THE VITILIGO IN ME
My first encounter of feeling “exposed” with vitiligo was towards my final year at university. A significant point in my life in many ways. Like most students, I allowed my appearance influence many choices in life – the food I chose to eat or not eat, what I chose to read, what I felt I should be aspiring to, and also what I should be doing for my prospective career. If you knew my quirky self-back then – you would have thought I got dressed in the dark- wacky colours and bold prints were a way to take myself lightly but in fact, it was a distraction from the skin I was in.
Clearly already conscious of my physical appearance (I was always labelled the big one) and now the idea of having vitiligo left me feeling like I was inadequate. I felt like I would never meet the expectation of what society deemed as perfect. As people, we fear being shamed and I truly believed the patches that were growing across my chest, neck, arms and legs would take over, steal my identity and present me as being ‘imperfect’. My skin was the one thing I felt I couldn’t hide even if I wanted to. It would be the thing I felt the whole world could shame me with. Not true in the slightest but it’s how I felt at that period in my life.
I guess I limited myself to see it as another setback. The wonderful thing of hindsight – you have the ability to reflect and grow. I now recognise I boxed myself into thinking I could only be what society had been conditioned with. Those images splashed across glossy magazine covers alongside the fashion industry glorifying “perfection”, in not only what size and shape should look like, but also what flawless skin, hair and make up should be. These were the aesthetics that suggested would make us happy and confident. In reality – this truly just existed in that picture perfect shot – nothing beyond the shot and certainly not after.
As the years grew on, I developed a cascade of health implications and my vitiligo became part of a list of issues I didn’t quite understand but desperately wanted to gain control off. There was a pivotal turning point in which things gradually shifted and my health concerns turned a corner – not overnight surely but gradually. For me understanding vitiligo, not as an isolated skin disorder but rather understanding its causative, which is looking at it as an autoimmune immune condition, which means it is a response of the immune system from a stimuli, lifted a cloud. Understanding autoimmunity was the key to then try and support my vitiligo. As my depth and breadth of food and lifestyle changed, my state of mind opened up a new view point and I was more self-accepting and trusting of myself including all the characteristics that came with me.
Today, we understand the importance of mental health and it being pinnacle in health and wellbeing. Feeling in control of yourself and managing how you feel is influenced by what we do for ourselves and what we eat and drink. It is a lifestyle movement which is finally taking liberty – self-care will continue to be the heart of my practice which focuses on nutrition.
WHAT IS AUTOIMMUNITY?
There are over 100 autoimmune conditions listed, which is when our immune system mistakes healthy cells as invaders and consequently starts attacking on the body’s own tissues, organs and cells, resulting in a multitude of symptoms which could be the heart, brain, nerves, muscles, skin, eyes, lungs, the digestive tract, and blood vessels. In the instance of vitiligo, the immune system attacks the pigment cells (melanocytes) in the skin. From a nutritional stance, to manage vitiligo – the consensus would be to support autoimmunity as a whole, which in turn can subsequently support vitiligo. Whilst there may not be a “cure’’ for the condition, the appropriate diet and lifestyle for you, may help slow down progression, offer some re-pigmentation for some individuals, and may support the symptoms associated with the condition or accompanying autoimmune conditions. As we understand autoimmunity, we know if there is prominence of one autoimmune condition, we are likely to have another. Whilst this can feel quite overwhelming, there is exciting evidence supporting the relationship of food, diet, environmental and emotional factors all playing a pivotal role in supporting the immune system in autoimmunity. With vitiligo, there is known associations with biochemical and oxidative stress, genetics, neuronal and environmental factors which attribute to the condition.
WHAT CAUSES AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE?
Whilst there are many antecedents, triggers and mediators for autoimmune disease, we understand that our mitochondria is compromised in performance with autoimmunity. Mitochondria is known as the powerhouses of each of our cells. These organelles composing themselves like our digestive system take nutrients, break them down to create energy rich molecules in each of our trillions of cells which make up our body tissue, such as muscle, skin, and bone tissue.
The immune response is a hugely complex system and yet so much is to be discovered but to simply extrapolate in context, it relies on a network T Cells. These T cells are known as Naïve t- cells which communicate with sister T- cells known as effector T cells. These effector cells rely on the signaling from naive T cells for when to attack and fight against any foreign pathogens seen as a threat which includes food, environmental toxins, prolonged stress or trauma, or all of the above. Over time, an over activation of effector T- cells can further damage tissue if in excess, like the straw that breaks the camel’s back – this can potentially activate autoimmunity or acute and chronic inflammation.
FOOD AND AUTOIMMUNITY
Due to the nuances in between each autoimmune condition, there is not a “one size that fits all” approach. For instance, what works for someone with type 1 diabetes may vary for someone suffering with vitiligo. Whilst there has been predisposing genetic risk factors involved in autoimmunity, studies have strongly found the “Western lifestyle” including environmental factors make up a significant part of the initiation and propagation of autoimmune disease.
Growing evidence suggests a typical ‘Western diet’, rich in saturated fat and salt, refined sugar high consumption of poor quality animal protein, especially red meat and dairy, can have a profound impact on both local and systemic immune responses leading to inflammation and chronic disease which is shown to be due to their pro-inflammatory effects. All further influenced by our gut microbiome which is also compromised by the western diet and lifestyle.
What we understand about inflammation is it can be stabilized by Interleukin-23 (IL-23), a protein that regulates our immune system. So when looking at supporting our inflammation, management and removing foods and lifestyle habits which exacerbate symptoms, is a sensible way forward.
With any dietary changes and health modifications it is always advised to speak to a health care provider / Dietician and work alongside a practitioner to receive a tailored approach according to your circumstances and lifestyle, but whilst seeking help there are some simple changes you can employ in the meantime.
WHY GOING GLUTEN-FREE MAY HELP
The human diet has dramatically changed over the last 50 years. For generations, humans ate food shortly after harvesting and when it was in season. Meat was very occasionally consumed and much of it was caught in the wild. We have developed new strains of grains, especially in wheat, rice, soy, and corn. The use of chemicals like pesticides, fungicides, and insecticides for crops such as fruits and vegetables have heavily thrusted modifying our soil state further compromising its mineral composition. Cows are now injected with hormones passing them on into dairy products like cheeses, yogurts. Antibiotics, heavy metals, such as arsenic, and hormones are used in concentrated animal feeding operations, which include cattle, turkey, and chicken. All of which we go on to heavily and consistently consume. E.g. a slice of white toast or cereal in the morning, a sandwich or take away burger for lunch and maybe a microwave meal thickened with wheat amongst high sugar, trans fats and salt content for dinner. Chemical ingredients in our foods such as artificial preservatives, colorings, and flavorings; artificial sweeteners are used abundantly, especially in soft drinks. We consume more than twice the amount of salt that we should, leading to cardiovascular disorders and contributing to immune reactions leading to autoimmune disorders.
In autoimmunity – one of the coinciding symptoms is often digestive problems – bloating, IBS type symptoms, indigestion, stomach acid etc., Gluten is one of the many factors that may contribute to intestinal discomfort and this is associated with many autoimmune diseases. Whilst at present there are many theories for why gluten acerbates autoimmunity – studies have shown in gluten free v placebo participants, when gluten is removed, autoimmune symptoms improved from both a gastrointestinal and systemic perspective too. This could be due to our digestive enzymes no longer having the ability to break down the gluten protein found in grains like wheat and rye due to the change in grain constitution over the years. Or it could be the crops are now grown with fertilisers. Replacing gluten with healthy wholesome sources is important. Simply replacing it with heavily processed high fat, sugar and salt gluten free goods will not only be counterproductive, but can aggravate symptoms further.
Options include, Organic quinoa, buckwheat, brown, red or wild rice, millet, oatmeal.
REMOVING OR LIMITING LECTINS
Lectins are a type of carbohydrate binding protein which adheres to cell membranes in the digestive tract – hence making them harder to digest especially for those with food sensitivities. Lectins are found in grains (especially wheat), dairy, legumes and nightshade vegetables (white potatoes, tomatoes, aubergine, bell peppers, cayenne pepper, paprika). These can all be nutritiously dense so having these sporadically by soaking, fermenting, cooking or high-pressure cooking will decrease the lectin content.
EATING A RAINBOW
Oxidative stress is a primary mechanism of inflammation and continues to be extensively studied for its pathogenesis in autoimmunity, inflammation and tissue damage including in vitiligo. Eating a rainbow of fruit and vegetables provides a range of antioxidants and polyphenols to help combat oxidative damage and reactive oxygen species (ROS) (also known as free radicle damage). These are substances produced from fried foods, alcohol, smoking, pesticides, air pollutants – just some of the toxins which cause damage to our cell and cellular function. Consuming a range of fruits and vegetables offer anti-oxidant support which inhibits these oxidative reactions. Fruits and vegetables are also rich in fibre which are vital for gut health and the microbes which aid digestion and lower inflammation in our body.
Cruciferous vegetables like Kale, Cauliflower, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, contain phytochemicals to protect us from inflammatory autoimmune disease. Natural sources of foods rich in carotenes which give apricots, melon, pumpkin, butternut squash, carrots tomatoes sweet potatoes, papaya, red and yellow peppers and mango their orange pigment, have been especially beneficial in vitiligo. These red/yellow vegetables and fruits contain Beta carotene – which converts to vitamin A – important for mucosal and skin health – lowered levels of vitamin A are shown in those with vitiligo hence increasing the risk off ROS damage to vitiligous melanocytes.
As previously discussed, abnormal microbiome can create inflammation and cause intestinal changes and discomfort, triggering an immune response. For those not sensitive to fermented foods – the probiotics from fermented food choices can help repopulate the microbiome by encouraging the growth of good bacteria in the gut. Organic Greek yoghurt or sheep’s yoghurt is a great choice to start with. For those focusing on more plant-based options, there are now fermented nut yoghurt alternatives which may be helpful.