Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a chronic skin condition that most often begins in the first few years of life. It is caused by an abnormality in the body's immunologic system that leads to a hypersensitivity (allergic-type) reaction of the skin causing itching and a rash. People who have eczema often have asthma and other allergy-related conditions. Asthma is a condition in which the airways of the lungs are unusually sensitive to certain triggers. When exposed, the airways become constructed and swollen and breathing becomes more difficult.

The symptoms of eczema and asthma are particularly troubling in infants and small children and research efforts have been focused on prevention as well as on treatment. Much attention has been paid to the possible impact of diet, the mother's diet when pregnant and breast-feeding, and the infant's diet, including breast milk, formula, and solid foods.

The more green and yellow vegetables pregnant women ate, the lower the risk of eczema… Risk of wheezing decreased when mothers' consumption of vitamin E (found in nuts, seeds, and spinach among other foods), increased.

Antioxidants are compounds that are thought to help repair or protect our cells against the types of damage that can lead to heart disease, cancer, immunologic problems, and age related conditions. They are found in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and some meats, poultry, and fish. Antioxidants include: beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, selenium, vitamins A, C, and E.

A recent study published in the January issue of Allergy explored the connection between the amount and type of antioxidants contained in food eaten by a pregnant woman, and the likelihood of her child developing eczema and asthma in the first two years of life. There have already been a number of studies on the relationship between diet and allergy/hypersensitivity. A Scottish study found that when pregnant women had increasing food-based intake of vitamins E and C, their children were less likely to wheeze at age two, and increasing vitamin C alone caused a decrease in both eczema and wheezing. A U.S. study found when mothers increased their intake of vitamin E and zinc during pregnancy, their children had a reduced risk of wheeze but not eczema at two years of age.

The recent study, performed in Japan, involved 763 women /child pairs. Researchers obtained Information about the women's diets during pregnancy, their health and allergy history, and relevant social and demographic factors. Information was also collected about their children's health and dietary histories, and the children were monitored for the onset of rash, eczema, and wheezing in their first two years. By the time the infants reached 16-24 months of age, 22.1% of them had episodes of wheezing, and 18.6% had eczema. But increasing a mother's consumption of certain antioxidants changed the children's risk of these conditions. The more green and yellow vegetables pregnant women ate, the lower the risk of eczema, although wheezing risk was not changed. Similarly, eating more citrus fruit and beta- carotene (such as carrots and sweet potatoes) also decreased the risk of eczema, but not wheezing. Risk of wheezing decreased when mothers' consumption of vitamin E (found in nuts, seeds, and spinach among other foods), increased. However, increasing consumptions of other vegetables and fruits did not change the risk of either condition.

These findings, along with the current knowledge of the effect of antioxidant compounds on immune function and allergic reactions, suggest that this is an important area for continued research with potential to decrease the burden of eczema and asthma in the pediatric population. One theory suggests that the increase in numbers of people with asthma and allergic disease has resulted from the fact that the western diet contains fewer protective antioxidants. This deficiency may render our airways more susceptible to the types of injury that lead to inflammation and asthma. A similar model may apply to the development of eczema.

Pregnant women should consult with their health care providers to determine the healthiest diet. Women with a personal or family history of eczema, asthma, and allergies may wish to discuss the recent research on the influence of maternal diet while pregnant or breast feeding on the development of allergic disease in their offspring. Generally, obtaining vitamins and nutrients is most safely done by eating foods rich in the desired compounds, rather than taking nutritional supplements and vitamins. Especially during pregnancy, women should consult with their physicians before adding any supplements or radically changing their food choices.