Ditch That Itch

Summer brings a bevy of irritating conditions—but natural remedies can help.

July / August 2016

By Claire Sykes

Oh, summertime! Finally, it’s warm enough to wear less clothing and spend more time outside. While your bare skin enjoys the freedom, though, you may find yourself a prisoner to itching. From mosquito bites to sunburn, summer threatens to keep you scratching. Fortunately, there are natural ways to prevent and stop most warm-weather itchiness.

Itch Instigators

Amy Duong, ND, a naturopathic physician in New Haven, Connecticut, explains why summer can leave its mark on your skin.

“In hotter weather, you’re outdoors more and more physically active,” Duong explains. “This allows the energy and blood in your body to move as well. Your organs, especially the heart, are also more active, which creates more heat in the body. The heat can rise to the surface of the body and meet the warmth of the outdoors on your body’s exterior barrier to the environment—your skin.”

Meanwhile, the surface of your skin teems with bacteria and other microbes, as well as metabolic byproducts such as uric and lactic acids, steroids and cholesterol. “People with high levels of these on their skin attract more mosquitoes,” says Erika Enos, ND, of Healing Roots Natural Medicine in Denver.

“Mosquitoes are also drawn to the subtle odors produced by bacteria on the skin and the carbon dioxide that you exhale,” Enos adds. “People who are larger, pregnant or in the midst of exercising exhale more carbon dioxide and are, therefore, more attractive to mosquitoes.”

Irritating Plants

If you’re not slapping yourself silly in summer, you might be trying to dodge poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). It joins poison oak (T. diversilobum) and poison sumac (T. vernix) as common plants that unleash something called urushiol when anything brushes up against or damages their leaves. You may be among the 70% of people who are allergic to this oily chemical, which can drive you crazy with red, itchy, oozy little bumps.

What causes the reaction? The problem is that when you come in contact with these plants (and bugs like mosquitoes), your body sees their oil and saliva as dangerous foes. “To fight them off, your immune system’s mast cells release histamine, which makes you itch; and causes plasma to leak from your blood vessels into your skin, resulting in the bumps,” says Enos.

Then there’s sunburn. “Here, nerve fibers just under the skin are irritated, and that can cause itching,” Enos says.

Surprisingly, so can your own peeling skin. “Your body isn’t used to having that extra layer of skin that is in the process of sloughing off,” Duong explains. “This skin touches other parts of your skin while you create a new barrier, and
it causes itching.”

You can have itchy, dry skin from the summer’s heat itself, which makes you want to clean up and cool off more frequently. But beware! Chlorinated water from faucets and in swimming pools, lathering up too often and air conditioning can all dry out your skin as well.

In hot weather you’re also sweating more—a great way to get rid of toxins. But perspire too much and moisture gets trapped beneath your skin, clogging your sweat ducts. Your body cries for help by breaking out in heat rash, tiny red or pink bumps on your upper back, chest, belly, forehead and neck. Hot weather not only aggravates this condition, it can also cause chronic skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis to flare up and become more uncomfortable.

Finding Relief

Whatever the reason for your itch, don’t scratch! It feels good at first, but only further irritates your skin, making you itch more.

Instead, stay hydrated, especially if you’ve been sweating heavily.

Since itchiness means inflammation, Enos suggests eating plenty of anti-
inflammatory foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, flax seed, hempseed and chia seeds; eggs from grass-fed chickens; and pasture-raised beef.

Other foods can also help your skin feel better. “When your body itches, it can go through oxidative stress,” Duong says. “The antioxidants in blueberries, purple potatoes, dark leafy greens and other colorful foods neutralize cell-damaging free radicals. Also, summer is the time for salads, and other raw vegetables and fruits.

These are cooling.” Whole-food supplementation in the form of smoothie powders can help complement the antioxidants in your diet.

To calm itchy, dry skin and sunburn, dab on some aloe vera, which (along with sea buckthorn oil) helps rebuild skin. (Keep some aloe at hand when grilling to ease burns.) Put cucumber slices on mosquito bites and try to prevent them altogether with natural repellants containing essential oils such as citronella, lemongrass, eucalyptus and lavender.

Bug bites can also be calmed with tea tree oil. What’s more, this broad-spectrum antibiotic provides first-line defense against infection in the cuts or scrapes that can result from outdoor sports. Calendula, an ointment taken from the pot marigold, helps to cleanse wounds and prevent scarring.

If poison ivy gets you, wash off the oil with soap and water, ASAP. Hinder heat rash by using a natural-fiber dry-skin brush in quick, light strokes each morning. This helps remove dead skin cells, open pores and increase circulation, suggests Enos. And don’t forget to slather on that moisturizer and sunscreen.

“If itching persists and/or it affects larger areas of your body, consider the health of your underlying organs and see your healthcare provider,” suggests Enos.

Most summer itching won’t last long, though. So get out there and liberate your skin—and have the best summer ever.

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