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Chronic eczema: How diet changes helped one man control his after years of failed treatments, and how he's helping others

HONG KONG — Mr Harrison Li Kin-cheung turns over his arm, exposing the inside of his elbow. The skin is smooth, a white patch barely visible.

Mr Harrison Li suffered from chronic eczema for a decade. He reduced the problem by 90 per cent with regular exercise and eliminating foods that cause reactions.

Mr Harrison Li suffered from chronic eczema for a decade. He reduced the problem by 90 per cent with regular exercise and eliminating foods that cause reactions.

HONG KONG — Mr Harrison Li Kin-cheung turns over his arm, exposing the inside of his elbow. The skin is smooth, a white patch barely visible.

"The creases on the backs of my knees and elbows were the worst areas," says Mr Li, who studies food and nutritional science at the University of Hong Kong.

"I'd scratch until my skin bled and oozed white pus. The itching would sometimes keep me awake at night."

For most of his childhood and teenage years, Mr Li suffered from atopic dermatitis, or eczema, a dermatological condition that leaves sufferers with red, itchy and inflamed skin; dark and thickened patches; and rough, scaly rashes which may leak fluid and crust over.

According to the Mayo Clinic in the United States, eczema symptoms vary between individuals, with no one trigger to blame. The primary risk factor is having a personal or family history of eczema, allergies, hay fever or asthma. There is no cure.

"My eczema started with a small rash when I was about six years old," says Mr Li, who is now 24. "I went to the doctor and the first line of treatment is always steroid (oral and topical) therapy," he says.

The steroid cream cleared Li's rash, only for it to return a few days later, starting a vicious cycle that would torment him for the next 10 years.

He visited more than 10 Western and Chinese doctors and dermatologists, trying treatments including a herbal one he followed for a year.

Others included a three-day fruit diet and a 10-day water-only diet. None of them worked.

Frustrated, Mr Li spent hours trawling websites looking for alternative treatments to stop the rashes forming on his back, hands, feet and joints. At times it would flare up on his lips.

In 2013 he stumbled upon a blog by a man in the Philippines who adopted a raw food diet to cure his eczema. It inspired Mr Li to adopt a cleaner and healthier diet.

"I ditched sugary, processed and fast foods, which was hard because I was studying in Shanghai at the time and loved eating street food, so it took a lot of discipline," he says, adding he was also a big fan of McDonald's.

His new, strict diet comprised foods free of additives, gluten, dairy, salt and allergens. About 80 per cent was plant-based, "a fruit smoothie in the morning and one kilogram of vegetables for lunch and dinner".

The remaining 20 per cent was animal-based, mainly fish. Lifestyle changes included more sleep and exercise — "I went to the gym every two or three days" — and less stress.

Two months into his "food as medicine" experiment, the itching stopped. After three months his rashes had disappeared. Today his eczema has been reduced by 90 per cent.

"I was so happy. It was like a miracle, which is an odd word to use, but at the time it felt like one."

Eager to share his experience with others — millions worldwide suffer from eczema, 200,000 of them in Hong Kong — Mr Li created

The platform contained information about nutrition-based health care strategies he had gathered based on patient evidence.

In four years, it had garnered one million views, reaching more than 210 countries. In 2017, he released The Eczema Manual, providing sufferers with more recovery guidelines.

But Mr Li's biggest step came in August when he co-founded the social enterprise WeDerm, Hong Kong's first eczema recovery programme that's run by people who have battled the condition.

It offers targeted and integrated care grounded in science and evidence. Personalised patient care is at its core.

"From my experiences I realised Hong Kong needed a health coaching system, a network where we can train health coaches so they can talk to patients and set specific lifestyle goals," he says.

"Everyone's eczema story is different, so care and treatment need to be personalised. That was missing in Hong Kong," he says. "We like to use the acronym Seeds — it stands for stress, environment, exercise, diet and sleep — all potential eczema triggers."

Ms Keisha Kung, 23, another WeDerm co-founder, says her battle with eczema started when she was four. Her worst flare-up happened at 19 while studying pharmacy at Hong Kong University.

"My skin barrier function had been disrupted, but worst of all I had trouble straightening my arms and legs, which made walking difficult," says Ms Kung. It left her bedridden for up to four months. Then depression set in.

"I had to choose between my studies or my skin," she says. Ms Kung prioritised her health and took a year out from school. After two weeks she started to improve.

Treatment, says Mr Li, requires a slow approach. "The Western mainstream steroid treatment has been around since the 1950s and is only a temporary fix. It gets rid of the symptoms for a few days but fails to address the cause. Chronic conditions like eczema need long-term solutions."

Mr Li says WeDerm gives hope to those let down by conventional medicine and treatments.

"It is true that one parent carrying the genes of eczema has a 20 per cent chance of passing it on to a child, or a 50 per cent chance if both the parents have it," he says.

Mr Li says the care service at WeDerm goes beyond the physical. Psychological support for patients from people who live with the condition, people who can share their experiences, is a vital part.

"Eczema can take a toll on confidence and self-esteem. At school, I wore long sleeves even during the hot and humid summers because I was self-conscious about my skin. And then there were those embarrassing times when dead skin would flake off."

Ms Kung says: "Having eczema is a journey of self-discovery and I discovered stress was a main trigger." She now practises yoga and has eliminated seafood and cold drinks from her diet to help manage her condition.

"You listen to your mind and body and you start figuring things out for yourself." SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

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