Continuing this series about the links between vitiligo and other diseases, this post is about the adrenal glands. Whilst stress is often cited as a trigger for vitiligo, the possible role of the adrenals in pigment loss is not widely documented and therefore most vitiligo sufferers are – like I was - probably unaware of any link. What I have read on the subject leads me to conclude, yet again, that vitiligo is often (if not always) a symptom of other systemic conditions rather than a disease in itself.
So, first things first – what and where are the adrenals? The adrenal glands are two small but very important glands, situated one above each kidney, which produce a range of hormones, or 'chemical messengers' involved in regulating crucial functions in the body, including blood sugar and blood pressure levels, heart function, metabolism and immune response. Each adrenal gland consists of two parts, each of which has separate hormone functions and control mechanisms. The adrenals are the major glands the body uses to respond to stress. Closely associated with the sympathetic nervous system, the adrenals are part of the fight-or-flight response which is triggered under stressful conditions.
Underactivity of the adrenal glands is called hypoadrenalism but is often referred to as adrenal burnout, adrenal fatigue, adrenal insufficiency or Addison’s disease. It occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough of the hormone cortisol and, in some cases, the hormone aldosterone. When the adrenals become depleted, the body is unable to handle stress properly.
The main symptom of hypoadrenalism is constant fatigue, which is not relieved by sleep, but this may also be accompanied by a craving for sweet foods, low blood pressure and low blood sugar, irritability and depression. Increased skin pigmentation, poor digestion, weight loss and susceptibility to infections, as well as joint and muscle pain, may also accompany these symptoms.
Underactive adrenal glands can be the result of the immune system mistakenly attacking the adrenal glands (autoimmune disease) and in this instance can be associated with other autoimmune conditions, including vitiligo.
What this means for anyone with vitiligo who also suffers from Addison’s disease (hypoadrenalism), or from any other autoimmune disease for that matter, is that any improvement in that condition may also improve their vitiligo.
A lovely lady recently emailed me with an example of exactly this. Her 12 year old daughter has vitiligo but has seen tremendous improvement as a result of treating her adrenal glands. The mother says:
"My daughter has an extremely sensitive system so we have to be very careful what we give her. I believe that her system is very sensitive because she is highly emotional and her immune system is over active. The key to vitiligo is to calm down your immune system so it stops attacking your melanocytes, you have to retrain it. Once you have retrained your immune system you will not get any more vitiligo. It takes two to three years from what I have read to retrain your immune system. The way to do this is to get rid of the triggers that cause your immune system to react. For my daughter it is stress (adrenals) and digestion. I have a journal and have written down all her white spots and the events, foods, or vitamins that could have caused them. Since her body is not covered with the white patches it has been easier for me than maybe others to keep track of new white spots that may come. I document it and keep track of it to see if it gets worse, when it does it has been easy to figure out, it is usually something we added or not giving her enough of because we cut back.
There is a saliva test you can take to see if your adrenals are functioning properly. It is a cortisol test which involves spitting into a tube 3 times in the course of one day at different time periods. It measures how your body deals with stress throughout the day. You mail the tube back to the lab and they send you the results back. You can google labs that will do this test on the internet... Our Natropath gave us a tonic called ashwaganda wathina. It is amazing stuff, I use it myself. It heals the adrenal glands from the inside out. We saw positive results with my daughter right away and within 4 or 5 months her spots were gone from her knees.”
As well as using ashwaganda, this lady has also been trying to teach her daughter meditation, breathing, and spiritual awareness, as well as giving her a similar nutritional regimen to the one that enabled me to re-pigment my own vitiligo, all of which has apparently helped her adrenal fatigue and her vitiligo. It seems reasonable to me to conclude that, in her particular case, the underlying cause of her daughter’s vitiligo is probably poor adrenal function and that anything that she does to alleviate the adrenal problem has a positive impact on her vitiligo too.
Once again, this makes me wonder if vitiligo sufferers and doctors alike sometimes spend too much time and energy focussing on treating the skin and not enough on treating other conditions that are in fact the root cause of pigment loss.
My name is Caroline.