pancake with toppings respectively) and which my children love. Also since one major staple food is rice for us (especially true for Bengalis like for me from the eastern part of India), I started giving a lot of snacks made out of rice for her school lunches and the like.

Variety is the spice of life

True to my nature, I did some more research and found out gluten free recipes through some amazing blogs and websites like www.glutenfreeconfessions.com and glutenfreegoddess.blogspot.in (the first one is my favourite one). They helped me get started on a journey which was different from any other. I learned to appreciate how difficult it is for people who are on restricted diets. I also made sure that for most parts, my whole family followed the same diet as my daughter. I also figured out ready mix gluten free products which were available in India and how to get them if they were not. This opened up a lot more options for us which were also tastier and convenient as a whole. I got bread, pancakes and other flour mixes from Orgran, Pamela’s products and Bob’s Red Mill, Schar from various places. Orgran as a brand was the only one readily available in Mumbai at that time. ( There are of course many more such brands available world wide to cater to a vast segment but I have not used any of those other brands.) But thankfully things have changed for the better in the last year and a lot more products are now available in India both offline and online. I am listing some of the products and their availability in our country-

  • Orgran Gluten free products – Foodhall at Phoenix Mills, Godrej Natures Basket in Mumbai
  • Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods– Foodhall at Phoenix Mills
  • Bob’s Red Mill, Schar and Orgran products are also available on websites like http://www.healthyworld.in/,  http://www.gourmetco.in/ and http://www.foodesto.com/ which deliver all over India
  • Pamela’s Products are not available in India, I had to arrange for them from US

orgran

schar

I have used all of the above mentioned products apart Bob’s Red Mill. My favourite was the bread mix from Pamela’s Product which turned out quite close to a regular bread and almost as tasty. For someone like me who has never had to bake bread in her life, the end result was pretty decent as compared to when I was trying to make the same from scratch. However, I did manage to bake bread, cake and the likes from scratch using gluten free ingredients with mixed results. I would like to also list the ingredients that are available incase you are willing to try your hand at this as well-

  • Zero G – An Indian brand which has products like potato starch, corn starch ( not corn flour), GF atta and maida mix for rotis etc and other basic GF grains like sorghum etc. It is available in large grocery stores and online in the websites mentioned earlier

zero g

  • Conscious Foods– another brand which has all kids of organic GF grains and flours like bajra, ragi, jowar etc
  • Bob’s Red MillGuar gum and Xanthan gum powder, both of which are essential to emulate the binding property of gluten in regular foods

A child’s dilemma

However, the most difficult part was to ask a 7-year-old to stop having what she had been used to eating so far and it was worse when she had to attend birthday parties and other social events. I had to prepare her mentally and then send some homemade cakes and even other foods so that she could eat something at the birthday parties. In most cases, I spoke to the hostess and asked them to have a couple of options for Aiyana if possible (and even had to refrain from sending her to a few of them).  Also in India, since these kinds of allergies are uncommon, there are hardly any options in terms of restaurant foods, bakeries and at social events (apart from the South Indian variety). It was a difficult time, but she knew that she was not supposed to eat a wide range of food and she did refrain from eating them. I started baking a lot more at home and even managed to make, cupcakes, muffins etc for her with the help of some of baking mixes which I sourced. Luckily for a mother like me, there are a lot of like-minded people in the world who have shared their gluten free recipes and other ideas which really helped us to adjust to this challenging diet.

kites

And finally, a kite rises highest against the wind, not with it

And so it is with my daughter. While I would certainly not wish for her or anyone else to go through these challenges which seem to cross her path ever so often, most of the times we do not have a choice but to face them head on. While my daughter has been put back on a regular diet from June this year, the 11 months or so when she had to follow this diet was a difficult time for her since it added to the challenges she faced already due to her severe eczema.

But I can already see the strength in her which helps her to lead as normal a life as possible and her will power which has increased by leaps and bounds in the past year or so.

I know now the she has the strength to not only rise against the wind but to soar to dizzying heights …

When the going (eczema) gets tough…..(part 1)

IMG_0414

Aiyana and Shaunak in Goa

After Aiyana’s (and our) experience with Erythroderma in September 2012 we decided to take a much needed vacation. We ( Sudip and I, my mother and the kids) went for a one week holiday to Goa during the children’s Diwali break in November 2012. Goa is a small state in India on the Western coastline known as the Konkan region and is famed for its silvery beaches and is visited by tourists from all over the world. While we had a good time overall, her skin condition was just kept under control with oral steroids and immunosuppressants. Due to this reason, as a family we had decided to keep her away and stay away from the sea water and the swimming pool (the chlorine in the water tends to irritate sensitive skin).

Also, since Aiyana had been kept on a gluten free diet after her Ige ( blood allergy test) test had come positive to wheat allergen, it did pose some challenges as far as the food was concerned.  In order to manage her dietary restrictions, I had figured out the alternative food choices and some good gluten free products like Orgran and Bob’s Mill which are available in Mumbai (I wil be writing more on this in a separate post) . The hotel that we were staying in were also extremely helpful in catering to our special dietary needs and used to make us special gluten free parathas/rotis etc from the mix that I had taken with me. Overall I think we managed pretty well considering that in India dietary needs like gluten free/nut free/diabetic/allergy specific diets are not usually catered to in most places yet due to various reasons. As far as gluten allergy (foods containing gluten includes wheat or atta, maida, barley, malt, semolina or sooji) is concerned, it is quite uncommon in India and most people are not well versed with the specifics of this diet.

Under the influence of oral steroids (which we had started tapering) and after introducing an immunosuppressant (Cyclosporin)in September, her skin was much better overall. Itching however never completely went away.  The drug dosage was increased very slowly to the optimum level (depending on her weight) since the doctors did not want to take a chance with any adverse  reaction. With a powerful drug like Cyclosporin, it is imperative to monitor the effects ( increased blood pressure and reduced kidney function amongst others) of the drug on a regular basis. Hence, weekly blood tests were carried out initially after which it was carried out fortnightly and then monthly towards the end. I don’t know which was more traumatic for Aiyana, the skin condition or the blood tests.. This constant monitoring which is required made it difficult for Aiyana to go through with this treatment, but there was no option as such.

After consulting a Mumbai based senior pediatric dermatologist, we also started narrow band UV (ultra violet) treatment or phototherapy for her in November 2012. It is a type of treatment for adults and children with moderate to severe atopic dermatitis (also used for psoriasis) who have not responded well to other eczema treatments. Exposing the skin to UV light suppresses overactive skin immune system cells that cause inflammation and hence can control itching and rashes. The benefits of using phototherapy are that these therapies often work when other eczema treatments have not, and if done properly in a controlled environment and under supervision they can actually have fewer side effects than many of the prescription medicines used for eczema. In Aiyana’s case, her doctors wanted to eventually stop all oral medications and control her eczema with the help of narrow band UV therapy only.

Narrow band UV booth used for phototherapy

Narrow band UV booth used for phototherapy

So, while Phototherapy treatment continued, oral steroids was stopped completely in December 2012 and Cyclosporin (immunosuppressant) was stopped in February 2013. Her skin was overall in a good condition till the time that these medications were being given to her. Phototherapy treatment,  which had been started earlier was then continued as the solo treatment for her till April 2013. Phototherapy as a treatment did not prove to be very effective for Aiyana and her skin condition started relapsing  once again in April and within a few days became extremely dry, scaly and itchy. No amount of topical applications and moisturizers helped to control the same and Aiyana had to be once again put on oral steroids from mid April to stop it from deteriorating any further.

The good thing was that we had already planned for and arranged a trip end of April to meet a well known pediatric dermatologist in Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and a pediatric allergy specialist in London. We came back to India and started her new medication at the end of May 2013 (I will write about our experience in Part 2 of  this post a lot happened after we came back and it might be an important lesson for parents using immunosuppressant for their child ) .While the results were not exactly what we had hoped for it did clear up some doubts as far as her allergies were concerned. The pediatric allergy specialist did a much more accurate (and painless) scratch test and patch test for her allergies and we were then able to include most of the foods back in her diet barring tree nuts (walnuts, hazelnut, peanut etc).

However, things were to become much worse for us before we got it back under control. There are so many things I wish I could have done differently for her if only I had known what was about to happen. But that is only wishful thinking on my part since it is only in hindsight that we have the perfect vision!

But what I do know is that we all do what we can for our children and that I will never give up finding the best possible treatments and course of action for my daughter. She is such a brave little girl who needs all my love, strength and support to see her through this difficult phase in life.

Our struggle with eczema intensifies

Aiyana with her brother Shaunak in 2011

Aiyana with her brother Shaunak in 2011

It was in October 2011 that we made a trip to Rajasthan for a religious function. For those who are unfamiliar with Indian geography, Rajasthan is a northern state in India with a very dry climate. Aiyana’s skin condition became extremely dry and started cracking even though we were there only for a few days. We came back to Mumbai and started topical medication in adition to moisturizers. We went through the whole gamut of moisturizers including creams and ointments apart from topical steroid creams of all strengths. We also tried out other treatments such as “wet wrapping” in the dry months of December 2011/January 2012 but nothing made her eczema go away completely. For some reason her eczema switch got triggered on and never switched off completely after October.

In June of 2012, Aiyana’s skin condition became very dry inspite of taking utmost care in moisturizing her thoroughly several times daily. We also did an allergy IgE test  (immunoglobulin E) where the blood sample is taken and then mixed with the allergen to see if there is a reaction. As we had expected, she tested positive to a whole host of  allergens like  dust mites, house dust, nuts and but also surprisingly to wheat as well. I did not want to take any chances in the light of the allergy test and with the doctor’s approval put her on a gluten free diet from June onwards. She did not show any immediate improvement with this diet but I still persisted for some more time hoping that her skin condition would improve eventually. It did not.

In the meantime, her itching and subsequently her skin condition became progressively worse. I tried various types of ointments, the highest strenght of topical cortisteroids and intensified her mositurizing routine as well but to no avail. Nothing worked and we reached a point where she was awake throughout the night and her skin started scaling and falling on the bed like black dust due to her constant itching. I can not tell you how painful it was for us to see her go through this agony of non stop itching and hence no sleep for about 10 consecutive nights. Still my husband (Sudip) and I were hoping against hope to see if we could somehow avoid giving her oral steroids and manage with topical applications only. In August 2012, she stopped going to school and we started sitting up with her all night trying to distract her with various activities like drawing, watching movies; anything really to make her stop itching. Her dermatologist and another pediatric dermatologist whom we had consulted, both informed us that if we did not start her on oral steroids soon, she would have to be hospitalized. She had now developed a skin condition called Erythroderma. Ertythroderma is the widespread reddening of the skin due to inflammation of the skin and precedes or is associated with exfoliation (skin peeling off in scales or layers). She was started on oral steroids (Prednisolone) in August 2012 at a high dose (according to her weight) and her skin cleared up within 48 hours! All I could think of was if only we had given her the oral steroids earlier on and spared her all this agony. Aiyana’s skin condition remained in good condition while she was on oral steroids and she was subsequently prescribed immunosuppressants (Cyclosporin) in September 2012 as oral steroids was just a short term medication to control her Erythroderma.

I can only tell you from our experience is that sometimes it is necessary to give oral steroids or some such powerful drug to your child. However, it has to be prescribed by the right doctor, at the right dosage and monitored correctly and regularly at all times. It is thus very important to see the right specialist from the beginning and to stick to one you can trust. It is very tempting to switch doctors and/or medication based on friend’s and family’s recommendations but it may not be the best thing for your child. I have come to realise this over the years of dealing with doctors, family, well wishers who have all tried to help my daughter. I know that I have to stick to her set of doctors who have been with us through all these difficult times and hence know Aiyana so well. They have also done much more for us than just handing us a prescription. Sudip and I have of course taken the opinion of other specialists as and when required. Ultimately, only you as a parent are the best advocate for your child in this fight against eczema.