Have you ever seen someone with a full head of brown hair but then a little patch of white? Or maybe you’ve noticed a small white freckle or spot on your own arms or shoulder. These patches of white skin or hair may be caused by a condition called vitiligo. While vitiligo affects the appearance, it tends to be a bit more longstanding than acne or rosacea. Like these skin issues, many people with vitiligo may feel self-conscious and try to cover it with makeup. But is vitiligo really a skin condition, or is something going on behind the scenes? In this article, we’ll cover the underlying imbalances behind vitiligo and what you can do about it.
What is Vitiligo?
Vitiligo is a chronic skin condition characterized by the loss of pigment (melanin) in sections of the skin. It occurs when melanocytes, the cells responsible for producing melanin, die or cannot function properly. As a result, the affected areas of skin appear white or lighter than the surrounding skin.
Vitiligo can affect any area of the body, including the hair and inside the mouth, but is most common on the face, neck, hands, and in skin folds like the armpits and groin. The condition can occur at any age, but usually starts before age 30. Vitiligo is not contagious and does not cause any physical harm. It can, however, have significant psychological effects, as it can make a person feel self-conscious and affect self-image.
Connection to Other Autoimmune Diseases
Vitiligo is considered an autoimmune disease, where the immune system is so stressed that it attacks and destroys its own cells. In the case of vitiligo, the immune system attacks the cells that produce pigment. But that may not be the only autoimmune condition occurring. If you have one autoimmune disease, you’re more likely to develop another. That said, autoimmune diseases frequently associated with vitiligo include:
- Thyroid diseases, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (1) and Graves’ disease (2) (3)
- Type 1 diabetes (4)
- Myasthenia gravis (2)
- Lupus (2)
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (2)
While it’s never guaranteed that people with vitiligo will get another autoimmune disease, they should be aware of the increased risk.
Signs and Symptoms of Vitiligo
The main sign of vitiligo is pale, white, or depigmented patches of skin or hair. These patches can occur anywhere on the body and can vary in size. They tend to be more common in skin areas exposed to the sun, such as the face, neck, hands, and feet. They’ll often appear symmetrically on the body, like on both elbows or both feet. (5) Other signs and symptoms of vitiligo may include:
- Premature whitening or graying of the hair on the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, or beard (6)
- Loss of color in the retina of the eye, resulting in vision disturbances (6)
- Increased sensitivity to the sun, including a greater chance of getting sunburn or skin cancer in the affected areas (7)
- Discoloration of the mucous membranes, such as the inside of the mouth or nose. (6)(7)
The depigmented patches may gradually enlarge and spread over time. While vitiligo is a chronic condition, it can occur in episodes, with periods of stability followed by periods of progression. The symptoms of vitiligo can vary significantly from person to person, with some having worse symptoms than others.
Who gets Vitiligo?
Vitiligo affects people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities. It’s estimated to affect about 1% of the world’s population and occurs equally in both men and women. While vitiligo can develop at any age, it most commonly appears between 10 and 30. (8)
Vitiligo can affect people of all skin types, but it is more noticeable in people with darker skin tones. (6) The condition can also occur in individuals with albinism–people born without any skin color or hair color. This can make their hair appear white and their eyes pink.
What Are the Contributing Factors to Vitiligo?
Several factors may contribute to vitiligo, including:
- Genetics: Many doctors would suggest that vitiligo runs in families. Now, if your parent or grandparent had a specific autoimmune disease, you may be more likely to get that one than another. However, autoimmune disease isn’t so much passed down through genes as through environmental triggers.
- Autoimmunity due to leaky gut: As stated above, vitiligo is often associated with other autoimmune disorders. If you already have an autoimmune disease, your chances of vitiligo may be increased.
- Environmental factors: Exposure to specific environmental factors may trigger the onset or spread of vitiligo. These can include sunburn, stress, and chemical exposure. (5)
- Neurological factors. Neurological factors may play a role in the development of vitiligo. People with certain neurological disorders have a higher incidence of the condition. (9)
- Trauma: In some cases, vitiligo may develop in areas of skin that have been injured or traumatized. (10) This includes protein unfolding.
Not all people with these risk factors will develop vitiligo, and some people with the condition may not have any known risk factors.
The Fireman vs. The Carpenter in Healthcare
At The Wellness Way, we talk about the mainstream perspective on healthcare versus our perspective, as the “fireman approach” versus the “carpenter approach.”
Mainstream “fireman” doctors have two tools (treatment options) to take care of people: an axe and a hose. The axe represents cutting things out during a surgical procedure. The hose represents using medications to extinguish the “flames”: inflammation, pain, and other symptoms.
Wellness Way doctors are more like carpenters: They assess the body’s current state with testing and then create a personalized plan to rebuild using nutrients from foods and supplements. Sunshine, rest, and positive relationships are some common natural therapies that support the body in healing.
While these things are considered “complementary medicine” or “alternative medicine,” scientific research backs up their effectiveness in supporting the healing process.
Mainstream Medicine’s Approach to Vitiligo
The treatment of vitiligo in mainstream medicine involves managing symptoms. This includes reducing the spread of depigmentation and attempting to restore skin color. Some standard treatment options include:
Common Medications for Vitiligo
- Anti-inflammatory creams like ruxolitinib or opzelura ointments can help reduce inflammation and re-pigment the skin.
- Corticosteroids like prednisone are also often given.
- Another class of medication used is calcineurin inhibitors, which work by suppressing the immune system.
Additional Therapies for Vitiligo
- Phototherapy: Phototherapy is another standard treatment for vitiligo. Phototherapy involves exposing the affected skin to UV light. This can be done using a special lamp or by exposure to natural sunlight under controlled conditions. Phototherapy helps to stimulate the production of melanin in the skin. (11)
- Psoralen plus ultraviolet A (PUVA) therapy: This is a combination of a medication called psoralen and exposure to UVA light, which can help restore skin color. This therapy is difficult to administer and has thus been widely replaced by narrowband UVB therapy. (12)
- Narrowband ultraviolet B (NB-UVB) therapy: This type of light therapy can help restore skin color. (13)
- Excimer laser therapy: This is a type of targeted light therapy that can help restore skin color. (14)
- Depigmentation: In cases where other treatments are ineffective, a person may depigment the remaining skin. (15)
Surgical Procedures for Vitiligo
In more severe cases of vitiligo, surgical options may be considered. (16) These can include skin grafting or tattooing to replace or camouflage the depigmented skin.
It’s important to note that not all treatments work for everyone, and many treatments may have side effects or risks. Besides medical treatment, some people may benefit from counseling or support groups, as any disorder can affect mental health.
Your Body Doesn’t Make Mistakes
When “autoimmune disease” comes up, most people are under the impression that the immune system is making mistakes and attacking itself. That’s what we learn from doctors, books, and articles. However, that’s incorrect. Autoimmune disorders develop when the body makes antibodies against its tissues. There can be antibodies to the muscles, intestines, or other tissues.
Given its environment, the body is working as it’s supposed to. This adaptation to the environment stems from the body’s recalibration in order to sustain life after exposure to traumas, toxins, and (stressful) thoughts. This is true no matter what autoimmune condition you’re struggling with. An autoimmune reaction doesn’t mean your body is malfunctioning; it’s the body letting you know your immune system is stressed. This is also why many people may have more than one autoimmune disease. Your body reacts the same way—the right way—to different areas of concern.
The Wellness Way Approach
The Wellness Way thinks differently about conditions, especially autoimmune conditions like vitiligo. We always return to the three main contributing factors—traumas, toxins, and thoughts. (We call them the three T’s.) Mainstream medicine treats genetics as destiny. At the Wellness Way, we know that’s not true. Instead, the accumulation of daily stressors eventually “pulls the trigger,” creating dysfunction and dis-ease.
So, what causes vitiligo? As mentioned above, this is an autoimmune situation. Because it’s autoimmune, we must look at what’s triggering the immune response and causing destruction. Your goal should be to take the best care possible of your immune system, regardless of the autoimmune disease (Celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s, etc.).
- Traumas— Physical trauma, such as cuts, burns, or other injuries to the skin, can trigger the onset of vitiligo in some people. This reaction is understood to be due to the “Koebner response.” (19)
- Toxins— Toxins are substances that can be harmful to the body. They can come from a variety of sources, including household products, (20) 4-TBP and 4-TBC, (21) and certain medications. (22) Some studies have found that people with vitiligo may have higher levels of certain toxins in their blood and tissues than those without the condition. (23)
- Thoughts–Studies have shown stress to be a potential trigger for the onset or worsening of vitiligo. (24) (25) Stress can affect the immune system and trigger an autoimmune response. In addition, people with anxiety disorders are more likely to develop vitiligo. (26)
Vitiligo is a 3 T’s (trauma, toxins, or thoughts) problem–not a skin problem. Lower your overall stress to reduce the strain on your immune system and support healthy pigmentation.
Important Tests for Vitiligo
Vitiligo starts with the immune system, so that’s the best place to look for the contributing factors.
You can only restore your body’s function once you see what’s disrupting it. This is why testing is the first thing we do at The Wellness Way. Of course, which tests you take and when will depend on your unique physiology. Your Wellness Way practitioner can help you decide the best strategy for you.
Dietary Changes for Vitiligo
- Cut sugar from your diet – Excess sugar contributes to inflammation. It also feeds infections and other imbalances.
- Cut inflammatory foods from your diet
- Personalized Nutrition, based on your food allergy test results
- Organic, whole foods
- Organ meats, sauerkraut, and microgreens for added nutrition.
Supplements For Supporting Gut Health + Balancing the Immune Response in Vitiligo
- White Peony—White Peony is known to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, and immune regulatory effects.
- D3 & K2—In a 2013 study, Vitamin D3 was shown to have a significant effect on vitiligo. Of the 16 participants, 14 had 25-75% re-pigmentation by the end of the study.
- Omega-3 fish oils—Omega-3 fatty acids have long been known to have an impact on both the innate and adaptive immune system.
- Complete B-Complex—B vitamins have been connected with immune cell regulation.
Results of the above testing and your Wellness Way practitioner will dictate which supplements are best for you.
Complementary Therapies for Vitiligo
- Chiropractic: Remember to check your spine. Getting adjusted supports your immune system and releases some of the physical stress on the body. (27)
- Acupuncture: Acupuncture has been shown to be helpful for those with autoimmune diseases. (28)
- Infrared Saunas: Infrared saunas may also bring relief to people with autoimmune diseases like vitiligo. (29)
- Red Light Therapy: Photobiomodulation, or red light therapy, has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. (30)
Lifestyle Modifications for Skin Conditions Like Vitiligo
Toxins in household products can exacerbate autoimmune conditions like vitiligo. The good news is that there are cleaner versions available. Just start somewhere! Begin to eliminate toxic household and personal care items.
- Natural household cleaning products
- Natural personal care products
- Cleaner nail polish
- Cleaner hair products
- Clean deodorant
- Better Sunscreen
Support your immune response by lowering your toxic burden. Gradually reducing the toxins your immune system has to deal with will support health restoration.
Every health challenge has more than one cause, especially when discussing individual immune responses. That’s why The Wellness Way does not use a one-size-fits-all approach. We don’t guess; we test! We take steps to support the body in resolving the issue only after the testing, and we know where to direct our attention.
Educational Resources for Skin Conditions
Videos and Webinars for Skin Conditions
Articles to Support Skin Conditions
- Wake up Your Skin: Detoxifying Coffee Mask
- Rosacea: Is It Really a Skin Condition?
- Children and Skin Issues
CONNECT WITH US!
Connecting with people makes a commitment stronger, so connect with us! Find an event at a clinic near you. Follow us on social media. Dr. Patrick Flynn’s show A Different Perspective goes LIVE each Saturday morning. Tune in to get cutting-edge training. Set up a no-obligation health consult with one of our doctors to start your health journey. The best is yet to come! Think differently – and THRIVE. Reach out to a Wellness Way clinic today to get completely tested and determine where your Swiss Watch needs help. We are here to help! Contact a Wellness Way clinic today and set yourself firmly on the path to wellness!
- Vitiligo and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: Autoimmune diseases linked by clinical presentation, biochemical commonality, and autoimmune/oxidative stress-mediated toxicity pathogenesis: PubMed
- Comorbid autoimmune diseases in patients with vitiligo: A cross-sectional study: Journal of American Academy of Dermatology
- Skin Findings in Thyroid Diseases: PubMed
- Skin Problems in Diabetes: WebMD
- Vitiligo: NIH
- Vitiligo—symptoms and causes: Mayo Clinic
- Vitiligo: Signs and Symptoms: American Academy of Dermatology Association
- Vitiligo: Cleveland Clinic
- Potential role of neurogenic inflammatory factors in the pathogenesis of vitiligo: PubMed
- Recent advances in understanding vitiligo: PubMed
- Phototherapy for Vitiligo: NIH
- Vitiligo—Diagnosis and Treatment: Mayo Clinic
- What Is New in Narrow-Band Ultraviolet-B Therapy for Vitiligo?: PubMed
- What to know about laser treatments for vitiligo: Medical News Today
- Depigmentation Therapies in Vitiligo: IntechOpen
- Surgical Interventions for Patients with Vitiligo: A Systemic Review and Meta-analysis: PubMed
- Cellular Grafting in Vitiligo: Dermatology Times
- Applications of Medical Tattooing: A Systematic Review of Patient Satisfaction Outcomes and Emerging Trends: Aesthetic Surgery Journal
- Koebner phenomenon: DermNet
- Role of chemical exposure in the incidence of vitiligo: a case–control study in Tunisia: Taylor & Francis Online
- Chemicals can cause vitiligo and also make it worse: UMass Chan Medical School
- Drug-induced vitiligo: DermNet
- Cadmium, lead and mercury in the blood of psoriatic and vitiligo patients and their possible associations with dietary habits: NIH
- Vitiligo Disease Triggers: Psychological Stressors Preceding the Onset of Disease: MDedge
- The relationship between stress and vitiligo: Evaluating perceived stress and electronic medical record data: NIH
- Impact of life events on the onset of vitiligo in adults: preliminary evidence for a psychological dimension in aetiology: Wiley Online Library
- The Effects Induced by Spinal Manipulative Therapy on the Immune and Endocrine Systems: NIH
- Therapeutic Effect and Mechanism of Acupuncture in Autoimmune Diseases: PubMed
- Infrared sauna in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. A pilot study showing good tolerance, short-term improvement of pain and stiffness, and a trend towards long-term beneficial effects: PubMed
- Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation: PubMed