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!
A vitiligo blogger since 2011. My name is Caroline. I had vitiligo for nearly 50 years before finding an effective treatment. I created this blog to share my experiences with others affected by this skin condition.