Creating Real Pigment without the Sun
Summer is now in full swing, a fact that may or may not be cause for celebration if you have #vitiligo. Whether this season fills you with joy or with frustration, I hope that you will feel encouraged by some news I shall be referring to later in this post on the subject of #tanning.
But first, is it me, or are the months going by faster and faster? (OK– I know it’s an age thing.) Another World Vitiligo Day has come and gone and here we are already a week into July. Our summer so far in the north of England has been a mixed bag of changeable weather, which has developed into a strange pattern over the past week or so. Each day starts out wet, windy and cold (and I mean winter-cold) and then, bizarrely, at around 3pm, it blossoms into a bright, sunny afternoon, becoming progressively hotter as the evening approaches. A classic case of all four seasons in one day! This calls for several different outfits to suit the evolving conditions. Swathed in layers of winter woollies until mid-afternoon, I gradually peel these off one at a time, eventually changing into shorts, a vest top and flip-flops.
At last I am loving summer
These changes in the weather are unusual and extreme for the time of year but they are not nearly as dramatic as the change in my attitude to them. Until a few years ago I would have welcomed cold summer weather because it allowed me to cover up my white patches and feel “normal”. It meant I didn’t have to be reminded constantly of my two-tone skin because I could hide it under layers of clothing and pretend it didn’t exist. It’s not that I didn’t love to see blue skies. I longed to be able to enjoy carefree, sunny summer days, like all my friends and family did, but my heart used to sink at the prospect of warm weather because I was deeply unhappy in my own skin. But now, having regained most of the pigment that I had lost over my 50 years of vitiligo, I am the first to moan about the unseasonably chilly rain and (who would have thought?) the first to stretch out on a lounger at the merest glimpse of the sun’s rays breaking through the clouds. At last, I am loving summer, beach holidays and being outdoors at every opportunity as much as when I was a little girl – more so, even, because now I profoundly appreciate those things I missed out on for so many years.
Vitiligo can cause you to feel all sorts of emotions but despair does not have to be one of them.
The reason I am sharing this shift in my perception of summer is in the hope of spreading a little sunshine of my own and dispelling some of the clouds of doom that may be hanging over you if your vitiligo is getting you down. I remember very well how frustrating and downright depressing this time of year can be if you are trying to cope with relentless pigment loss. It is a time that can evoke feelings of dread and even despair, feelings that are easier to bury during the winter, but that surface every time swimming and barbecue season comes round again.
The message I am keen to spread, through all my blog posts, is that although vitiligo is bound to cause you to feel all sorts of emotions, #despair does not have to be one of them. When doctors tell you there is nothing that can be done about vitiligo and when the years pass with no breakthrough in the search for a cure, it is natural to feel yourself losing hope. But I believe there is every reason for vitiligo sufferers to feel hopeful.
Years ago most patients had no choice but to take the doctor’s word as gospel and the most we could do to verify the information we were given was to ask for a second opinion. Today the internet gives us access to countless stories of people who have improved their vitiligo in a variety of ways and countless more scholarly articles and scientific papers that document the advances being made in medical research. This means that not only can everyone with vitiligo try known treatments until they find the one that works best for them, but we can also educate ourselves on the causes of the condition and progress towards a permanent cure – something that I now believe is a certainty.
What form such a cure will take is still up for debate. But, given the relatively small amount of funding that goes directly to vitiligo research, the breakthrough may well come as a spin-off from other medical advances, possibly in the field of cancer research and genetics. Last year’s strides forward with T-cell therapy are just one example of this.
SIK inhibitor could lead to a cure for vitiligo and other autoimmune conditions
Another milestone, reported in the media just last month, was brought to my attention by a vitiligo friend (thanks for flagging this story up, David :)). Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital have come up with a novel approach to preventing sun-induced skin cancer by developing an experimental topical, small-molecule drug called a SIK inhibitor that produces a genuine “suntan” but without the need for UV exposure. If the drug is developed successfully and becomes commercially available, it could have exciting implications for vitiligo sufferers, as well as drastically reducing the number of skin cancer cases by providing effective sun protection to all skin types. Whilst the research paper makes no mention of vitiligo, it does indicate that the drug is even capable of developing a dark tan in skin types with red hair, despite the fact that redheads carry a genetic mutation that inhibits tanning. Extending this discovery to the treatment of vitiligo seems, at least to me, to be a logical spin-off. And this patent (bearing two of the names from the Massachusetts Hospital Team) on SIK inhibitors for use in treating inflammatory and/or immune disorders, including vitiligo, would suggest that moves are already being made in this direction.
It is too soon to say whether or not this particular approach will be the one that provides the long-awaited #cure-for-vitiligo. But early indications look hopeful and, if not this, then some other line of research will inevitably bear fruit. So, my recommendation in the meantime is to enjoy the sunshine the best way you are able, be optimistic about whatever vitiligo treatments or strategies you may be using and, above all, remind yourself that a vitiligo cure has never been as close as it is right now!
A more holistic approach to vitiligo
Doctors the world over are fond of telling us that #vitiligo-is-incurable. I get the impression that many of them have memorised their lines from a Common Book of Incurable Diseases and How to Deal With Them – or rather, not deal with them. The relevant chapter is probably called How to persuade vitiligo patients to shut up and suck it up and the subheadings include There is no cure, so don’t bother; Stop whining - it won’t kill you and Don’t talk to me about nutrition!
I know, I know. That’s a little harsh. But I feel strongly about this. I do realise that not all doctors quote from that particular book. But therein lies another problem for vitiligo patients. Medical opinion – and, more crucially, levels of medical training – on the subject of vitiligo are so unreliable and inconsistent that going to see your doctor is like a lottery. And the only thing you can be reasonably sure of is that your chances of winning a prize of any real value are slim.
I really think it is high time that the mainstream medical profession brought its general practitioners and specialists up to date on current best practice in addressing vitiligo and worked out a consistent protocol for helping patients who come to them with this neglected and underfunded condition. It is simply not good enough that people with a health issue that, for many, is frightening, depressing and psychologically devastating have to take pot luck on whether or not their family doctor or dermatologist will be well informed, or even remotely sympathetic, about it. It is not acceptable that so many people leave the doctor’s office confused and discouraged because of a lack of helpful information, a lack of support and an unwillingness on the part of the professional to even try to get to the bottom of their complaint. Many vitiligo patients are not even offered a referral to a dermatologist. And those who are often encounter similar indifference or negativity from that specialist too. (I know this is not universal but it is, I’m sad to say, all too common.) Other, more well known health conditions would not be met with such a dismissive response, so why should vitiligo be different?
I am not medically trained, so I accept that I am not remotely qualified to tell the medical profession how to do their job. But, like most people, I have been a patient on numerous occasions and I speak to a lot of others who have fallen foul of the way in which the system currently works (or doesn’t). In a way, you could say I owe my recovery to the ineptitude of the medical establishment. Their total lack of support led me eventually to experiment with nutritional treatment on my own and this is what almost completely restored my normal skin colour. But most people – reasonably enough – turn to their primary health provider when they first notice the symptoms of vitiligo. They deserve to have access to a doctor who is current, well informed and constructive. And they deserve to be told all of the available options and given the opportunity to see a specialist or ask for a second opinion.
But what kind of specialist does a vitiligo patient need?
A major reason why mainstream health care has never properly got to grips with addressing the needs of vitiligo patients is because it is a condition that defies being put into a neat and tidy category. Its root cause is still unclear but most evidence suggests it is multifactorial (involving many different factors – i.e. it's complicated!) For starters, there are several different forms of the condition (segmental, non-segmental and occupational / chemical). The majority of cases are thought to involve autoimmune disease, but not all of them do. No single treatment works for everyone. And the causes (plural?) appear to be a combination of genetic, digestive, environmental, hormonal, allergic, etc, etc, etc… In other words, it involves several of the body’s systems: just how many is still a matter of debate. In other words, if ever a condition required a holistic approach, it would be vitiligo. And that is just what our western health care systems are not geared up to provide.
If you are lucky, you can get a referral to a dermatologist. But how appropriate is that? You don’t have to read much of the available research into vitiligo to realise that the white patches are the last and only visible symptom of a disease process that starts inside the body and involves the digestive and endocrine systems at the very least – probably also the lymphatic and nervous systems too. So how many experts are there who are specialists in all of these disciplines? The only individual specialists who would stand a chance of taking a wider view of vitiligo are probably the researchers who, in most cases, do not routinely see patients at all. What the vitiligo patient really needs is a multi-disciplinary approach.
What can be done to improve things?
The current situation may sound hopeless. It is certainly challenging. But I do believe that an overhaul of the way in which vitiligo patients are handled is possible and would certainly be helpful. If new procedures were introduced that included routine testing for all the known factors in vitiligo and referrals made on the basis of the results, patients would be far more likely to get access to the most appropriate specialist expertise and therefore to the treatments that would most likely benefit them. Based on my own experience of vitiligo-recovery, I believe that the most effective treatments available so far all involve nutritional therapy. So, in an ideal world, all vitiligo patients who go to their primary care doctor would then be routed through the secondary care system, being referred from one relevant specialist to another, as appropriate, according to the results of their various tests. And one of these should, in my humble opinion, be a nutritional specialist who would then devise a programme for each patient that would address the particular type and source of their pigment loss.
Realistically, I do not expect we shall see anything like this being implemented by our mainstream health systems any time soon (and maybe never!). But any improvement to the existing quality of patient care would definitely help. The need for a multi-disciplinary approach to vitiligo research has already been documented, as this article shows: Valle, Y., Lotti, T. M., Hercogova, J., Schwartz, R. A. and Korobko, I. V. (2012), Multidisciplinary approach to R&D in vitiligo, a neglected skin disease. Dermatologic Therapy, 25: S1–S9. doi: 10.1111/dth.12009 but it seems to me that the need for an equivalent rationale to clinical practice has simply not been recognised. Until it is, most vitiligo sufferers will continue to receive inconsistent and unreliable support from their doctors and face the choice of either putting up with the condition or, like me, finding their own solutions and treating themselves.
Investigating the mystery of vitiligo
I don’t remember exactly when my addiction to detective stories began. It might have been back in the 1970s, when I first started watching the disarming and dishevelled homicide detective Lt. Columbo relentlessly hunting down his prime suspects with “just one more question” until they were finally forced into revealing themselves as the killer. Or it might date all the way back to endless childhood hours engrossed in the latest thrilling adventures of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five or Secret Seven. Nowadays I am a sucker for a good episode of Miss Marple, Poirot or, my guiltiest pleasure of all, Midsomer Murders. And I always have a ready supply of whodunnits on my Kindle as well as on my book shelf.
My preoccupation with murder mysteries may sound a little morbid but, in my defence, it is not the blood and guts that draw me to the genre. It is the intriguing plots and the challenge of piecing together a seemingly impenetrable puzzle. Of course, the pleasure in most crime dramas comes from looking for clues and motives, spotting red herrings and attempting to solve the mystery ourselves. The enjoyment in an episode of Columbo, on the other hand, comes from watching someone else put the pieces together, whilst we – the audience – already know who the killer was and how they did it.
The puzzle of vitiligo
I find the mystery of vitiligo every bit as challenging and absorbing as those fictional tales but I have not always felt this way. When I was still in the midst of my own drama – wondering why on earth my skin kept developing new white spots, dreading when and where the next one would appear and hoping and praying for a cure - or anything at all that would help even a little – I was too deeply affected by it all to want to spend too much time dwelling on it. It was easier to cover it up and try not to think too deeply about it. But once my re-pigmentation was in full swing it was as if I was watching another episode of Columbo, knowing how the story would end. The solution to the mystery was in plain sight and so I could relax and enjoy watching the rest of the story play out. Suddenly I didn’t mind focussing my attention on what was happening to me because it was no longer depressing. In fact, it was thrilling to see the colour returning to my skin and I became fascinated by the process. This was when I began to read everything I could find on the subject of #vitiligo in an attempt to understand as much as possible about what causes it, ways of treating it and ways of coping with it.
What I have learned (and am still very much in the process of learning) is that, unlike the fictional detectives who solve every crime, catch every villain and tie up every loose end, a vitiligo detective’s results are not as clear cut. It seems there are always differing medical opinions, conflicting theories, inconclusive research results and – most disturbing of all - deliberately misleading and bogus claims to sort through before you can come to any definite conclusions on the subject. But I suppose this just goes to show that vitiligo is not a work of fiction. It is real life and affects different people in different ways. It is an ongoing investigation that, in all probability, will eventually culminate in a complex set of solutions, reflecting the fact that it is a complex condition.
The most effective treatment
Obviously - since there is no official cure for vitiligo yet - this is a mystery that is still under investigation by researchers and sufferers alike. It is a detective story that looks set to run for quite some time. But everything I have learned, and experienced, so far convinces me that nutritional deficiencies play a central role, maybe the central role, in the development of vitiligo and that correcting those deficiencies is currently the most effective way to reverse it and keep it at bay. Saying this may not be quite the same thing as solving the mystery and closing the case but it has certainly made a world of difference to me - and to many others who have adopted the same, or a similar, approach to their treatment.
Just why a significant minority of the world's population seemingly randomly lose patches of their skin colour is evidently a complicated puzzle that is still in the process of being solved (though I am confident it will be eventually). Until it is, I shall continue to be a vitiligo detective and hunt down every fascinating clue I can find. I shall, like the good lieutenant, keep on asking “just one more question” and keep passing on any potentially useful answers I come across in this blog. However, much as I enjoy researching and writing it, I look forward to the day when the only mysteries I try to unravel are fictional ones because vitiligo will have become a straightforward condition to cure and this blog will have lost its relevance.
Vitiligo on TV makeover show
Earlier this month I watched Katie Piper’s Face to Face, a #TV documentary on Britain’s Channel 4 presented by a former model, in which she invited women with a variety of face-altering skin conditions to have a makeover. What made this programme so different from all the other makeover shows I have ever seen was that Katie herself has severe facial scars which she sustained several years ago when she was the victim of an acid attack. And, unbeknown to her guests, each of the make-up artists on the show shared the same facial condition as the person they were making up. The whole show was absorbing but I was, of course, particularly interested in the #vitiligo-makeover.
The big reveal
The most dramatic twist of all was "reverse big reveal” at the end of each makeover when, to the surprise of the person sitting in the make-up chair, the artist wiped off their own cosmetics to reveal that they too had the same condition. The effect of this was both moving and uplifting because it was so unexpected and, in a strange way, so intimate. This was definitely not your average makeover show (although there were some useful tips for anyone interested in cosmetics and camouflage) and it was certainly not about glamorous professionals helping to transform poor, needy victims by teaching them to hide their scars. It did show that make-up is a potentially empowering, but completely personal, choice for anyone whose face is different from the accepted norm. But, much more importantly, it showed the power of shared experience and mutual compassion between the invited guests and their make-up artists (some of whom were self-taught, rather than professionals). Seeing their reactions, I was reminded of the tremendous power of mutual support. Because, no matter how kind and well-intentioned a person may be, it takes someone who has been through a face-altering experience to truly understand how this makes a person feel.
One shared experience: two different ways of coping
The show also highlighted the different ways in which individuals cope with their skin condition. Rochelle, the guest with vitiligo, had come to terms so completely with her two-tone skin that she actually found the cosmetic transformation into airbrushed perfection rather unnerving, whereas Nancy, the artist who performed the makeover, relies on cosmetic camouflage to give her the confidence she needs each day to feel comfortable in her own skin. I found myself in awe of Rochelle's attitude but I completely related to Nancy's because my reaction to having vitiligo had always been to hide it at all costs and every time I removed my make-up and looked in the mirror it use to make me miserable. For me, the most powerful part of their interaction was seeing both of them instantly empathise with the other, whilst accepting that they each had completely different, yet equally valid, ways of coping on a daily basis.
Exposure and coverage
It is good to see vitiligo being shown and discussed in such an open and constructive way on mainstream TV. I am guessing that this will have been the first time that many viewers have ever seen or heard of vitiligo. I have always enjoyed a good play on words, so it strikes me as strangely fitting that a condition that presents each individual with a choice between exposure or (cosmetic) coverage should be in such need of both media exposure and media coverage! There is still a shockingly poor level of awareness and understanding of it, compared to other skin conditions. This widespread ignorance is one of the reasons so many people choose to cover their patches up (which, of course, helps to perpetuate that ignorance). After all, even if you are not particularly self-conscious, who wants to keep having to explain to people what the white spots are? Isn’t it just simpler to hide them and pretend they aren’t there? That’s how I used to feel before I re-gained my lost pigment and, I have to admit that it is probably how I would still feel today. It was my coping strategy then and I don’t suppose I would be much different now. But I do think that the more exposure vitiligo has in the media, the easier it will become for each person to decide for themselves, with no pressure from others, whether they want to cover up or not.
It seems to me that Katie Piper herself has developed a wonderfully positive and balanced attitude towards the role of make-up for those with skin imperfections. At the start of the show, she admits that, like anyone else, she worries about her appearance but, on the subject of make-up, she says she has come to see it as a friend she can call upon when she needs it but never be dependent on.
Having watched the show, I was prompted to find out more about its inspirational host and what impressed me the most when I read Katie's story was the fact that she has clearly emerged from her own utterly horrifying ordeal a stronger and more successful person with a heartfelt desire to use her painful experiences to help others overcome their physical, and emotional scars too.
If you did not see the show it is available to view on this link:
Artificial versus natural sun protecion
After a couple of weeks of blue skies and mild temperatures (most unusual for March / April in the north of England), this taste of things to come has made me impatient for the long, warm days of summer. That said, sunny conditions are never a certainty in our neck of the woods, but I live in hope. So, with this in mind, I am going to be optimistic (literally looking on the bright side). I am going to risk putting a jinx on the British summer by broaching the deceptively harmless subject of #sunglasses.
Most of us own at least one pair of these practical yet stylish accessories at any one time and many of us expend considerable time and money on selecting them. They can be just as much a fashion statement as our garments and hair style and a top quality pair can cost a lot more than an entire outfit. In fact, many people regard their "sunnies" as a vital component of their seasonal wardrobe, as important to their summer look as sporting sun-bronzed skin. But, whilst a cool pair of shades can, undeniably, set off a golden tan to perfection, some people believe they may also sabotage your efforts to develop one in the first place. In short, there is a hotly debated (no pun intended) theory that wearing sunglasses for too long could cause sunburn by interfering with the body's natural tanning process. For most people, this possibility is nothing more than a quirky and obscure snippet to be filed away as a potential party piece, should you ever need it. But for anyone with #vitiligo, its possible implications might be much more significant.
Our love-hate relationship with the sun
Extensive reading on the pigmentation process, coupled with my own experience of vitiligo recovery, have convinced me that #sunshine is a bit like food. It is one of life’s great pleasures and is absolutely essential to our survival. But it needs to be approached thoughtfully and taken in moderation. This advice, of course, applies to every living thing, but more especially to those with a pigmentation disorder. Through personal experience, I have learned that getting too much sun can be as counterproductive as too little.
So how does the pigmentation process actually work and why do some claim wearing sunglasses interferes with it?
Well, first of all, skin pigment is not just for decoration: it exists for a practical reason. It is the body’s way of protecting itself against UV damage. A person with normal skin produces a certain amount of melanin whether they are exposed to sunshine or not. The amount of melanin present in their skin determines how fair or deep their natural colouring is. Our natural skin colour is determined by our genes and exists in order to provide protection to the deeper layers of the skin. As such, it tends to give a clue as to where our ancestors came from: peoples who lived nearer the equator for generations generally have more melanin and darker skin than those who lived far away from the equator where there is much less sunshine and therefore less need of UV protection.
When the skin is exposed to sunshine melanin production increases further to provide even more protection. This is what we call a sun tan. Deeper skin tones usually tan easily because they have more melanin to start with. Fairer skins tend to burn if sun exposure is too intense or too long because they have relatively little melanin to start with and can’t make sufficient quantities fast enough to keep pace with the UV damage. This is why paler people need to sunbathe more carefully and more gradually if they want to avoid looking like a boiled lobster by the end of the first warm day of summer.
the eyes may play a part in tanning
The question of whether or not wearing sunglasses interferes with the tanning process seems to hinge on exactly how the mechanism by which this increase in melanin production is actually triggered. The claim is certainly not as crazy as it might at first sound. The logic goes that the tanning process is largely triggered via the eyes. The pigmentation process is regulated by our hormones. UV exposure stimulates the pituitary gland, located at the base of our brain close to the optic nerves, into producing MSH (Melanin Stimulating Hormone) into our bloodstream. It is this hormone that then causes the pigment producing cells (melanocytes) to produce a protective tan. The connection between the pituitary gland and the optic nerve is significant in this concept because it is the pituitary gland’s ability to sense light via the eyes that triggers the whole process. Therefore, filtering out UV light with sunglasses should, in theory, impair the body's ability to protect the skin against sunburn. This also has implications for the risk of developing skin cancer.
If this is true, we would all be well advised to minimise our use of sunglasses when we are in strong sunlight. But, of course, the irony of this is that this is the very time when we tend to need them. Not only is squinting in bright light uncomfortable and likely to produce wrinkles but excessive exposure without the appropriate eye protection can cause eye damage, including cataracts.
So are sunglasses good or bad?
Before you throw out your treasured Ray-Bans, there are plenty of opposing views on this topic which also appear to make sense if we accept that the trigger for the tanning process is not wholly reliant on the optic nerves. This theory says that melanin is produced in response to detecting UV light on the skin itself and therefore wearing sunglasses should make little or no difference to tanning. But then, it begs the question: does wearing a sunscreen trick the body into thinking the UV light is less intense than it really is. If this is true, then the risk of burning once your SPF product has worn or washed off is probably higher than if you hadn't applied one in the first place.
From what I have read so far on this subject, there is no definite consensus among experts. But, as ever, intuition tells me that common sense and moderation are the best guides as to how reliant we should be on sun protection in general. And I have some tips of my own for others who have vitiligo and are wondering how to approach this whole issue.
sun protection for vitiligo, yes or no?
The therapeutic value of sunlight is one thing that is beyond question. Without it we would die. And in the context of vitiligo (and many other skin conditions) UV therapy is the cornerstone of most effective treatments. It was certainly a key part of my own success story. On the other hand, sunburn is one of the events that is known to trigger de-pigmentation in those who have a susceptibility to it. Similarly, it seems that there is at least a fair chance that wearing sunglasses and sunscreens could be counterproductive since some credible theories exists to suggest they hinder the body's natural detection and defence system against the dangers posed by UV radiation.
The answer to this dilemma, it seems to me, is to ensure we get regular, but moderate, exposure to sunshine. It seems that, in the case of sunglasses, it is an over-reliance on them (i.e. wearing them, uninterrupted, for prolonged periods of time) that is likely to be a problem. So, my view is that it is best to save your sunglasses (good quality ones, please) for the times you really need them, like when the sun is causing you real discomfort or when driving for example. Squinting may cause a few wrinkles around the eyes (laughter lines, I mean) but personally I don't mind risking the odd one or two if it means my skin continues to produce healthy pigment. Wearing them throughout the summer might be tempting if you suffer from vitiligo "Panda Eyes" (as I used to call mine) but in my opinion it is unlikely your eye area will ever re-pigment if you constantly keep it hidden from the sun.
And, when it comes to sunscreens, I prefer not to block the healing rays of the sun by using these myself unless I know that I am going to be exposed to intense UV for prolonged periods of time with no other means of protection. On those occasions, I use as natural a product as I can find (this is my current favourite sun cream) because products containing harsh chemicals can be as bad for vitiligo - or worse - than sunburn itself.
In short, sunshine is a two edged sword for people with vitiligo. But I am convinced that it is far more beneficial than it is harmful, as long as we apply common sense and moderation to our relationship with it.
Just like many other medical conditions, #vitiligo shows no favouritism. It affects all ethnicities, old and young, rich and poor, male and female alike. It takes no account of whether or not you are a famous or a good person, whether or not you deserve to have additional problems in your life. And it certainly doesn't care whether or not you feel sorry for yourself – which, if we are honest, we all do from time to time. It’s just one of those things that happens to some people and, depending on your personality and attitude to life, it can either be (multiple choice coming up...you choose the description that best fits you):
Whatever category above you fall into, I am guessing there isn’t a single one of us that hasn’t ever, at least once, asked the question “why me?” So I would like to suggest 3 answers that I hope will help.
The first answer to this question should really be, “why not me?” The question is, after all, a pointless one. In fact, it is entirely the wrong question. It assumes that fate chose to afflict the wrong victim. It suggests that I would prefer someone else to have been cursed with unwanted, unexplained white patches all over their skin. Or, even more nonsensically, it suggests that I might have preferred to have cancer or been paralysed in a traffic accident. It implies that suffering is fine – as long as it happens to someone else! Well, suffering is not fine, no matter who is doing the suffering. But, sadly, it is a fact of life. Most of the time, when we ask ourselves (or fate, or God) “why me?”, we know deep down that we are just feeling sorry for ourselves (which is OK, by the way – at least, it is human). The main trouble with the question, though, is that we are powerless to answer it. And every time we ask it seems to reinforce that powerlessness.
So, my second answer to the question "why me?" is that we should ditch that question for now and ask a different one - one that we have the power to answer. I have come to realise that the most empowering question a person with vitiligo (or any other affliction or adversity, come to that) can ask is "what can I do about it?" And the answer to that question is - "a lot!".
The sad thing is that comparatively few vitiligo sufferers are aware of just how much they can do to reverse their #de-pigmentation and revolutionise their health and happiness. And it's no wonder when you consider how little accurate information is available, not to mention the misinformation that often comes at us, intentionally, from unscrupulous con-merchants and, unwittingly, from well-intentioned but ill-informed doctors.
For nearly 5 decades I believed what I had been told. I believed that vitiligo was a life sentence, that it was a waste of time trying to treat it and that it would only ever get worse. It's no wonder that this prospect caused me to feel sorry for myself from time to time. I am sure I would have continued to believe these things if I had not, more or less accidentally, becomeliving proof that they were all utterly incorrect. If you have read my story of vitiligo re-pigmentation you will know that a somewhat half-hearted experiment with nutritional supplementation and sun exposure seven years ago unexpectedly and wonderfully reversed vitually all of the 80% pigment loss I had suffered by that point in my life. It is too early to say categorically that this recovery is permanent of course because only seven years have passed since then. But I take the fact that I have had no relapse and have only continued improving since then as a good sign :)
In the previous section of this blog I recommended ditching the original question because it was not one we have the power to answer and because it generally encourages self pity. However, there are times when the question “why me?” can be a valid one to ask and actually does have a meaningful answer.
Once I knew, from personal experience, that vitiligo was not the hopeless condition I once thought it was, I finally felt able to return to that initial question but to ask it in a completely different way - a way that led me to an empowering and uplifting third answer. And that answer to "why me?" is: “so that I can empathise with others who are going through what I went through”. Whether you think about it logically - or emotionally - there can really only ever be one helpful answer to the question “why do apparently random bad things happen to certain people”. And that is so they can overcome them and also help other people do the same.
This third answer was the primary motivation for starting my vitiligo blog soon after my re-pigmentation and is the reason I now spend so much of my time learning about what made it happen, reading up on research and corresponding with vitiligo friends. It’s not that I set out with any master plan to provide vitiligo support to others or to become any kind of information source on the subject. It has just naturally developed out of my extreme excitement and gratitude at having recovered to such an amazing extent. And, it has to be said, that this was fuelled by frustration (at times, to the point of anger) that so few genuinely helpful and accurate facts are available to people living with vitiligo to help them ask the right questions and to find the answers that do exist but that are still not common knowledge.
as effective therapy for vitiligo
There was a time when any #vitiligo patient who dared mention the word “vitamin” in the presence of their doctor would have earned themselves a patronising smirk and a dismissive assertion that “no evidence exists to show #nutritional-supplementation has any effect on the condition whatsoever”. Sadly, that time is not yet firmly in the past. But I fervently hope, and believe, that an excellent new publication called “The Use of Vitamin Therapy for the Treatment of Vitiligo” will help to consign this kind of reaction to history.
The woeful ignorance of most mainstream doctors on the subject of nutritional therapy for vitiligo was clearly a key motivation for the book's author, Audrey VanStockum @Recouleur. As she explains in her preface, she suffered with vitiligo and psoriasis for years, was misdiagnosed for both conditions and visited a total of 23 clinicians over a 14 year period in her search for answers to her skin problems. She realised that her negative experience highlighted “a paucity of information and specialized training” and it puzzled her that so few healthcare providers seemed to have any knowledge of effective vitiligo treatments, even though published research on the subject - dating as far back as 1945 - was openly available. Her frustration at this state of affairs led her to start doing her own research into the subject of nutritional therapy, trying various vitamin and mineral supplements herself and observing her responses. Her wide reading on the subject and experiments in self-treatment resulted in some re-pigmentation and, ultimately to the creation of her own dietary supplement called Recouleur.
Audrey's expertise in the area of nutritional therapy is a wonderful example of how frustration can sometimes be the mother of invention. The idea that we need to take responsibility for our own vitiligo treatment is a familiar one for many of us because we too have repeatedly met the same brick walls when trying to find constructive help from the medical community. Like Audrey, some of us will have wondered why our doctors have apparently never come across any of the research that we ourselves may have seen whilst trawling the internet for solutions and why it is that they are so resistant to the suggestion that nutritional therapy should be prescribed for vitiligo. In fact, I have sometimes advised vitiligo friends to avoid the subject of food and supplementation completely when visiting their doctor because I could predict the likely reaction and did not want anyone to rain on their parade. My view was that the proof of the pudding was in the re-pigmentation that people were achieving through supplementation and that trying to persuade the medical profession to recognise these successes was futile. But that was because it was not a straightforward matter to have the relevant research at one's fingertips during the typical doctor-patient consultation. Well, that was before Audrey's new publication, which – in addition to its main aim of informing vitiligo sufferers themselves - could also easily be used as a way of presenting their doctors with the nutritional facts, all in one well researched and clearly written 40-page booklet.
One of the strengths of “The Use of Vitamin Therapy for the treatment of Vitiligo” is, in my opinion, the fact that it strikes the perfect balance between scientific detail and simple explanation so that it makes suitable reading for anyone, regardless of whether they have a scientific background or not – and regardless of their prior understanding of vitiligo. The author assumes nil knowledge of the subject, explaining what vitiligo is and the processes thought to be involved in its development. She then reviews key vitamins and minerals used by the body to produce skin pigment and describes the role played by each one, as well as the adverse effects of deficiencies. And, crucially, she backs up all of the information with relevant research studies. As I read through the book, I found references that I had not come across before, as well as some that I had seen but had since lost sight of in the vastness of the internet. So, it was extremely useful to have such a comprehensive overview of the subject and its associated literature all in one place and set out in such a clear and concise way.
I also found myself saying (aloud) “YES!!!” when I read the chapter on what Audrey has termed “The Three-Prong Approach” to vitiligo treatment because her view on this makes total sense and resonates with my own thoughts exactly. This approach states that that the most effective vitiligo therapies involve one component from each of the following categories:
In this way, the condition is being addressed from the inside out as well as the outside in and is benefiting from UV exposure (nature's way of stimulating pigment) as well as active, therapeutic ingredients (to treat the condition).
In my experience, most doctors only ever try to treat vitiligo “from the outside in” (i.e. they might use one, or both, of categories 2 and 3). Many do not even advocate any treatment at all because they claim that improvements are minimal and, at best, temporary. However, I am convinced that this is because they omit category number 1. They neglect to include nutritional therapy in their treatments. It stands to reason that external therapies may help treat skin symptoms but only internal ones can hope to address the root cause and prevent symptoms from recurring over the longer term.
The medical profession has been slow to pick up on the findings of research done as long ago as the 1930s and 1940s that clearly pointed to digestive deficiencies as being at the root of vitiligo. Audrey VanStockum draws on the findings of this research, further supported by anecdotal evidence of vitiligo sufferers whose pigmentation improved with improvements to their diet.
There is no question in my mind that correct nutritional #therapy can reverse vitiligo. Audrey and countless others (including myself) are living proof of the fact. But our modern health systems are heavily biased toward pharmaceutical and surgical solutions, no doubt because these are the areas of research that tend to receive the most funding. Concepts of healthy eating and nutritional supplementation as a means of restoring health receive very little serious attention and therefore do not produce the amounts of clinical research data demanded nowadays by the medical establishment. This is frustrating but perhaps it is understandable. Sophisticated drugs, stem-cell therapies and ground-breaking surgical procedures are needed for all kinds of life-threatening conditions that afflict the human race and they are super-expensive to develop. So this is where the funding tends to go. (And, if we want to be cynical about it, these are the treatments that can be patented and become lucrative for thedrug companies and professionals who administer them. Whereas foods and nutritional supplements already exist and are widely available.) What is lacking is not simply new clinical data to support nutritional therapies but an awareness and acknowledgement on the part of doctors that this approach is sometimes the most effective way of treating certain conditions, and that one of those conditions is vitiligo. And, to be fair, there is another requirement, if things are going to change: and that is individual patient responsibility not to be over-reliant for their own state of health on the men and women in white coats. We need to take charge of our own recovery.
In the final paragraphs of the book, Audrey puts all of this in a nutshell: she says, “First, patients need to be their own health advocates and seek solutions for treatable conditions instead of accepting any answers physicians provide, such as “Nothing can be done,” which is said all too frequently to vitiligo patients. Second, physicians need to be open to complementary therapies for treating highly challenging diseases that do not always respond to conventional treatments. Third, more robust studies are needed to analyze the role of vitamins in treating vitiligo; and fourth, dermatological residencies should include a tract on the role of nutrition.”
Obviously, there is far too much detailed information in this excellent publication for me to do more than scrape the surface in this blog. So, I would recommend it as essential reading for anyone, from any background (scientific or not) who wants to understand the relationship between nutrition and vitiligo and how nutritional therapy can help to treat this complex and frustrating condition.
Congratulations, Audrey - and thank you for sharing your knowledge!
for vitiligo and for general health
Having lived with widespread #vitiligo for almost 50 years, I am eternally grateful for my re-pigmentation and will never take my recovery for granted. Since this life-changing event came about as a result of taking nutritional supplements, I have to suppress a snort of derision every time I hear a doctor or a newscaster announce the latest opinion from the medical community, claiming that supplements are not necessary as long as you eat a “well-balanced diet”.
For a start, no one nowadays eats a well-balanced diet, unless they live in a remote area of the world with exceptionally good soil and unpolluted waters and produce their own organic vegetables, fish and meat. And, more to the point, not everyone enjoys that mythical state of “normal health” to which such a well-balanced diet would be sufficient. Some of us have chronic conditions which involve serious nutritional imbalances that have developed over many years. And it takes more than a plate containing a portion of each food group every day – important though that is – to rectify these imbalances.
It's official: supplementation is recommended
So, this week's research findings, confirming further benefits of vitamin D supplementation, should have come as no surprise. But surprised I was, so jaded am I by the constant refusal of most western health systems to acknowledge the importance of nutritional supplementation as a serious alternative to drugs. It is well-known that #vitamin-D deficiency can lead to bone diseases like rickets and osteoporosis but the new research, conducted at Queen Mary University of London and published this week in the British Medical Journal, confirms that vitamin D supplementation is not only helpful for bone health – as we all knew - but is also a safe and effective way to boost the immune system, helping to prevent upper respiratory infections like colds flu and even pneumonia. Since very little vitamin D is naturally available in our food (relatively small amounts can be found in oily fish, egg yolks, cheese and some types of mushrooms), the researchers conclude that supplementation is advisable and that the benefits of this are even on a par with the flu vaccination.
This information is likely to be of obvious interest to everyone, but since vitamin D plays a role in the process of skin pigmentation and most vitiligo sufferers have subnormal levels of it, it is yet another reason why those of us with a history of vitiligo should ensure we have sufficient intake of this nutrient. Moreover, the suitability of vitamin D supplementation as a real alternative to the flu jab is of additional relevance, since experts tell us that vaccines can actually be counterproductive for people with autoimmune conditions.
It is not known whether vitamin D deficiency is a cause of vitiligo or whether it is a consequence, especially in light of the fact that vitiligo sufferers are typically less likely to boost their levels naturally through the normal channels of sun exposure (since most avoid the sun) and may not absorb much, if any, through their diet (since many have poor digestive absorption). Either way, supplementation seems to be the only way of ensuring an adequate uptake.
So, whilst I am now free to enjoy healthy doses of sun-bathing whenever I go on holiday (or when the weather gods look kindly on us here in the UK), I still take additional vitamin D, in the form of a spray which is easily absorbed into the blood stream and I also get some with my regular top-up courses of Boost, the key supplement I used to re-pigment.
You may need to take action before you re-pigment!
Combating a stubborn and complex condition like #vitiligo is not easy. It is not simply a matter of asking your family doctor for a prescription. Not even your dermatologist can wave a magic wand and make the white patches on your skin disappear. Conventional medicine still offers woefully little in the way of comfort or real, lasting value to vitiligo patients. If you are determined to beat this particular skin disorder you have to be willing to reject the well-worn myths perpetuated by the medical profession (i.e. that the impact is purely cosmetic and that not much can be done, apart from using Protopic and, maybe, a course of UV therapy). Whatever the scientific, financial or political reasons may be for this widespread ignorance and indifference, the fact is that most doctors are not ready, willing or even interested in helping you to beat this condition. So, if you want to improve it, you have to be prepared to do some research of your own and take responsibility for devising your own therapy. And that takes guts. Fortunately, guts are exactly what I am going to discuss in this blog post… because it is my long-held belief that guts are not only the solution to your problem but they are also where you will find its source!
It takes guts to restore intestinal balance
It is ironic that a “skin disease” that is often seen as having purely visual impact should actually originate in areas of our body that cannot be seen at all when we look in the mirror. But all the evidence I can find in my vitiligo research, and my own experience, tell me that this is, in fact, the case. I am convinced, as are many researchers and vitiligo sufferers alike, that the causes of this condition lie deep in the bowels of… well, deep in our gut!
I have gradually come to realise that our digestive system is, in many ways, as complex and influential as our brain. Having thought, for years, that the #digestive system was a fairly simple piece of plumbing, I am now aware that it is, in fact, a highly sophisticated ecosystem (a “second brain” even) which must be kept in balance in order to maintain good health.
When this system works as it should, the entire body functions as nature intended: it receives the nutrition it requires for all of its physiological processes whilst harmful toxins, waste and pathogens are either eliminated or neutralised. But, as in any ecosystem, a disturbance to the natural balance can produce unwanted effects that may appear gradually at first, but then gain momentum as a process of cause and effect creates an ever-worsening vicious cycle. The longer the cycle is allowed to continue, the more of the body's processes are impacted and the more symptoms and syndromes emerge. As the body's largest organ and an important means of elimination of toxins from the body, the skin is often an early indicator of internal problems. It is my belief that the patchy pigment loss that characterises vitiligo is a symptom of such problems and that the clusters of other chronic symptoms and related illnesses that are so often associated with vitiligo are also a consequence of the same gut-based imbalances.
So, what are the events that form this vicious cycle? And which event is the ultimate root cause of it? Well, it probably doesn't matter too much which came first – the important thing is to identify the key issues and deal with as many of them as possible in a bid to interrupt the negative spiral and restore healthy balance. But, if I had to start somewhere, I would say the most likely prime mover in the disease process would be insufficient #stomach-acid.
Low stomach acid leads to chronic ill health
I have blogged before about the link between hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid) and vitiligo. Some people are born with too little stomach acid and are not able to produce enough to properly digest their food. The internal problems that this causes may or may not be apparent during early childhood. But the compound effect of inefficient digestion over the longer term inevitably results in symptoms at some point in time. Other people may have sufficient stomach acid when they are young but, since most people experience declining levels as they age, problems may occur later in life. The logic goes that low stomach acid results in incomplete digestion of food, resulting in nutritional deficiencies and “leaky gut” and that pigment loss is just one of many chronic conditions that eventually follow.
It seems that low stomach acid is a condition that, of itself, tends to become a vicious cycle. Evidently, it causes mineral deficiencies which, in turn, raise the acidity of the blood. Acidic blood further reduces mineral levels and lowers stomach acid even more. (And, God forbid that you should then take antacids for the indigestion symptoms that often accompany hypochlorhydria because this will make the cycle even more vicious by lowering what little stomach acid you still have.)
So, this is why, when low levels of stomach acid go unchecked, they can set in motion a downward spiral in the body's ability to absorb nutrition and eliminate waste. There are certainly a whole host of other negative repercussions from this, which (as a non-medic) I will lump together under the very broad term “inflammation”, which includes allergic and autoimmune responses.
The Candid truth about gut flora
Another factor in the vicious cycle of inflammation is undoubtedly Candida Albicans. Most of us have heard of it but we may not have considered its possible involvement in vitiligo. #Candida is a fungus (or yeast) that lives in the digestive tract where it aids normal digestion and nutrient absorption. But it is a part of our internal ecosystem that can easily grow out of control and severely upset its delicate balance. When this happens it is called candidiasis or COS (Candida Overgrowth Syndrome). A person with insufficient stomach acid is highly unlikely to be able to keep the growth of this fungus under control and this can result in damage to the intestinal lining, further contributing to the development of “Leaky Gut” (or intestinal permeability) and lending extra momentum to the whole vicious cycle of digestive impairment and its consequences.
As with low stomach acid, some people may be born with a Candida overgrowth but most of us develop it, to a greater or lesser extent, largely due to a diet that is too high in sugars and starch. Most people can bring it under control by improving their diet and taking a course of probiotics. But, if you have vitiligo, you are very likely to lack sufficient stomach acid to kill off excess fungal organisms and other pathogens and viruses living in your digestive tract. So the problem can be more extreme and more persistent and you may need to take probiotics on an ongoing basis.
Melanocytes are the first line of defence against Candida Albicans
Not only are we more susceptible than the average person to having the balance of our gut hi-jacked in this way, but there is some evidence to suggest that vitiligo sufferers also have fewer defences to fight it. Naturally, the longer the vicious cycle is allowed to continue, the weaker our defences are likely to be anyway. But research has found that melanocytes form the first line of defence against Candida Albicans, which poses the question (in my simple mind, anyway): does a lack of pigment lower our defences even further to this fungus?Vitiligo is known to affect the mucous membrane as well as our outer skin, so it seems logical to assume that vitiligo sufferers would have fewer functioning melanocytes in their gut than the norm.
Having just re-read this blog so far, I realise how alarmist it may sound. So I apologise if it has you clutching your stomach with one hand, whilst frantically googling “how to rid my body of killer fungi” with the other. My aim is not to overstate the case or to spread panic. If you are affected by the type of internal imbalance I have described, rest assured that it has taken time to develop (decades, in most cases) - and has not killed you yet! The good news is that it can be corrected, although it may take a little time and perseverance. But then, those are two of the requirements that you will find in every effective vitiligo treatment anyway.
The downward spiral of poor digestion and poor health that I have described may sound alarming, especially as a number of factors are involved and each of these, in itself, seems to be a vicious cycle within another vicious cycle. So how can we hope to halt the decline, never mind turn it around?
Keep calm and carry on healing yourself!
First of all, it is not necessary to have a perfect understanding of what is going on in order to correct it. After all, I didn't know any of this stuff seven years ago when I tried out a nutritional protocol on the off-chance it might work. I now understand a lot more about why it did work (and also why it improved my digestive symptoms too). But my ignorance at the time didn't prevent it from working. And, second of all, tackling the individual factors involved becomes much simpler when you look at them one at a time. So, let's do that now.
There are tests that can confirm whether or not you suffer from hypochlorhydria but simply checking out the symptoms online will probably give you a pretty good clue. If you are still not sure, then following the recommended HCl test will enable you to discover, by trial and error, whether or not you need to supplement with hydrochloric acid to help you digest your food. If you have a significant lack of stomach acid you will benefit from taking Betaine HCl and Pepsin with meals to boost your levels. Otherwise, just a diet that promotes stomach acid production may be sufficient.
The pH levels of the human body can be a really confusing subject, especially when it comes to deciding what we should eat to promote good health. One of the confusing aspects is that different parts of the body need different levels of acidity. As we know, the stomach requires a very high level of acidity in order to break down food, whereas the duodenum (which is where food goes immediately after leaving the stomach) needs an alkaline environment. The blood should be slightly alkaline too.
The other confusing thing is that foods are often wrongly described as “acid” or “alkalising” and this can be misleading. What our body needs is foods that help to promote healthy levels of stomach acid but also have an alkalising effect on the rest of our body. For example, citrus fruits and cider vinegar will help with acid production in the stomach but, once digested, they actually have an alkalising effect on the body, which seems quite counterintuitive.
So, how do we choose the right foods to satisfy all these different requirements? How do we know which foods are acid and which are alkaline? Luckily, most of the foods that we already know are good for us will help our digestive system to function properly: fresh vegetables and fruits, organic fish and meats will all do this. By eating along the lines of the so-called Cave-Man or “Paleo” diet consisting of exactly these foods (or at least limiting other foods like grains, dairy and all processed foods) it would be hard to go wrong, even if you don't understand all the science behind it. (However, a list of foods that are alkalising can be helpful for reference.)
Since becoming aware of all this information I have adopted a mainly Paleo diet myself and feel better for it (and losing some unwanted weight has been a bonus). But it is obvious to me now that my diet was sadly lacking until relatively recently, so this change in my eating habits cannot have been a factor in my recovery. I strongly suspect that taking daily doses of Five a Day greenfoods was the thing that compensated for deficiencies in my diet back then. I always think of this supplement as being the nutritional equivalent of eating a mountain of organic, leafy green vegetables every day, providing high levels of easily-digestible alkalising nutrition that I would not otherwise be able to eat in sufficient quantity without bursting!
Because low stomach acid and poor diet are two of the key factors in Candida overgrowth, following the same guidelines above for addressing acid imbalances will automatically help to combat it. In my own case, I eat a mainly alkalising, nutritious diet, take Betaine HCl with large meals when necessary and I take two doses of Five a Day daily. Every so often, I also take a course of pro-biotics if I suspect a yeast infection - or just as a precaution. (Probiotics for young children are also available.) But the healthy bacteria content of Five a Day (Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Lactobacillus Bifidus) seems to be sufficient for my needs the rest of the time.
The other factor that can lead to candidiasis is a lack of digestive enzymes. So, supplementing with these also helps to ensure better nutritional absorption.
I entitled this blog “Low stomach acid, Candida and vitiligo” so I shall finish off with this third component – my main reason for writing the blog. I decided to write about digestive issues, in the context of vitiligo, because there are a lot of vitiligo sufferers out there trying all kinds of different treatments to regain their skin colour. Many are not getting the results they want, quite possibly because they have untreated digestive issues that are sabotaging their efforts by preventing or reversing their recovery.
I have had “tummy troubles” all my life and, until the past few years, never made a mental connection between these and my vitiligo. But now that I analyse it, my recovery makes much more sense. At first, my re-pigmentation, using nutritional supplements, just seemed like a lucky fluke. But in fact, the supplements I used worked on both my gastric problems and on my skin's ability to make pigment. I believe that both components of the treatment were equally important. In fact, I doubt that the Boost tanning supplement that triggered by re-pigmentation would have had a chance to work as well as it did (or even at all) if I had not been helping my digestive system at the same time by also taking Five a Day green food.
It seems obvious to me that most of the western world is affected by poor digestion thanks to the average modern diet (although many people either have no symptoms yet, or simply ignore them and pop another antacid). But if you have vitiligo, there is statistically a much higher chance of your having a deficiency of stomach acid and of suffering from the vicious cycle that this sets in motion. Unbelievably – shockingly, in my opinion – very few doctors or dermatologists will ever mention such things. They continue to tell patients that vitiligo is incurable, or else they try to improve it with creams and drugs that only treat the outside, instead of recognising that the cause is internal.
So, my message to you, if you are looking for answers, is to take charge of your own recovery because you are the only person who can do this on a daily basis. Don't let digestive issues interfere with your efforts to re-pigment. Find out if you have low levels of stomach acid. If you do, then follow the recommendations above (or do some more research yourself). Find out if you have a Candida problem and take action to bring it under control. If you can do this, then I am convinced that whatever vitiligo treatment you choose to use will stand a hugely increased chance of working, and working long-term, just as mine has.
In closing, I'm sure you have sometimes heard courage referred to as “Intestinal fortitude”. Well, it does take some guts to manage your own recovery in the face of a lack of effective medical support. But if you can literally build up your intestinal fortitude (physiologically, as well as psychologically), your courage is much more likely to be rewarded with lots of healthy, new pigment!
May 2017 bring you healthy skin!
A belated happy new year (or a slightly early Chinese one) to all my Vitiligo Friends. I think it is fitting that the coming year is the year of the Rooster. This colourful bird is a perfect example of how marvelous nature's pigments can be and a reminder that we all deserve to enjoy our own unique colouring. I hope that 2017 will bring us all healthy skin (not feathers) and that Rooster-like self-confidence that comes with knowing we are all beautiful in our own way :)
The colours of nature are indeed a miracle. But, as with all miracles of nature, there is a truck load of science behind them. Now, science is not my forte and, whilst I was fortunate enough to receive a good education, I still managed to leave school without really knowing, for example, what an amino acid is.
This is a shame because it turns out that #amino-acids play all kinds of extremely crucial roles in how our body functions, including our ability (or inability) to create healthy pigment. If you are as clueless as I am on the subject of amino acids, what they are, what they do, and what relevance a deficiency or imbalance of them can potentially have then click here for a crash course.
Amino acids are no less than the essential chemical building blocks of life. They are the organic compounds that build proteins and, as such, are used in every cell in our body. These busy little compounds are what build our skin and bones, our muscles, ligaments, hair, teeth, organs… and any other part of the human body I may have left out, including our brain. Needless to say, they play a fundamental role in all our physical and mental functions.
Now that I actually understand something about amino acids and what they do, I am quite surprised that they receive so little popular attention outside of the scientific community. Most of us are pretty well versed in the role of vitamins and minerals and the importance of eating plenty of fruit and vegetables. But ask the average person if they think they have sufficient levels of amino acids, and they will probably give you a sideways look and a wide berth. (The exception to this might be body builders and professional athletes, since most of them have been supplementing with amino acids for years to help improve endurance during workouts and boost muscle recovery.)
The body-builder's interest, though, is generally limited to about 10 amino acids, including lysine, arginine, carnitine and the so-called branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine. But there are actually 20 or so amino acids required by the human body for the healthy formation of protein, including its largest organ – the skin. And, like other nutrients, these are categorised into essential (those that cannot be manufactured by the body and therefore are required in the diet) and non-essential (these can be made by the body).
Again, just like other nutrients, a normal, healthy person who eats a well-balanced diet can expect to maintain a healthy level and balance of amino acids naturally. But just as vitiligo sufferers are typically deficient in certain vitamins and minerals – most likely due to poor digestion and inadequate nutritional absorption - a deficiency or inability to utilise amino acids vital to the pigmentation process would seem likely too.
Interestingly, one amino acid in particular is known to be able to help heal "leaky gut", thought by many to be one of the causes of poor nutritional absorption and chronic conditions, including vitiligo. This is #glutamine. So I now take a dose of this amino acid first thing every morning to help protect the lining of my gut and reduce inflammation and IBS symptoms.
There are supplements available that can ensure you are getting enough of all the amino acids. But, of all the amino acids, #Tyrosine is the most closely involved in the production of melanin. (Phenylalanine, as a precursor of tyrosine, is also important.) This explains why it is top of the list of ingredients in “Boost”, one of the two nutritional supplements that helped me to re-pigment my vitiligo. As with all nutrients, amino acids don't work in isolation but rather as part of a “team effort”. In the case of tyrosine, B vitamins are needed to enable the body to utilise tyrosine properly to produce melanin (which is, presumably, why they are included in the formulation of Boost, along with other ingredients like copper and zinc, also known to be involved in the tanning process.
Learning just a little about amino acids has helped me to understand more of the science behind the “miracle” of my re-pigmentation. In addition to the tyrosine content of Boost, I would imagine that the high levels of essential amino acids naturally present in Five a Day+V (the green-food supplement I used, along with Boost) will also have played a role, whereas I had always assumed the key benefits of this green food was its antioxidant and alkalising properties. No doubt the way all these nutrients work together is a lot more complex than anyone knows. Scientists are still learning more about amino acids and exactly how they affect our hormones and all our bodily processes. It is a fascinating subject and is another reminder of how amazing nature is.
So, with that thought in mind, I wish you, once again, the happiest and healthiest of new years and look forward to sharing more information with you on this blog – and to having more conversations with many of you - throughout 2017.
My name is Caroline.