In holistic medicine, disorders of the skin are seen as manifestations of something deeper going on within the body. This may be related to digestion, stress, toxicity, underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, autoimmune disease, or a combination of various factors. Through the consultation, we aim to find the source of the problem and treat accordingly.

On this page I discuss the herbal approach to treating atopic eczema, acne vulgaris and herpes simplex (cold sores). I have given examples of herbs commonly used, but it is important to keep in mind that herbs are always prescribed on an individual basis, ie. for the person rather than for the condition.


Atopic Eczema

This is a very common complaint seen in herbal practice, as conventional treatment consists of topical steroids which do not address the underlying condition. Atopic (allergic) eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis (AD), causes itchy, red, inflamed patches of skin, commonly in the ‘creases’ of the body – inside the elbows or knees. There is a usually a family history of allergy and the condition will have been ongoing for a while.

Sometimes it is possible to pinpoint the source of the allergy (eg. particular foods or food additives, dust mite, mould) and avoid it – other times, it is necessary to support the person’s overall health and immune system in order to break the cycle of disease. Herbal treatment for atopic eczema therefore focusses on correcting digestion, reducing inflammation, supporting liver function, calming the nervous system, modulating allergic pathways and helping the patient incorporate long-term dietary solutions into their daily routine.

Herbs often used in childhood and adult eczema are burdock, dandelion root, violet leaf, chamomile, skullcap, nettles, barberry, cleavers, echinacea, chickweed, oats, calendula and blue flag. Topical creams are often prescribed for symptomatic treatment along with either teas, tinctures or tablets (including nutritional supplements) to take internally, and herbal baths can also be very beneficial.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):


Acne Vulgaris

Acne is the most common skin disease. Whether it happens during puberty or in adulthood, it is another condition that will have different triggers in different people, usually involving hormones, stress pathways and food triggers. It may be the result of a deeper hormonal condition, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or a side-effect of certain medications. The effects on a person’s self-esteem are not to be underestimated, which can cause low mood and further contribute to ill-health.

Herbs are used internally to address hormonal fluctuations, calm the nervous system, control blood sugar levels and work on any other areas of physiology that are ‘out of whack’, such as digestion, circulation and detoxification. Topically, herbal cleansers help to control sebum production and tone and nourish the skin.

Herbs commonly used include Vitex agnus-castus, white peony, liquorice, chamomile, calendula, barberry, echinacea, adaptogenic herbs such as withania or astragalus, poke root, gymnema, tea tree, myrrh, witch hazel and rose.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):


Herpes simplex (cold Sores)

Viruses take hold of the body when defences are down, so it is just as important to support the overall physiology of a person suffering from recurrent cold sores as to give them anti-viral treatment.

It is usually possible to pinpoint the triggers for an outbreak, such as menstruation in women, stress, particular foods or following a cold or flu when immunity is low. We are lucky to have a vast array of anti-viral and immune-supporting herbs that can help to keep outbreaks at bay, including echinacea, astragalus, withania, Siberian ginseng, Korean ginseng, cat’s claw, pau d’arco, liquorice, St. John’s wort and lemon balm.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):