More Than Skin Deep

Words: Dr Pamela A PAPPAS

Our skin is amazing. It’s flaunted, ogled, and tanned within an inch of its life. It’s our body’s largest and heaviest organ, but gets taken for granted until something goes wrong. Still, it releases toxins, keeps our innards warm, juicy and safe, and continuously renews itself. It even finds time to make vitamin D.

Amidst all this multi-tasking, our skin also communicates. In fact, skin and nerve cells come from the same developmental forebear. No wonder, our mind and emotion express themselves so eloquently through skin — blushing, hives, and ‘goose bumps’ are common examples. We also get emotional about our skin, especially when it’s red, dry, wrinkly, or bumpy. And, then, we might be off to a doctor.

Conventional medicine explores the language of skin with care, because it may reveal signs of deeper disease. These are investigated and treated, often with steroid creams, antibiotics, or antifungal medications. If there’s no systemic illness and the situation seems more superficial, these symptom-suppressive medications may be continued indefinitely.

Classical Homeopathy

Classical homeopathy is a 200-year-old system of medicine that explores the language of skin, and like psychiatry, listens for its deeper messages too. But, it uses specially prepared medicines [‘remedies’] made from natural substances to stimulate healing from within. Homeopathic medicines, which fall under FDA supervision, can be sold without prescription, and are usually available [at least in lower potencies] through health food stores.

In homeopathy, sometimes a skin problem really is ‘only skin deep’ — such as poison ivy rash, bug bites, or other injury. Here, one can often get healing results by matching symptoms in a good Materia Medica [a book that lists and describes homeopathic medicines with their effects], and using indicated remedies. However, if the skin issue is long-standing, or has multiple flares and remissions over time, it’s likely a part of systemic imbalance. In this situation, it’s wise to consult a homeopath. They will not only attend to the skin symptoms, but to the entire person; this includes other physical problems as well as how the person feels, thinks, and acts. Though it’s hard to imagine a dermatologist asking about dreams when working up a chronic skin problem, a homeopath almost always wants to hear them [as well as many other symptoms unique to that individual.]

Law Of Similars

Homeopaths prescribe by studying the person’s symptoms, and then finding a remedy from the natural world that causes similar effects. This corresponds to the ‘Law of Similars,’ which states that a substance causing certain symptoms when given in a high dose can also cure those same symptoms when given in a very small [dilute] dose.

So after a wasp sting, the skin might be red, swollen, burning, and worse from exposure to heat. The homeopathic remedy, Apis mellifica, made from live bees [and, which would cause the same redness, heat, and swelling in high dose], could help these symptoms resolve quickly. Or, someone with a florid outbreak of poison ivy [skin is red, swollen, itches intensely and is much worse at night] might respond to the remedy Rhus toxicodendron, prepared from the poison ivy plant.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite easy — there are at least 25 remedies commonly used for poison ivy rashes. The effective remedy depends on the person’s specific type of reaction to poison ivy, rather than on the pathologic diagnosis [‘contact dermatitis from poison ivy’]. We each have our individual response, requiring individualised treatment.

If you do try to treat poison ivy rash with Rhus toxicodendron [or, one of the many other possibilities], the health food store might stock remedies in 6X to 30X, or 6C to 30C ‘potencies.’ These numbers indicate how the dilution of the original substance is made: X = 10 and C = 100. For instance, ‘6X’ means that 1 drop of mother tincture is placed in 9 drops of water, or alcohol, shaken, and the process repeated six times. In ‘30C,’ 1 drop of tincture goes in 99 drops of solvent, is shaken, and the process is repeated 30 times. So, this is definitely not like rubbing yourself with a poison ivy leaf, or taking raw tincture. One would take 2-3 remedy pellets under the tongue every 2-4 hours as needed and reduce the dose frequency as the patient responds; if there is no change after a day, re-evaluate and try a different remedy.

Trauma & Bruising

Skin is prone to trauma and bruising too; the remedy Arnica montana, made from the European herb ‘leopard’s bane,’ is well-known in treating this. This plant grows in the mountains, where falls and injuries are common. Depending on how extensive the injury, one could use Arnica in sublingual pellets as above, or rub Arnica cream on the area directly [as long as there is no broken skin].

Arnica was my own entree into homeopathy. After working out too hard with a new trainer, I was a bundle of muscular agony the next day. A knowledgeable friend took pity on me, struggling to rise from my chair. Within 20 minutes of being given Arnica 30C, I could move without pain. It seemed miraculous to me; I started studying and haven’t stopped since.

Interestingly, some plastic surgeons are starting to use homeopathic Arnica to decrease post-operative swelling and bruising in their face-lift patients. The Archives of Facial and Plastic Surgery published a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study using computer analysis of bruising in patients treated peri-operatively with either homeopathic Arnica, or placebo. Neither the patients nor professional staff could tell a subjective difference between the two groups. But computer analysis documented significantly less bruising and swelling in patients receiving homeopathic Arnica.

Another study integrating homeopathy with conventional medicine followed women experiencing radiation-induced itching after treatment for breast cancer. In this condition, the skin is usually also dry, rough, and very red. Patients received homeopathic remedies individualised to their particular clinic presentation, and recorded visual analog scales before and after treatment. Symptoms resolved in 21 of 25 [84 per cent] patients, but some needed a second remedy. One of the remedies used was our poison ivy friend, Rhus toxicodendron.

While acute bites, stings, cuts, and rashes are painful, many people struggle even more with longstanding skin conditions, such as acne and eczema. Homeopaths view such conditions differently than do conventional physicians, who often limit treatment to medicines that suppress inflammation, or kill skin pathogens, thought responsible for the problem. Once such medicines are stopped, the condition may flare again.

In contrast, homeopaths consider the person’s entire being, including skin; they see skin symptoms as part of a total picture arising from a systemic imbalance. They interview the person in order to perceive core healing issues and link these to a corresponding ‘constitutional’ remedy that covers the complete picture. This single remedy system distinguishes classical homeopathy from other forms of homeopathy, which might use multiple remedies simultaneously.

Safe & Effective

Homeopathy’s treatment, or goal, is safe, effective, and gradual healing of issues on all levels, including the skin. There are certainly remedies known to help acne [such as the mineral Calcarea sulphuricum] and eczema [i.e., the mineral Sulphur, or Graphites, made from carbon]. But, the ideal remedy for such, and other, chronic conditions could be any of the nearly 3,000 known, depending on the person’s total presentation.

Another difference between conventional and homeopathic treatment involves the healing process itself. Conventional physicians might view treatment as successful if it simply controls the skin problem. But, a homeopath’s intentions are holistic, with systemic goals in addition to healing the initial complaint.

Accordingly, the process of homeopathic healing may improve the person’s overall health before the eczema, or acne, responds. So, results may seem to be ‘slower,’ since they are growing in less immediately visible places. At times, a chronic skin condition may even flare temporarily, especially in resolution of deeper issues [such as depression, or anxiety]. This might be unwelcome to patients wanting perfect skin immediately, but it’s actually a sign that the remedy is stimulating the body’s mechanisms in a positive way [healing is proceeding from inner to outer, from more vital to less vital organs]. If the process goes the opposite direction [say, the eczema, or acne, disappears, but the patient develops deeper symptoms such as asthma, or depression] this would mean a decline in health — not a desirable result.

Willingness to work with homeopathy in our ‘quick-fix’ culture often requires an attitude adjustment about what health really is, and what it means when the skin ‘acts up.’ Billy Crystal’s ‘Fernando’ character on Saturday Night Live satirised the popular view in his famous line, “It’s better to look good than to feel good.” Well, is it really, and do we have the patience to consider otherwise?

My conventional medical training highlighted the body’s attempts to maintain health, as well as the language of its symptoms. But, it never suggested that healing is a process moving from inner to outer, or that tracking this could be useful in patient care. My homeopathic training did offer these concepts, which apply to clinical progress in all realms of medicine. It also suggests that skin can be the last area to heal in effective whole-system treatment.

Truly integrative medicine is healing-oriented, views people as whole, and brings together all useful approaches for optimal health. The skin helps hold us together, and sings about the life of the person inside. Classical homeopathy can be a safe, gentle, and effective way of answering its cries for help. By listening closely, we might even hear the music of healing.

Dr PAMELA A PAPPAS, MD, MD[H], is a Board-Certified psychiatrist and medically-licensed classical homeopath. Her private practice provides classical homeopathy consultations and on-going treatment for people who experience anxiety, depression, trauma, life transitions, stress-related health conditions, creative blocks, and more. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, US. This article is published with especial thanks to Dr Pamela A Pappas. ©Dr Pamela A Pappas.

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