How a controversial diet helped one woman combat her chronic skin condition

Photo: Harriet-Wallace Mead

TheCity.ie’s Ruadhan Jones speaks to a woman whose chronic skin condition led her to trying the controversial ketogenic diet.

I’ve known Edel for a few months. She’s the good natured, happy-go-lucky type you want to be around. I worked with her for about six months in a retail job. That type of work can get you down, but it didn’t seem to have the same effect on Edel.

It was a surprise to learn that she suffered from a chronic skin condition called discoid eczema. It’s a variant of the more common atopic eczema, a dryness of the skin that can become quite severe and uncomfortable.

Edel’s condition caused her skin to become itchy, swollen and cracked in circular and oval shapes. At one stage, discoid eczema covered her body practically from head to toe.

“Every time I blinked, my skin would stretch and start to bleed.”

“The worst part was my eyelids,” she told me, with a half-smile. “Every time I blinked, my skin would stretch and start to bleed. That was the worst I’d ever had it.”

The pain and the irritation it caused were upsetting to Edel. Traditional treatments, such as the use of emollients (moisturisers) or creams and ointments failed to relieve her. If the condition persists, then it’s advised that you visit a dermatologist to seek alternative treatments. So Edel started going to a dermatologist, but their efforts to treat her ailment weren’t successful until they changed her diet.

“I started going to a skin specialist,” she said. “We tried a few different medicines and treatments, but they’d little effect. I tried a dairy-free diet first with limited results and on the back of that, my skin specialist recommended I try a new diet for a week – the ketogenic diet. I started it with little hope of success, just another on the list of things I was willing to try. My skin was worse than ever.”

The ketogenic diet is liable to ring a few bells, potentially alarm bells. It is a controversial diet which involves a high-fat, low-carbohydrate intake. The aim is to produce “ketone bodies”, which are usually only present during energy restriction. 

It has been in use since the 1920s as a treatment for epilepsy, but has come to be used as a “fad diet”, one of a number aimed at weight-loss and the like. Domini Kemp, the Irish chef, and Patricia Daly, an Irish nutritionist, claimed that it could be used to treat cancer. This was despite the lack of clinical trials, and the claim was denied by other scientists

The keto diet has become one of many fad diets. Photo: Jennifer Burke

“I knew that it was said to be controversial, but at the time I would have tried most things to help my skin.”

“When I started this process,” Edel explains, “I was very concerned by some of the side effects I read about online and the like. I knew that it was said to be controversial, but at the time I would have tried most things to help my skin.

“I did my research before beginning and decided that the minor side effects were worth trying it out. I’ve not experienced most of them and now I feel comfortable deciding what to eat. I’m not concerned anymore.”

She speaks with a matter-of-fact approach, almost shrugging her shoulders while telling me this. It was something she simply had to try if she wanted relief.

Among the potential side effects are: mineral and vitamin deficiency, effects on bone health, growth, and constipation. As well as this, the keto diet is one of the most intensive and restrictive out there, with carbohydrate intake reduced to as low as 20g (one potato is 15g). As a result, foods like bread, potatoes, pasta, and rice are effectively removed from the diet. Experts say it should only be conducted with the supervision of a qualified specialist. 

Edel’s diet isn’t as restrictive as some, with her carb intake up around 30-50 grams per day. A typical meal plan of her day includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, low carb granola and rice cakes, egg, and protein rich fish or red meat. To her great relief, the effects have been very good.

“I have very little eczema flare ups anymore, which is the biggest change because it was quite rampant for a long time.

“I have very little eczema flare ups anymore,” she said, “which is the biggest change because it was quite rampant for a long time. I’ve also dropped around 4 to 5 stone with minimal exercise (only cardio) and my body just feels generally more healthy and full of energy.”

“The only things that I’ve found to be unpleasant are the smells at the beginning and the thirst. Your breath and urine start to smell like nail polish remover because your body is changing so you have to constantly counteract that! And it’s nearly two years in and I still feel thirsty all of the time.”

That being said, she is hopeful that the diet will not have to continue indefinitely.

“The diet seems to have been working a lot better than anything else I have tried,” she told me. “But I’ll continue until other methods that I try work better for me. I think a lot of people don’t consider the relationship between the foods we eat and our skin because it’s not ‘inside’ our bodies. With more research going into skin conditions or autoimmune diseases I’m hoping that eventually I won’t have to be on a ketogenic or a dairy free diet.”

Nutritional science is not an exact science and studies examining how foods influence health are inherently fraught. There are many different diets, and a lack of consensus on what exactly makes a diet healthy. Edel may have found one which works for her. This is a complex area and each individual’s experience may vary depending on the treatment they use. So any claim must be treated with caution.

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