Herbs and Nutrition for Vitiligo
A roundup of some of the recent research into natural treatments and support for vitiligo
Vitiligo is a skin disorder that appears as white patches on the skin in different parts of the body. It is caused by the death of cells caused melanocytes. These are the cells responsible for producing the pigments that colour your skin. We look at recent studies to see whether diet, herbs or supplements can help.
Ginkgo biloba, or simply ginkgo, is a natural herbal treatment frequently prescribed for vitiligo. Ginkgo possesses strong antioxidant action and helps enhance the health and function of your immune system, which are two important health actions in the treatment of vitiligo. Ginkgo should not be taken, however, if you have a bleeding disorder or are scheduled for surgery. Balch1 recommends a ginkgo dosage of 40 mg, three times per day, to help treat your vitiligo. A recent study by Szczurko et al5 found that taking 60 mg of standardised Ginkgo biloba twice a day for 12 weeks was associated with a significant improvement in vitiligo severity and area.
Many non-herbal supplements may also be helpful in treating this condition, including vitamin B complex, essential fatty acids and silica.
Eating foods high in vitamin B12 may help reverse vitiligo. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Laboratory Analysis3 in 2011 indicates that a vitamin B12 deficiency leads to an increase in homocysteine, a compound that may play a role in destruction of pigmentation in certain areas of the body. Choose foods such as liver, clams, trout, salmon, haddock and yogurt to boost your vitamin B12 intake. Fortified breakfast cereals are also a good source of vitamin B-12. Vitamin B12 is hard to get if you are a vegan. If you are vegetarian or vegan you should ensure that you eat seaweeds several times a week or take a seaweed supplement such as Napiers Seagreens Organic Kelp capsules, as seaweed is a source of B12.
The same study that correlated a vitamin B12 deficiency with the incidence of vitiligo, also implicated low folate levels in this condition. While evidence in the April 2010 edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology3 indicates that some forms of light therapy can manipulate folate levels for those with vitiligo, you can also boost your intake through diet. As with vitamin B-12, you can get more folate from enriched breakfast cereals, but you may also get it naturally in black-eyed peas, spinach, asparagus and broccoli.
Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is the form of vitamin D that our bodies produce naturally, following a biotransformation of cholesterol, after exposure to ultra violet rays from the sun. Several studies have observed a low level of blood serum vitamin D in patients with vitiligo. A recent study by Sehrawat et al.4 found that exposing patients to sessions of Narrow Band Ultraviolet B increased their vitamin D levels and also improved their vitiligo.
While more work is determined to separate out any other beneficial effects of sunlight, there are enough studies to suggest that people with vitiligo should take a vitamin D3 supplement. This is particularly important in those who avoid going out in the sun much to reduce the likelihood of sunburn, and those with darker skin pigmentation who already have a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency. Government advice is that a Vitamin D3 10 ug supplement should be taken by pregnant and breastfeeding women, people over 65 years old, people who don't get much sun, infants and children.
Include foods containing vitamin C in your diet as this also may be good for vitiligo. Citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruits and lemons are excellent sources of this vitamin, but other fruits high in vitamin C include kiwi, strawberries and cantaloupe. You can also get vitamin C from vegetables such as tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes and red and green peppers.
Interestingly, a study7 into piperine, a substance found in black pepper has been found to stimulate the growth of the melanocytes (skin cells) responsible for repigmenting the skin in the reversal of vitiligo. So be liberal with the pepper pot!
Boost your consumption of foods high in zinc when you have vitiligo. A study in the Indian Journal of Dermatology in 2009 suggests that zinc supplementation may help cure this condition. Oysters are an excellent source of zinc, although you may also acquire zinc from beef, crab, pork, lobster and chicken. You can also boost your intake of zinc by eating beans, nuts and dairy foods.
Connection with the thyroid gland
One cause of vitiligo is thought to be the development of autoimmune disease. It is often associated with other disorders which have an autoimmune origin such as autoimmune thyroiditis and insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (Type 1 diabetes). A recent study6 linked vitiligo with underactive thyroid in 16% of the children studied. Thyroid autoantibodies were found to be positive in 11.3% of them. Although this was a relatively small study, previously reported prevalence of thyroid disease in children with vitiligo ranged from 10.7 to 24.1%, and the prevalence of 25.3% determined in this study was compatible with other literature. Underactive thyroid was not measured in the general local population that did not have vitiligo however, and it is well known that there is a global concern about iodine insufficiency.
A seaweed supplement would be advisable to ensure adequate iodine intake to support the thyroid. If there is autoimmune thyroiditis (Hashimoto's disease) already present, this should be carefully monitored as some patients can become extremely sensitive to iodine, however, many are not affected as the bioavailability of seaweed and the absorption of the seaweed matrix is different to potassium iodide.
A study8 in India using topical pseudocatalase cream to treat vitiligo found that some patients did not respond to the treatment. The doctors suspected turmeric and ran a trial to test their theory. They found that when the patients ate turmeric (a common ingredient in curries) they did not respond to the treatment, however, when they stopped including turmeric in their diet they then responded to treatment and their vitiligo improved! Their conclusion was that curcumin, the main phytochemical in turmeric, can contribute to the oxidative stress in acute vitiligo and prevent repigmentation.
1. "Prescription for Nutritional Healing"; Phyllis A. Balch, CNC; 2010
2. Murase JE, Koo JY, Berger TG. Narrowband ultraviolet B phototherapy influences serum folate levels in patients with vitiligo. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2010 Apr;62(4):710-1. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2009.10.006. PubMed PMID: 20227588.
4. Sehrawat M, Arora TC, Chauhan A, Kar HK, Poonia A, Jairath V. Correlation of Vitamin D Levels with Pigmentation in Vitiligo Patients Treated with NBUVB Therapy. ISRN Dermatol. 2014 Mar 23;2014:493213. doi: 10.1155/2014/493213.
5. Szczurko O, Shear N, Taddio A, Boon H. Ginkgo biloba for the treatment of vitilgo vulgaris: an open label pilot clinical trial. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011 Mar 15;11:21. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-11-21.
6. Al-Mendalawi MD. Prevalence of thyroid function test abnormalities and thyroid autoantibodies in children with vitiligo. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2014 May;18(3):435. doi: 10.4103/2230-8210.131231.
7. Lin Z, Hoult JR, Bennett DC, Raman A. Stimulation of mouse melanocyte proliferation by Piper nigrum fruit extract and its main alkaloid, piperine. Planta Med. 1999 Oct;65(7):600-3. PubMed PMID: 10575373.
8. Schallreuter KU, Rokos H. Turmeric (curcumin): a widely used curry ingredient, can contribute to oxidative stress in Asian patients with acute vitiligo. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2006 Jan-Feb;72(1):57-9. PubMed PMID: 16481714.