Can diet help vitiligo?
There have been many myths about vitiligo over the years, most of which have no truth at all. However, it is still an autoimmune condition that is not fully understood—characterised for the white patches it creates on a sufferer's skin through loss of the melanin-producing cells known as melanocytes. There are medical treatments available to attempt to restore colour, but are there any ways that nutrition may help? This article will explore how nutritional therapies and functional medicine principles could help vitiligo.
What causes vitiligo?
Vitiligo is an autoimmune skin condition. As with many autoimmune disorders, the underlying cause is not fully understood. What is evident is that the immune system attacks the melanin-producing cells in the skin and causes a reduction of pigmentation in that area. It is believed that infections, food sensitivities, cell toxicity, genetic susceptibility, emotional trauma and stress, and digestive issues, including leaky gut syndrome, might contribute to its onset.
Some studies suggest that a potential pathogenic bacteria that inhabit the stomach known as Helicobacter pylori (H pylori) might play a role in the condition, however as more than 50% of the population are thought to have H pylori, it's unlikely that this alone is the actual root cause. Several skin autoimmune disorders have been linked to H pylori through a process known as cross-reactivity.
H pylori might also indirectly contribute to symptoms due to its impact on the digestive function in the stomach, such as neutralising stomach acid. Stomach acid is vital to digest essential nutrients and to prevent harmful bacteria from entering the small intestines.
What dietary approach might help vitiligo?
As the research evolves in this area, there will likely be more options for those who suffer from vitiligo. However, even though the evidence is lacking for a ‘vitiligo diet’ that will help with symptoms, you can take steps to improve health by addressing the potential root causes of the condition.
1. Eat nutrient-dense foods
Nutrient deficiencies may be why the autoimmune process triggers vitiligo, so eat a nutritious diet with lean meats, healthy fats such as oily fish and extra virgin olive oil, an abundance of vegetables, shellfish, and seaweeds.
Phytochemicals and antioxidants help reduce damage to the skin, so eating lots of antioxidant-rich foods and drinks such as cocoa, green tea, dark coloured vegetables and fruits, activated nuts, herbs, and spices may be beneficial. One mice study found a significant amount of repigmentation in those that ate antioxidant-rich foods.
2. Remove problematic foods
There may be a relationship between coeliac disease and vitiligo. One study found that when gluten was removed from the diet of children with coeliac disease and vitiligo, repigmentation occurred in some. Coeliac disease can be hard to diagnose with a lot of false-negative test results.
There is also a phenomenon known as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, which shows digestive symptoms to coeliac disease and wheat allergy without the condition. Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity may also play a role in vitiligo and might be worth investigating if you have the condition.
Hydroquinone rich foods
Anecdotal evidence suggests that eating foods that contain the depigmenting agent hydroquinone may promote vitiligo. Hydroquinone is the main ingredient in skin bleaching products. Foods that contain hydroquinone include pears and blueberries. Hydroquinone may decrease melanin production, but there have been no studies to demonstrate a link with vitiligo.
Self-exploration and awareness is often a critical first step in your journey to optimal health.
What are other options beyond diet?
As emotional stress and trauma may be at the root of the condition, taking steps to manage your stress levels with a technique that works for you may be beneficial. Self-exploration and awareness is often a critical first step in your journey to optimal health.
Understanding and living by your values and authentic self takes away unnecessary stressors in your life and provides you with meaning and purpose. If you feel stressed and agitated, you might be following the wrong path. Take a step back and readdress your priorities.
Any condition that affects your appearance can significantly impact how you feel about yourself and your identity. If you live with vitiligo and feel alone, then there are some great support groups you can join, such as Vitiligo Support UK.
If you would like to explore your condition’s underlying root cause and consider nutritional therapy to address this, please feel free to reach out to me.
Jalel A, Yassine M, Hamdaoui MH. Oxidative stress in experimental vitiligo C57BL/6 mice. Indian J Dermatol. 2009 Jul;54(3):221-4. doi: 10.4103/0019-5154.55628. Retraction in: Indian J Dermatol. 2012 Jul;57(4):293. PMID: 20161850; PMCID: PMC2810685.