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The Truth Behind Dandruff: What Causes an Itchy Scalp?

Dandruff. Maybe you've had it.

Scaly pieces of skin flaking off onto clothing, an itchy scalp, possibly accompanied by other signs of inflammation, like redness. Also known as seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff can plague the oiliest of regions of the head.

These may seem unlikely because dandruff presents signs of dryness: the flakes, the itch, the redness. It even has the tendency to be more prevalent during the winter months, a notoriously dry time. However, in the case of seborrheic dermatitis, these signs are actually qualities of fungal overgrowth.

Seborrheic dermatitis can also manifest in the nasolabial groove around the nose, as well as any other region of the body where there are folds of skin (think armpits, inguinal groove, belly button) and where there is a greater number of hair follicles. Most cases of dandruff involve an inflammatory response to an unchecked explosion of yeast that is native to the surface of skin: Malassezia furfur, formerly known as Pityrosporum ovale.

The particular species of Malassezia responsible for seborrheic dermatitis is lipid dependent; their lipids of choice are saturated fatty acids.

The yeast hydrolyzes human sebum, which is the fatty wax secreted by sebaceous glands that are found near hair follicles. Malassezia requires the support of saturated fatty acids in order to grow, which is why the places with the most dander are often the oiliest regions on the head. Irritation on the scalp is thought to arise when the amount of unsaturated fatty acids becomes disproportionately large and breeches the skin's protective barrier.

Not only is dandruff embarrassing, but many over-the-counter dandruff treatment products are highly toxic! You can treat dandruff naturally by boosting your immune system by populating your gut with healthy bacteria found in fermented foods and probiotic beverages.

Because Malassezia is usually present on the skin, it is considered an opportunistic pathogen, meaning that it becomes pathogenic when defenses are down.

Stress, illness, fatigue, sleep deprivation, and change in weather have all been linked to the onset or aggravation of seborrheic dermatitis. Winter sees the greatest incidence of dandruff. The seasonal nature of seborrheic dermatitis is not surprising; whether it is the rich traditional foods that are popular from November to February, the dramatic shift to chilly weather, the stress of holiday travel, or all of the above, many people experience a weakened immune system during the winter season.

The standard treatment protocol for dandruff indicates the use of creams and hair treatments that are anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and sebo-supressive.

While the assortment of pharmaceutical steroids and anti-fungals can effectively minimize the condition short-term, these medications can be highly toxic, and often the seborrheic dermatitis persists because many factors, such as stress and lifestyle, determine its pathogenesis. A solid arsenal of medicated creams, ointments, and internal fungal-busters provide short-term relief. An appropriate and wise balance to this approach includes elements that boost the immune system.

In order for Malassezia to become pathogenic, it had to thrive in an unchecked environment.

The body is like any ecosystem: there are layers and systems all working together in concert. When one aspect is depleted or strained, the entire structure feels and adjusts to the change.

In the human body, the friendly microflora coexist with the opportunistic and the pathogenic. The immune cells and various aspects of the endocrine system are also a part of the dialogue. In order for the body to be in a state of health, all elements of this dialogue must be present, without over or under extending itself.

Diet is one of the most effective and straightforward means to activating and regulating the immune system while giving your body the tools it needs for repair.

  • Follow Body Ecology principles: This includes removing foods that are not on the diet and adhering to the 80/20 Principle. Fungal overgrowth and recurrent infection is a sign that your body's immune system needs support. Popular foods, such as those found in the standard American diet, contribute to an acidic environment that fosters pathogenic microorganisms.

    Eating foods that are known triggers or that you have sensitivity to will exacerbate an inflamed gut and send out a systemic inflammatory signal. Additionally, too much of a good thing is still too much. Those with compromised immune systems and fungal overgrowth need to be especially careful that they support their digestion with proper food combining, as well as digestive enzymes, like Body Ecology's line of Assist enzyme formulations.

  • Daily consumption of fermented foods and probiotic beverages not only helps Candida overgrowth, it also helps to check Malassezia as well. Fermented foods made with a Culture Starter and probiotic beverages containing living beneficial microbes populate your gut and speak to your immune system. The gastrointestinal tract contains a very large mass of lymphoid tissue that sits just below the gut mucosal barrier.
  • Researchers now know that the flora found in your gut actually communicates with cells found in your immune system, which has a systemic effect. Incorporate anti-fungal elements into your diet: powerful anti-fungal foods like garlic and oregano oil and teas such as pau d'arco are useful additions when combating fungal overgrowth.


Dandruff is also known as seborrheic dermatitis and normally occurs in the oiliest areas of the head. The symptoms of dandruff, like flaking, itchiness, dryness, and redness, are usually characteristics of a fungal overgrowth. Sleep deprivation, fatigue, illness, stress, and climate changes have been linked with severe dandruff. While dandruff hair products and creams are normally prescribed to treat this condition, these medications can be extremely toxic and only provide temporary relief.

The true dandruff solution can be found in boosting your immune system to fight this yeast overgrowth from the inside out. By following the Body Ecology Diet, eating fermented foods and probiotic beverages, and adding anti-fungal foods to your diet like garlic and oregano oil, you can naturally treat dandruff and restore health to your scalp!




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  • Florence

    Hi thanks for this article, my problem is that I think I may be intolerant to fermented foods, or have an issue with candida as I recently started to take kombucha and water kefir but I have seen an increase in dry scalp, flakiness and bodily itching - some people say it may be histamine intolerance - not sure what to do but it seems to be getting worse. I am currently on the AIP diet antihistamine version to see whether this might help.

  • Soorena

    Thank you very much for writing this article. I've had dandruff on & off for perhaps a decade now and I had never until now heard that there is a link of some kind between dandruff and my immune system which is directly linked to my emotions/diet/sleep - in short, I now feel like I can do something about my dandruff condition - and so thank you :-)

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