A Dermatologist and a Dietitian Swear By This Gut-Friendly Superfood for Preventing Eczema Flares

Photo: Getty Images/ Lucy Lambriex
On a recent trip to Seoul, I made sure to squeeze some time into my packed schedule (full of K-beauty treatments and K-pop concerts) for a kimchi-making class at Museum Kimchikan. Once I had a sizable box of my very own radish kimchi packed and starting to ferment, I explored the museum’s exhibitions to learn more about South Korea’s national dish—which also happens to be one of my favorite foods. In one interactive module, I learned something that particularly piqued my interest: Apparently, one of the (many) health benefits of kimchi is that its lactic acid bacteria have the ability to alleviate serious eczema.

Now, as both a self-proclaimed kimchi queen and someone who struggles with eczema herself, I had to explore this point further. To better understand if—and how—kimchi truly has protective effects against eczema, I asked a dermatologist and a dietitian for intel.

Can kimchi actually help to prevent eczema flare-ups?

In one word: yes! As Bianca Tamburello, RDN, explains, kimchi’s skin-protecting prowess can be chalked up to its ability to positively influence the gut-skin axis.

“When there are high levels of bad gut bacteria, the immune system may react with an inflammatory response, which can contribute to rashes and itchy eczema symptoms,” she explains. Per a 2021 review published in the peer-reviewed journal Microorganisms, “Eczema sufferers often have higher numbers of bad gut bacteria, lower levels of good gut bacteria, and overall less diverse gut bacteria,” Tamburello summarizes. Since kimchi is rich with various probiotic strains, she notes that adding more of it into your diet can alleviate eczema symptoms by improving overall gut health.

Board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, concurs. “Kimchi and other fermented foods contain probiotics, like lactic acid, and vitamins from fermentation that are known to have immunostimulating effects,” she explains. “These effects help to prevent bad bacteria in the GI tract and promote good bacteria, which can help fight infectious and atopic diseases.” Dr. Engelman adds that kimchi’s lactic acid bacteria are also anti-inflammatory, thus reducing the risk of having itchy and uncomfortable eczema flare-ups.)

There’s some solid research backing up kimchi’s eczema-fighting powers, too. First, Tamburello cites a 2021 study published in the journal Preventive Nutrition and Food Science. “Researchers found that six strains of lactic acid bacteria in kimchi help relieve eczema symptoms in mice,” she shares. More significantly, though another study published in 2017 in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition saw promising results in 7,222 human participants between the ages of 19 and 49. Researchers found that consumption of 85 to 158 grams of kimchi per day is “significantly associated with a lower presence of AD,” aka atopic dermatitis (the most common type of eczema). In fact, those who ate kimchi in this range had a 32 percent lower presence of AD compared to those who ate less than 36 grams of kimchi daily, or none at all.

For reference, 150 grams of kimchi equates to approximately one cup, so try to aim for a bit over half of that per day (at minimum) if you’re hoping to eat your way to eczema relief. However, Dr. Engelman mentions that more could very well be merrier. “Consuming multiple servings of kimchi a day has been associated with having protective effects against eczema and decreasing the odds of developing eczema,” she shares.

In addition, Tamburello calls out a few important FYIs when it comes to shopping for the best kimchi to support your gut and skin alike. “Be sure to look for kimchi that is raw and unpasteurized for maximum probiotics and eczema-fighting benefits, like Cleveland Kitchen's Mild and Classic Kimchis. Heat kills off the healthy bacteria in kimchi, so pasteurized, shelf-stable kimchi will not have the same eczema-fighting benefits,” she explains.

Additional derm-approved tips for eczema relief

Beyond packing your plate with more kimchi, Dr. Engelman shares a few more tips you’ll want to follow in your quest to curb eczema symptoms.

First, she advises using a lotion or moisturizer with lactic acid, as it turns out that this powerhouse ingredient works wonders for eczematous skin in dietary and topical forms. “Lactic acid acts as a gentle exfoliant and humectant, working to both remove dead skin cells and preserve moisture in the skin,” she explains. She suggests applying these enriched moisturizers and anti-itch cream frequently to keep irritation and inflammation at bay.

From there, Dr. Engelman notes that winter is especially taxing for those prone to eczema since the air is cold and dry—the latter even more so if you stay indoors with the heater blasting all day long. In this case, she suggests investing in a humidifier. “Humidifiers help to keep the air at an optimal humidity level, which aids sensitive skin in staying hydrated so that itchiness, irritation, and flakiness are reduced or do not occur,” the derm shares. Her personal favorite is the Canopy Humidifier: “It doesn’t use mist—only filtered and hydrated air—so that the moisture in the air is always clean.” (FWIW, it also gets Team Well+Good’s stamp of approval.)

For more tips on how to relieve dry, itchy skin this winter, check out the video below.

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