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Spring clean your life

A thorough spring cleaning is a great way to rid your home of allergens and contaminates. But this seasonal ritual isn’t limited to dusting or mopping. Here’s some expert advice for cleaning up your diet and mood along with your house.

Spring clean your life

A deep clean of the home that sweeps out dust mites and removes other potential allergens is undeniably good for people with eczema. It’s not just your living space, however, that can benefit from cleansing and clearing away things that no longer serve you well.

A mental spring clean can lighten your mood and help calm stress and anxiety that can trigger flares, while a nutritional rejuvenation can boost the immune system and skin health. Here, three experts offer eczema-centric tips and strategies for renewing your home, diet and mind.

Clean the home

 Dust mites, pet dander, mold and pollen, which commonly trigger eczema, asthma and allergies, are major targets in your spring clean campaign, according to Dr. Thamiris Palacios-Kibler, an allergist-immunologist in Chesapeake, Virginia.

“It’s also a good time to consider strategies for keeping allergen levels low throughout the year,” she said. Along with the tips below, Palacios-Kibler suggested twice-weekly vacuuming and dusting.

Wear protective cleaning gear:

  • Don long sleeves and pants, and always wear gloves. Choose cotton gloves if the chore won’t wet hands for extended periods, which can cause irritation. For work that has hands in and out of liquid, wear powder- and latex-free vinyl or neoprene gloves. Layer cotton gloves underneath to absorb sweat (another irritant). Put on a dry pair if the cotton gets damp while you clean.

Use the right tools:

  • Use fragrance- and dye-free products or make your own cleansers using combinations of vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice and water (see “Homemade Cleansers”). Bleach diluted with water is also nonirritating for most people with eczema, according to Palacios-Kibler.
  • Use microfiber cleaning cloths and mops. They attract more dust than cotton or paper towels and are better for the environment.
  • Invest in a vacuum cleaner with a small particle or HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter. It traps tiny particles of dust, pet dander and other allergens that many vacuums recirculate into the air.

Lessen house-wide allergens:

  • Change air filters every three months. Use filters rated at 11 or 12 MERV (minimum efficiency rating value), which remove smaller particles such as pet dander, mold spores and pollen.
  • Use dehumidifiers and air conditioning to draw moisture from the air. “This cuts down on mold and dust mites, which thrive in humid environments,” said Palacios-Kibler. Ideally, home humidity should be between 40% and 50%. Any lower may be drying to the skin.
  • Launder clothes and other items in hot water. Only temperatures 122° F or higher will kill dust mites. Store clean towels and bed linens in plastic bags.
  • If feasible, replace wall-to-wall carpeting with solid-surface floors or washable area rugs and upholstered furniture with leather or wood.
  • Cut down on dust-collecting clutter. “Keep children’s toys and other loose items in plastic storage bins and regularly donate things you don’t need,” Palacios-Kibler said.
  • Wash pets and their bedding weekly and brush them outside. “Keep pets out of the bedroom and designate an area for feeding and play,” she said.
  • Remember to clean blinds and curtains. Dry cleaning, however, won’t kill dust mites, so you’ll need to launder curtains in hot water.

Homemade cleansers

You can make cleansers with water, white vinegar, lemon juice and baking soda. Pour into plastic spray bottles or containers and you’re ready to clean.

  • All-purpose cleaner and disinfectant: Mix two parts water and two parts white vinegar.
  • Scouring cleanser: Mix three parts baking soda and one part water to make a paste for hard surfaces like sinks, toilets, ceramics, aluminum and stainless steel. Add a few squeezes of lemon juice to help dissolve water stains and soap buildup.
  • Fabric softener: To soften and deodorize clothes, fill a bucket with one cup baking soda and a gallon of water, add clothes (and more water if needed) and soak overnight. Launder with your regular detergent.

For additional household products deemed suitable for those with eczema and allergies, visit NEA’s Seal of Acceptance Product Directory.

Nourish the body

Some medical experts believe a diet heavy in inflammatory foods could add to the reaction that underlies atopic dermatitis and other forms of eczema in the immune system. Sugary, fried and heavily processed foods loaded with saturated fat, salt, preservatives and other chemicals are the most common dietary drivers of inflammation.

“Eating foods that cause inflammation can impact proper digestion and absorption of nutrients in the gut,” explained registered dietitian-nutritionist Rakhi Roy Chowdhury, who is in private practice in Orlando, Florida. “When your body is being depleted of vital nutrients, all systems are impacted, including skin.”

Although changing your diet won’t cure eczema, eating nourishing food and limiting inflammatory choices may help improve your health from the inside out.

Here’s how to start cleaning up your diet:

  • Center your diet around anti-inflammatory whole or minimally processed foods. These include antioxidant- and fiber-rich whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, extra virgin olive oil, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Look for simple, tasty ways to increase veggie intake — pile them on sandwiches, add to scrambled eggs and use pre-cut versions as dippers for hummus.
  • Read nutrition labels. Check daily value percentages of sugar (including added sugar), sodium, fats, fiber, vitamins and other nutrients. A daily value of 5% or less is considered low, while 20% or more is considered high.
  • Promote skin health with foods high in vitamins A, C, and E, zinc, and amino acids such as arginine and glutamine, which are found in protein-rich foods such as meat, dairy, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, and legumes. “These skin-building micronutrients help fight oxidative stress, reduce inflammation, promote skin wound healing, foster gut health and support the immune system,” Chowdhury said.
  • Minimize what you buy in the grocery store’s center aisles. The sugar, trans fats and refined flours in packaged snacks and mixes, ready-to-eat meals, jarred sauces, desserts and other highly processed foods spark inflammation.
  • Pick low-sodium canned vegetables and canned fruits without added sugars. Be aware that these products often contain added fat and preservatives. Rinse before using to remove some of the additives.
  • Choose frozen fruits and vegetables wisely. These options can be just as nutritious as fresh produce as long as you buy products without added sauces, sugar, salt or fats.

Remember that when it comes to skin conditions, an individual’s unique food triggers may also include “healthy” foods. “Fermented foods are great for gut health, for example, but may trigger itching for histamine-intolerant individuals,” said Chowdhury, who has eczema and is allergic to chickpeas, a legume full of fiber, protein and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.

Clear the mind

Eczema, with its itching, sleep disturbances and need for daily care, can load the mind with stress and anxiety. Depression is also more common in people with eczema, which often flares along with emotional distress.

Clearing mental habits that damage emotional well-being starts with committing to self-care, said Eunice Yu, a Chicago-based special educator, therapist and licensed yoga instructor who teaches mindfulness techniques to at-risk youth and people with eczema.

Her strongest recommendation for reducing mental distress is cultivating mindfulness with daily meditation. Mindfulness is the awareness that comes with nonjudgmental attention on the present moment.

“Studies show that just eight weeks of daily meditation changes how the brain governs mood and emotion; specifically, meditation gives us more control over our emotional responses,” she said.

Apps like Headspace and Calm can guide you through meditation and mindfulness techniques. Here’s one simple way to begin:

  • Get into a comfortable position in which you can be still.
  • Focus on your breath, mentally following your inhalations and exhalations.
  • When you notice that your mind has wandered, gently and nonjudgmentally refocus on your breath.
  • Continue following your breath for two minutes.

Relive anxiety with deep breathing, which quickly lowers heart rate and blood pressure. There are many techniques. Here’s one called 4-7-8 breathing that Yu said is sometimes described as a “natural tranquilizer” for the nervous system:

  • Empty the lungs.
  • Breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds.
  • Hold the breath for 7 seconds.
  • Exhale through the mouth for a count of 8 with a strong, audible breath.
  • Repeat three more times.
  • Notice how you feel.

Use this technique to quiet a racing mind, distract yourself from itch or ground yourself in the present moment:

  • Focus on a simple object in the room such as a rug, book, picture or pillow.
  • Mentally describe it in as much detail as possible, noting as specifically as possible its colors, size and materials.
  • Notice how this slows down anxious thoughts.
  • When you feel calmer, redirect your attention to the task or people at hand.

If you tend to beat yourself up for perceived shortcomings, try practicing self-compassion, which is linked to better emotional well-being and self-care:

  • Imagine that a close friend is telling you about a failure or rejection.
  • Consider what you would say to them.
  • Think about what you say to yourself in a similar situation.
  • Notice the contrast and practice being as kind to yourself as you are to loved ones.

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