For the first seventeen years of my life, I struggled with a rare skin condition. Around the age of seven, I was diagnosed with atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema. The symptoms include itchy, dry, and inflamed skin. There are more than three million new US cases of eczema a year. The dermatologist prescribed an ointment in a white tube with the oily consistency of Vaseline. There were countless summers when I couldn’t swim with my friends in the town’s community pool, because the chlorine would irritate and severely dry out my skin.
Flash forward six years and I was diagnosed with a more severe kind of eczema called Ichthyosis vulgaris. Ichthyosis vulgaris is a skin disorder characterized by very dry, thickened, and scaly skin. Imagine your skin being identical to a giraffe. Ichthyosis vulgaris is a rare condition with fewer than two hundred thousand cases diagnosed each year.
I have experienced the long-term effects of ichthyosis vulgaris including painful cracks in the skin, peeling, itchiness, and scales on the lower parts of my leg. But the worst symptom of ichthyosis vulgaris is the inability to sweat. Sweating is vital to our largest organ, the skin, because it helps release collagen, a protein that gives the skin its youthful appearance—something my dry, rough, flaky skin desperately needs. Sweating also helps release bodily toxins through pores and other mucus membranes. In the summer before my junior year of high school, I was stuck in my room on the third floor, during a heat wave, without air conditioning. My body would not produce sweat. My skin started to look hard, shiny, and plasticky and my body overheated to the point where I feared passing out.
“Imagine your skin being identical to a giraffe.”
Since being diagnosed with ichthyosis vulgaris, I have been prescribed many topical medications. One, in particular, was an ointment called ammonium lactate. This medication is used to treat dry scaly skin. The side effects of the medication are burning, tingling, redness, and irritation.
During the first application of ammonium lactate, I experienced a severe burning sensation. The large cracks in my skin slowly started to bleed. Instead of the topical medication treating my skin, it was seeping into my blood, which put me at risk for infection. At that time, I ceased using the cream and focused on how to stop the bleeding. The cracks in my skin were caused by extreme dryness. People commonly apply lotion or oil products when their skin is dry; however, applying lotion does not work for everyone. Lotion is not the only option.
Around the age of thirteen, I realized that what I consumed had an effect on my skin. I began to notice that my skin would break out and itch severely after consuming dairy products. After logging my symptoms for a month, it became obvious that I was allergic to dairy. After consuming it, an itchy rough scaly patch appeared on my skin. Unfortunately, I didn’t remove dairy from my diet completely but indulged in it occasionally. When my mom would make us burgers, I would tell her to hold the cheese. The dermatologist should have asked me about my diet, because what I ate had a serious effect on my skin.
Ichthyosis vulgaris is caused by a genetic mutation. Growing up I realized that both sides of my family had been diagnosed with eczema, in addition to a few cases of ichthyosis vulgaris. My mom does not appear to have either skin condition, but my dad suffers from ichthyosis vulgaris. One day, when I was sixteen, he was getting out of the car, and his shirt accidentally lifted up. He exposed a patch of dry, thick, scaly skin on the lower part of his back. Then, I understood why he always wore pants in the summer. He was a prisoner in his skin, too.
In the fall of 2017, I attended an event called Dynamic Health Solutions. Their motto is “We Practice Nature for Natural Results.” The event was held in downtown Hartford and featured Dr. Lamar Price, an iridologist. Iridology is an alternative practice that studies a patient’s iris to diagnose environmental and food allergies. After the over-an-hour-long event, the doctor took a magnifying glass and peered into people’s eyes. When the doctor looked into my eyes, he told me that the skin condition might have a remedy. He told me, “Change your diet.” Dr. Price’s three words affirmed what I knew about the correlation between my skin and diet.
In January 2018, I changed to a vegan diet. Prior to this, my diet replicated the Standard American Diet (SAD) and The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) suggested nutrition guide, MyPlate. The SAD consists of highly processed foods, red meats, added sugars, high-fat dairy, and refined grains. The SAD lacks what the USDA promotes as a healthy diet. In 2011, USDA introduced MyPlate, a visual guide of a proportioned plate that focuses on the importance of nutrition. MyPlate gave bigger portions of vegetables, protein, and grains while fruits and dairy received smaller portions. MyPlate was a nutrition guide, created to combat the challenges caused by SAD. However, the USDA’s MyPlate nutrition plan still posed a threat to African Americans’ bodies. Neither diet suited my skin disorder nor my genetic makeup. The SAD and USDA’s MyPlate nutrition plan is not a suitable diet for African Americans, because our bodies are built physiologically different than those of white Americans’. For example, about seventy-five percent of African Americans are lactose intolerant, whereas thirty percent of white Americans are lactose intolerant. To this day, the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) mandates that doctors and nutritionists promote the MyPlate plan to its African American patients. This medical practice protocol ignores the disparities in genetic makeup between races. The SAD and USDA’s MyPlate nutrition plans subject African Americans to an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, colon cancer, and more. Between 2018 and 2019, over 12 percent of black Americans were diagnosed with diabetes, compared to just over 7 percent of white Americans. Black Americans are two times more likely than white Americans to die from heart disease.
Switching to a vegan diet was not easy. A vegan diet consists of vegetables, nuts, grains, and foods made from plants. I started eating raw fruits and vegetables and limited processed foods. For a protein source, I consumed a lot of nuts, such as cashews and almonds. I began to see differences in my skin after a year. I experienced little to no itching; my skin was able to retain oil and moisture; and cracks were not always visible to the naked eye. Besides my diet, I have other habits that helped change my skin. I use all-natural products for my skin. When I take a shower, I use natural African black soap and turpentine soap. These two soaps help to disinfect my skin without stripping it of natural oils. After showering, I apply African shea butter as a moisturizer.
There are more habits I have to regularly incorporate for my skin to maintain a decent appearance: drinking sarsaparilla and burdock root. These two herbs work to improve skin health. Sarsaparilla helps to reduce itching and kills bacteria that ichthyosis vulgaris may generate within the skin. I use burdock root, because it helps to clean the blood. Having parasites in the blood is a common cause of many skin issues. Overall, when the blood is clean the skin reaps positive benefits. Normally, when I drink these, I like to follow up with exercise at the gym. Sweating these herbs through my pores helps to improve my skin’s appearance. Through this regimen, I am able to release toxins and reward my skin with collagen, making my skin youthful and soft.
I am no longer a prisoner in my skin. This summer, I will say goodbye to long sleeves and sweatpants—and hello to shorts, tank tops, and miniskirts! As a young woman, I now feel comfortable wearing clothes that expose my mahogany legs and arms I had hidden from the outside world.
Deneja Atkins is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.
Header Image courtesy of Getty Images.