Healing skin by switching on our self-repair system
In part 1 of this blog I posed the question “could lack of #sleep be a factor in the development of certain chronic disorders, including #vitiligo?” and concluded that the answer is almost certainly yes. What prompted me to ask the question in the first place was a video that a vitiligo friend recently invited me to look at about vitamin D, deep sleep and gut bacteria (thanks for sending the link, Mira!).
Whilst I have blogged a few times in the past on the impact of both #vitamin-D deficiency and #digestive disorders in relation to vitiligo, I had never given much thought to the role of sleep in this context. If you had asked me – prior to seeing the video – how important I though it was for vitiligo sufferers to get a good night’s sleep, I would have said that it was no doubt very important for health in general, and possibly even more so for anyone with chronic health problems. But that would have been the extent of my insight into the topic. But once I listened to sleep expert Dr. Stasha Gominak describe her experiments and observations relating to the involvement of certain nutrients (especially vitamin D) and the communication that has to take place between the gut and the brain in order for therapeutic, deep sleep to occur, I began to appreciate that there is an awful lot more to the subject than I ever imagined.
We are designed to be completely self-healing
I began to wonder if sleep disorders might play a part, not only in the development of vitiligo, but also in its generally poor response to most treatments. In other words, I wondered if a lack of deep sleep might be one of the triggers for de-pigmentation and whether – if left untreated - it might also hamper all attempts at reversing the process. If this were in fact true, it could be very good news, since improving a vitiligo sufferer’s quality of sleep would then presumably both spontaneously improve their vitiligo and improve the effectiveness of vitiligo treatments simultaneously. According to Dr Gominak, we are indeed designed to be completely self-healing. (What a wonderful concept that is – I love it and I only wish that modern western medicine would open its mind to this view. I am sure that it would revolutionise our health systems and the health of entire populations.)
The link between poor sleep and chronic illnesses like vitiligo
During deep all kinds of fascinating things happen. Our muscles become paralysed – in effect, we shut down in order for repairs and maintenance to take place. Scientists involved in brain stem research have discovered that the neurochemical “on/off switch” for this state of paralysis, which is located in our brain stem, contains vitamin D receptors, which indicates that the presence of vitamin D is required before deep sleep can occur. So what does that mean for those of us with subnormal levels of vitamin D (that includes the typical vitiligo sufferer)? Well, Dr Gominak notes the strong correlation between the increase in vitamin D deficiency (mainly due to our modern indoor lifestyle) and the increase in sleep disorders. And she also points to the parallel increase in “modern” illnesses like Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue, IBS and Coeliac (Celiac) Disease.
Her experience with her sleep disorder patients has shown that raising vitamin D levels in many cases significantly improves the quality of their sleep and the extent of their ability to self-repair, resulting in the reduction or complete elimination of a whole host of chronic symptoms. (She also goes on to explain the role of vitamin B supplementation, and of pantothenic acid in particular, in sustaining this recovery after the first couple of years, so I recommend watching the video if you want to understand the whole picture.)
Do you know how well (or otherwise) you sleep?
It is worth mentioning that many people with sleep disorders don’t realise they have one. You don’t even have to have a recognised sleep disorder to suffer from insufficient deep sleep. I have always thought of myself as someone who sleeps fairly well. But, now that I consider it carefully, one of my earliest memories is of regularly having difficulty getting to sleep as an infant in my cot because of stomach cramps (due, I now realise, to digestive issues). And there have been many times, as an adult, when I have suffered bouts of insomnia for the same reason – and sometimes for no apparent reason. Even when I get a full night’s sleep, I have no way of assessing the quality of that sleep. But the fact that I suffered with chronic fatigue for most of my life does make me wonder. I would imagine that long-term sleep disorders are one of the most likely causes of chronic fatigue, since they prevent the body from completing its re-calibrating and repairing routines each night. Interestingly, all of my symptoms improved – simultaneously with my re-pigmentation - after I adopted my nutritional protocol. So does that mean that my digestive problems were causing me to sleep poorly or that poor sleep was causing the digestive problems? And which of these (if it wasn’t both together) might have been a trigger for my vitiligo? In a sense, it doesn’t really matter which came first as long as the cure for both is the same. But it would still be interesting to know.
The relationship between sleep and vitiligo
I can find no research into the relationship between sleep and vitiligo specifically, although there is plenty of evidence to suggest that stress can trigger and aggravate the condition and there can be no doubt that lack of sleep increases stress levels. What is known is that sleep deprivation contributes to the development of chronic illness generally and this scientific paper points to possible links between sleep disorders and autoimmune diseases (of which vitiligo is considered to be one).
It would be helpful to know if there is a higher incidence of sleep disorders among vitiligo sufferers than the rest of the population (or indeed if there is a higher proportion of vitiligo cases amongst sleep disorder sufferers than might be expected). It would also be helpful to know if lack of quality sleep simply exacerbates the condition or if it is, in fact, part of the disease process itself. For example, might the faulty digestion and poor nutritional status experienced by so many vitiligo sufferers (which I believe to be a central cause of pigment loss) be due to certain critical, sleep-time processes simply not occurring? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question (and I’m not sure that anyone else has thought to ask it). But this blog might be an opportunity for readers to share their own experiences and perceptions on this subject.
So, please feel free to leave comments below about the quality of your sleep and whether or not you feel there is any connection with your vitiligo. Maybe, between us, we can shed a little more light on this fascinating topic, or - failing that - at least share some useful tips on how we might all improve our sleep.
I will keep an eye on incoming comments and respond where appropriate. But please forgive me if I sometimes reply belatedly. When it comes to blog comments, I tend to check them once a week rather than every day, so if I don't answer to specific questions straight away please don't think that you have caught me napping!
Night, night - sleep tight ;)
MANY VITILIGO OPPORTUNITIES
I used to think that there was one single cause of vitiligo and that one day a team of scientists somewhere would discover what it was and produce one single cure. I thought this because I am a great believer in getting to the root of problems rather than simply patching up the symptoms. I assumed that most disorders had just one root cause, if you were able to trace their development back far enough. It remains to be seen if this is true of vitiligo, but my own experience of re-pigmentation has convinced me that it is definitely worth tackling the shoots of the problem, even if we don’t yet have the technology to cut it off at the root.
If the root cause of vitiligo is a specific defective gene that makes some of us susceptible to pigment loss, as some scientists believe, then the goal must be to devise a genetically engineered cure. Such a definitive solution would render every other vitiligo therapy unnecessary and spare millions of people a lot of misery. But, until that day comes - and it may not be far off - it is important to realise that there are other viable options available to vitiligo sufferers, including therapies that can halt and reverse pigment loss at any stage of its development (as my own experience proves).
One of the worst effects of being diagnosed with vitiligo is the feeling of helplessness that comes with being told you have an “incurable disease”. This description, so commonly used by dermatologists the world over, is enough to depress even the most optimistic individual. It can feel like a life sentence, like doors closing and robbing you of control over your own future. But the fact is that you do have control and you do have choices. At their simplest, these can be boiled down to four options:
These four options are not mutually exclusive: most of us have adopted a combination of all of them at different times. But the trouble with allowing yourself to drift - or maybe even ricochet impulsively - from one to the next and back again (as I did for many years) is that it is unsettling, exhausting and gets you nowhere. Not deciding on a definite approach to your vitiligo can, in fact, amount to a decision to be a victim for the rest of your life, snatching moments of contentment between the all too frequent reminders of your deep discontent. Choosing a definite path to follow can be an empowering psychological step: one that immediately reverses the balance of power between you and your white patches, putting you back in charge.
So which of the four options would I recommend you take? The one that makes you the happiest and healthiest of course. I can’t tell you which that would be (although it is pretty obvious which one it isn’t!)
It’s your choice
Number 1 might, arguably, involve the least hassle and the greatest level of contentment, as long as you had the right temperament to achieve it. Not many people are truly able to do this. I couldn’t, so it was not an option that was open to me. (Besides, to ignore a symptom like pigment loss is to ignore the possibility that your body is trying to warn you of underlying health issues.)
Number 2 is only included in the list so that you can put a big, thick red line through it and, hopefully, never give it another moment’s thought.
Number 3 is the most common, and immediate, choice for the majority of us. If we develop symptoms we go to our doctor – it’s obvious. However, whilst a handful of doctors around the world know how to handle cases of vitiligo, the chances of finding one are remote. The only thing your doctor or dermatologist is likely to know is how to do is diagnose it (which is the one good reason for making an initial appointment).
Number 4 is – in my opinion and in my experience – the best, most effective and empowering option of all and the one most likely to bring you psychological and physical wellbeing. Taking charge of my own therapy was the best decision I ever made and has brought benefits beyond my own health and happiness. The reason I say this is because, in reality, there is a fifth option open to us: and that is to reach out to others affected by vitiligo and offer them the benefit of our own empathy and experiences - but that opportunity is more likely to present itself once you have already chosen a positive approach for your own personal vitiligo journey.
Vitiligo has been a journey of discovery
It is ironic that, during the 5 decades I suffered with widespread vitiligo, I understood very little about it, yet in the 7 years since my re-pigmentation I have absorbed massive quantities of information on the subject. No doubt, this is partly because coping with the practical and psychological difficulties of living with the condition on a day-to-day basis required time and effort which left little of either to put into research. Added to that is the fact that part of my coping strategy was to cover up my white patches and try to forget about them. So, obviously, the last thing I felt motivated to do was make a study of them. Of course, there is also the fact that publicly available information on vitiligo was almost non-existent during those years and – perhaps most significantly of all – there was no internet for the majority of that time, so resources were scarce.
It was not until my own need for answers was effectively removed by my unexpected recovery that I found I was nevertheless fascinated by the subject and passionate about gathering and sharing information on the causes, effects and treatment of vitiligo. And, if there is one thing I have learned as a result of all my hours of detective work, it is that it is complicated.
Vitiligo is complex: but this presents opportunities
Of course, almost any disease (if vitiligo can be called that) is bound to seem complicated to someone like me, given that I have no medical training. But, based on my observations, this ranks me slightly behind the experts and significantly ahead of most doctors!
Given how complex the causes and processes behind pigment loss evidently are, there is no simple way to tackle it. That’s the bad news. The good news, I have come to believe, is that – precisely because there appear to be so many layers of causality involved – this means that there are also multiple ways of interrupting the process, thereby allowing the body to start healing itself. And most of these therapeutic opportunities are available to us all because they are based on nature and some basic logic. This means that we do have the power to take control of our own therapy.
There may not be much we can do about our defective genes but there is a lot we can do to halt the domino effect of events that can lead us from that state of susceptibility, all the way through the physiological maze of cause and effect, to the appearance of white patches on our skin. And by taking action we also stand to heal ourselves of the many other symptoms (poor digestion, poor nutritional status, fatigue, allergies, autoimmune conditions, etc., etc.) that so often accompany vitiligo but are rarely picked up on in that context by medical practitioners, not mention the feeling of helplessness I referred to earlier.
I have written a lot about taking responsibility for one’s own recovery in my blog (mainly from a nutritional angle, since this proved to be the key to mine) and I shall continue to write about it in as much detail as I can. But the short version comes down to this: vitiligo - and general health - responds to the following strategies if you are willing to explore them intelligently, consistently and patiently...
You needn't give vitiligo the green light
In short, regardless of whether or not vitiligo stems ultimately from a single root cause, there are certainly multiple subsequent events that need to occur in the body in order for a susceptibility to pigment loss to become vitiligo. It is as if we have a series of traffic lights inside us that - if left on green - will speed the flow of the disease from its starting point to its final destination (“Patchyskinsville”) and all we have to do, in order for this to happen, is nothing. Alternatively, we have the option to turn as many of those green light to red as we can. Every stop light is an opportunity to interrupt the progress of the disorder. This may not alter our genetic predisposition to pigment loss but it can certainly stop it dead, turn it around and send it back where it came from. Not only that, but halting the vitiligo traffic is also likely to give priority to all the healthy processes in our system to flow as they should, meaning that our overall health will likely improve at the same time.
A FLY IN THE VITILIGO OINTMENT
Those of us who live in the north of England have to grab every opportunity to enjoy whatever sunshine we can – whenever we can. The weather pattern here over the past few years has been characterised by pleasantly warm, sunny days in spring and autumn, either side of a massively disappointing summer. So the past few weeks have found me taking every possible moment in the garden, enjoying the last of the warmth for another year. This is a great way of topping up the skin pigment in advance of the long, cold winter months ahead as an ongoing part of my protocol for keeping vitiligo at bay.
There is just one fly in the ointment – well, a lot more than one actually. Because we live close to water and surrounded by trees, we find ourselves plagued by mosquitoes and gnats during this season, clouds of them, humming and swarming around by the thousand, just waiting for the chance to feast on human blood.
These insects are typically the object of much swatting, scratching and cursing. But for anyone with a sensitive skin, they are not merely irksome; they can represent a real health hazard. Fortunately for me, the mosquitoes that frequent our garden are not the sort that carry serious diseases like malaria or dengue fever. However, their bite can still cause significant irritation which is something I try hard to avoid, given my history of vitiligo. If you have vitiligo (or any other inflammatory skin condition) it is important to be aware that physical trauma of any sort to the skin can trigger a flare up, so it makes sense to avoid not just cuts, bruises, abrasions and burns but stings and bites too.
Are insects attracted to pale skin?
Have you ever wondered why some people seem to attract #insect-bites far more than others? It would be an exaggeration to say that this question has kept me awake at nights but I’ll admit it does intrigue me. Take my mother-in-law (no jokes please) – she always ended up smothered in bites whenever she travelled anywhere that had a significant bug population, even when everyone around her remained virtually unscathed. I used to wonder if this had anything to do with the fact that she had exceptionally pale skin. Then I also noticed that, whenever I was bitten myself, it was nearly always on my #vitiligo patches. Given that I was 80% de-pigmented when my vitiligo was at its height, I suppose there is no major surprise there, statistically speaking. However, even as the number and size of my lesions dwindled, it still seemed to me that any bites I suffered were restricted to these particular hypo-pigmented areas. I even wondered if the almost translucent skin found in vitiligo patches might act like a "shop window" advertising the juicy veins below to every passing mosquito. Whatever the explanation, I was convinced there must be something about very pale skin that is irresistible to these blood-sucking critters.
Well, to my surprise, my best efforts at finding a scientific basis for this perception came up with no hard evidence at all. Whilst no one knows definitively why some people are more attractive to blood-sucking insects than others, there are a number of reasonably well established theories but none of them suggests that pale skin plays any part. It seems that the tastiest people, as far as mosquitoes are concerned, are those with type O blood, those who sweat or breathe more heavily than others, pregnant women and anyone who has a raised body temperature or has recently consumed alcohol.
Genetics are thought to be a factor, meaning that susceptibility probably runs in families, but there is very little evidence that colour plays a role, except that mosquitoes are apparently more likely to bite you if you are wearing dark coloured clothing. If this is true – and if it holds true for dark skin, as well as dark clothing - that would seem to fly (no pun intended) in the face of my own observations… unless, of course, bugs really do prefer fair-skinned victims and dark clothing simply serves to make human skin look paler by comparison(?).
Perhaps my perception is due to the fact that bite marks just look more conspicuous on fair skin than they do on darker complexions. It is certainly true that sensitive skins react more severely to insect bites, producing larger, angrier-looking welts and more histamine, resulting in more itching and inflammation and this is the last thing you need if you suffer from vitiligo, especially as scratching can lead to further de-pigmentation.
Choosing a safe and effective bug repellent
Insect repellents containing DEET are generally thought to provide the most reliable protection but the chemical ingredients contained in these products can prove to be just as inflammatory to vitiligo sufferers as being bitten. So the burning question is: are there any natural alternatives that actually work?
Some people claim that garlic is equally loathed by these tiny vampires as by their mythical cousins. But I suspect that gobbling massive quantities of this malodorous condiment, or rubbing it on one's skin, would succeed in keeping more than just the insect population at arm's length.
Some people maintain that vitamin B12 wards off mosquitoes but others claim that this theory has been discredited. (Although, if there were some truth in this, would the fact that most vitiligo sufferers are deficient in B12 offer an explanation as to why insects seem to favour de-pigmented skin? Maybe.)
Neem oil is significantly effective at repelling bugs but has a very strange odour if used in suitably high concentrations. This can mean that the more repulsive bugs find it, the more repulsive we humans find it too! Mixing it at a ratio of 1:10 with coconut oil makes it less pungent but this reduces its effectiveness and it can be a bit messy to concoct and to apply.
Citronella oil is probably the best known natural insect repellent and is a popular ingredient in outdoor candles for that purpose. However, it does not work as effectively on skin as its non-natural, DEET-based counterparts and it evaporates so quickly that it only offers very short-term protection. Worse still, it is a known skin sensitiser that can cause allergic reactions.
Citriodiol, on the other hand, appears to tick all the boxes. Also known as Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, Citriodiol is a natural ingredient that has been proven to be just as effective at repelling insects as the best-performing DEET products, as well as being safe for use on children as young as 6. And, whilst it causes bugs to hold their nose and run for cover, it actually has a rather pleasant menthol smell, meaning it is unlikely to result in anyone of the human variety having to do the same.
Mosi-guard citriodiol-based natural insect repllent is available in either spray, stick or roll-on.
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:
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.
My name is Caroline.