(Originally published for The Dragontree)

Years ago, I read a book on the theory of homeopathic medicine that changed the way I thought about health and inspired me to go into medicine. One of the most interesting concepts regarded a hierarchy of systems and layers within human beings. According to the Greek teacher and author, George Vithoulkas, the human organism can be understood in three layers: Mind, Emotion, and Body.

The deepest and most vital is the mind layer, through which we understand life and the world, and have the means to process stimuli and thoughts and to connect to others. The next layer out is the emotion layer, through which we experience feelings, such as hope, happiness, fascination, inspiration, and also sadness, frustration, and anger. Finally, the outermost layer is the physical layer, which includes our muscles, bones, blood vessels, skin, and internal organs.

When there is some sort of disorder, Vithoulkas said, the human organism will do its best to express this imbalance in a way that impacts us as little as possible. If the symptom shows up on the mind layer, the best case scenario would be, say, mild forgetfulness or distraction. Worse might be something like difficulty with language, or misunderstanding basic social cues, and the worst would be total confusion or even loss of consciousness. Since the mind is critical to grasping meaning, core mental function represents the highest level on the most core layer of the self. We sometimes refer to the lack of such function as a “vegetative state,” and most of us would want the plug pulled if we became this way.

If the symptom manifests on the emotional layer, at best, maybe we would feel just a bit irritable or uneasy. At a more critical level, perhaps we would develop a tendency to get angry about all sorts of minor things, or we would cry at the drop of a hat. At the highest level on the emotional layer, we could be disabled by crippling depression, total numbness, or relentless fear.

If the symptom is expressed on the body layer, the worst would be a disease of organs we have only one of – such as the brain, heart, and liver. Disease of a single kidney or lung wouldn’t be quite as bad, since we have another. Issues with more superficial tissues, like skeletal muscles, are generally fairly minor. And the least critical layer to the overall function of the organism is considered be the skin. So, Vithoulkas wrote, if the organism is healthy enough, if will manifest a problem as a skin rash, since this would spare the mind, the emotional body, and all of the critical physical structures and processes. Our skin is the outermost layer, the farthest-removed from our core structures and systems.

Vithoulkas explained that in the healing process, the expression of an imbalance moves to a less critical level and/or a more superficial layer of the organism. If we’re lucky enough to have a skin problem, we should understand this as a good thing, and avoid doing anything to suppress its expression, because the only possible result would be expression on a deeper layer and/or a more critical level. Thus, if you suppress a skin rash and get cranky or distracted, you’ve driven it inward.

This was especially interesting to me when I first read about it, because I had grown up with eczema – an itchy red rash on my elbows and knees – and from the age of 10, I had been using a suppressive therapy to treat it: corticosteroids. Corticosteroids are drugs that mimic the anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol that is normally produced by our adrenal glands. The most popular steroid for skin rashes is hydrocortisone. The ones I was using were much stronger.

So, if you have a chronic skin issue, I encourage you to approach it as holistically as possible – that is, emphasizing your overall health and addressing the internal mechanisms that may be contributing, rather than treating the skin as disconnected from the rest of oneself. Here are some general first steps worth taking:

  1. Skin suffers from dehydration. Water is essential for optimal clearance of toxins and distribution of nutrients. Divide the number of pounds you weigh in half, and drink at least this many ounces of water per day – ideally evenly over the course of the day. More water should be the first and most basic intervention for chronic skin problems.
  2. Cut Back on Sugar. Sugar suppresses the immune system, impairing control of skin disorders with a bacterial and fungal component. Second, it feeds simple microorganisms, especially fungus (this includes yeasts), often making them worse. Third, it promotes inflammation, exacerbating skin problems with an inflammatory component (anything red and itchy).
  3. Each Plenty of Vegetables. For several reasons, eating more veggies, cooked cleanly, can help. First, they contain a wide range of nutrients, many of which are anti-inflammatory. Second, they contain fiber, which can help bind up and remove toxins from the gut, which may be a contributing factor in certain skin rashes.
  4. Take Probiotics and/or Eat Cultured Foods. The lining of the gut has a close relationship with the skin and our beneficial gut bacteria or “flora” play an important role in fortifying this membrane. They also help control populations of harmful microbes that may excrete toxins into the gut. If the intestinal lining is inflamed, it can lose its structural integrity, leaking intestinal contents – including the “endotoxins” released by bacteria and fungi – directly into the bloodstream, where they should never be.
  5. Try an Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Reduce inflammation throughout your body by limiting consumption of: fast food, processed food, flour (bread, pasta, crackers, etc.) and refined grains, sugars (agave, honey, corn syrup, etc.), refined cooking oils, red meat (less of a concern if you’re getting high quality, grass fed, hormone free meat), and regular quality dairy products (less of a concern if you’re getting high quality, hormone free, cultured dairy products from grass fed animals). Meanwhile, eat plenty of vegetables (especially dark leafy greens), fruits (especially berries), herbs and spices (like ginger, garlic, turmeric, onions, rosemary, and oregano), beans, and healthy fats (coconut, flax seed, walnuts, avocados, chia seeds, hemp seeds, oily fish, etc.). Check out one of the many books on this subject for more information.

Following these strategies will benefit you even if you don’t notice an improvement in your skin. In coming articles, I’ll give you more specific strategies for alleviating skin problems and promoting beautiful skin.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten