Vitiligo, What is it, and How is it Treated?
According to the British Skin Foundation, 60 percent of us have suffered — or will suffer — with a skin disease at some point in our lives. There are many different types of skin condition; some can be caused by external factors, such as contact dermatitis which is common amongst people who work with harsh chemicals, while others can be caused by underlying health issues. Vitiligo is one of these conditions.
What is Vitiligo?
Vitiligo is a skin disease which causes white patches to appear on the skin. There are two forms of vitiligo; segmental vitiligo, which affects just one part of the body (usually the hands, arms, eyes, elbows, knees, or feet), and non-segmental vitiligo, which can occur across multiple areas, often in a symmetrical pattern. The good news is that vitiligo is rare in the UK, affecting around 0.5 percent of the population. However, this is still around 316,000 cases, so it’s important to understand the best treatment options for the condition, and learn more about how to reduce the risk of vitiligo, and prevent spreading.
So what do we know about vitiligo? Well, not much really. In fact, the exact cause of vitiligo is still somewhat of a mystery. However, what we do know is that the white patches occur because of pigment loss. Melanin is the pigment responsible for giving the skin its colour, but when melanin product slows down, there’s not enough pigment to colour the skin, resulting in colourless patches. What could cause a reduction in melanin production? It’s believed to be down to the body’s own immune system response.
Vitiligo is widely believed to be an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease is when the body’s immune system gets a little confused, and instead of attacking foreign cells in the body, it turns on its own healthy cells. Rheumatoid arthritis, type I diabetes, and multiple sclerosis are all types of autoimmune disease, and while there’s no cure for these conditions, there are very effective and efficient management techniques. This suggests that there may also be a suitable way of treating vitiligo.
Treatment Options for Vitiligo
A standard treatment for vitiligo is steroid-based creams that are applied topically to the area in an attempt to reintroduce pigmentation. However, these creams haven’t proven themselves to be particularly effective. In fact, one study found that these creams work for just 3 people in every 10.
A topic that’s really interesting to healthcare professionals right now is whether or not there could be some safe, natural treatments for vitiligo. Other autoimmune diseases have been shown to respond well to natural treatments, such as fish oil which can help to relieve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, so it stands to reason that there could be some forms of natural treatment for vitiligo. So what are they?
So far, research has suggested that the following supplements could be good treatments for vitiligo:
B Vitamins (Folic Acid & Vitamin B12)
How: A B vitamin deficiency could increase levels of homocysteine in the body. High levels of this amino acid can put oxidative stress on the melanocytes, which are responsible for making the melanin pigment.
Effect: Not only does research show that folic acid and B12 supplementation could help to re-pigment the skin, it also suggests that B vitamins could help prevent the spread of vitiligo to other parts of the body.
Antioxidants (Alpha Lipoic Acid & Vitamin C)
Why: High levels of the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD) in the blood can be a sign of oxidative stress in the body. Research shows that many people suffering from vitiligo have very high levels of this enzyme.
How: Alpha lipoic acid and Vitamin C are both powerful antioxidants that are able to fight off free radicals and minimise oxidative stress. Other antioxidants include carotenoids, selenium, and Vitamin E.
Effect: Antioxidant treatment for vitiligo has been shown to be very effective, encouraging a completely natural-looking repigmentation of affected skin areas with very few — if any — adverse side effects.
Why: Episodes of active vitiligo have been associated with certain vitiligo triggers; most notably stress. The NHS reports that flare-ups can often occur simultaneously with major life events, such as childbirth.
How: Ginkgo has long been used as a natural treatment for anxiety. It’s considered to be an anxiolytic, which means it has stress-reducing properties, and it works in much the same way as Diazepam.
Effect: Ginkgo has been shown to be great at slowing down the progression of vitiligo, and in some people ginkgo may even help to re-pigment the skin, reversing the symptoms of the skin condition.
Why: Levels of copper in the body have been found to be significantly lower in people with vitiligo than in others, which suggests there may be a strong link between copper and the development of vitiligo.
How: Copper plays an important role in many biological processes, and it’s believed that copper — along with other metal ions like zinc — could be an essential aspect of melanin production in the body.
Effect: More research is needed into the efficacy of copper for vitiligo, with much of the current research focusing more on the effects of zinc. However, early results are certainly looking to be promising.
A Dietary Approach to Vitiligo
What this research shows us is that there may be a number of alternatives to standard vitiligo treatments, which could be just as effective (or perhaps even more so) and, most important, safer due to their natural origins. It appears that diet could play a major role in the treatment of vitiligo, with some food supplements potentially holding the key to long term management of this autoimmune condition.