If you’re familiar with psoriasis, you’ll know this skin condition can make life miserable. You may have tried all manner of ointments and creams only to find they help for a short while before the itchy, unsightly patches of skin return with a vengeance.
Around 2% of people in the UK are affected by psoriasis, so to support Psoriasis Awareness Month read on to learn how to naturally manage this distressing condition.
Psoriasis develops because of changes in the skin’s renewal rate, with new skin cells being produced more quickly than usual. Your skin cells form at the bottom of your epidermis, the outermost layer of your skin, over time making their way up to the surface. This journey usually takes around 3-4 weeks, but in psoriasis the process can be reduced to a matter of days. This means the cells don’t have a chance to mature sufficiently before they reach the surface of your skin.
Because the cells can’t be shed quickly enough, they build up on the surface of the skin, looking like silver-white scales sitting on a raised red inflamed patch. Areas of psoriasis are known as plaques; they’re often sore and itchy, and their appearance can be distressing.
Psoriasis often affects the elbows, knees, lower back, palms and scalp, but plaques can occur anywhere on your body, and may affect the genitals and even inside the mouth. Some people with psoriasis suffer from symptoms of arthritis caused by joint inflammation, along with deformities like pitting and discolouration in the fingernails and toenails. This is a clue psoriasis is a condition involving the whole body and not only the skin.
Psoriasis is thought to be triggered when the immune system mistakenly turns upon the body. Immune cells called T cells, whose job is to protect you from pathogens like bacteria and viruses, end up in your skin. Here they produce messenger substances interfering with the cycle of cell division and maturation, as well as large amounts of inflammatory chemicals. In other words, the immune system goes into overdrive, wreaking havoc on the normal lifecycle of skin cells.
Although there’s a genetic tendency towards developing psoriasis, in common with other autoimmune issues, there are links with gut health, stress and diet.
Many people affected by psoriasis suffer from inflammation in the cells lining the gut. This causes it to become more permeable than it should be, meaning substances usually remaining within the digestive system are able to pass over into the bloodstream and trigger a response in the immune system, putting it on red alert. Over time, this can reduce the selectivity of the immune system, meaning it ends up mistakenly attacking the body’s own cells, believing them to be invaders.
You may find your psoriasis is sparked off when you eat certain foods – gluten is frequently a culprit. Food intolerances are often caused by a leaky digestive lining.
Your microbiome, the ecosystem of bacteria living in your gut, is incredibly important for good skin health. Studies have found differences in the types of bacteria in the guts of people with psoriasis and those without. If unhealthy strains of bacteria set up residence in your gut, they can produce toxins when they encounter proteins the stomach and small intestine haven’t digested completely. These toxins can affect the rate of skin cell division.
Your microbiome is also important for regulating your immune system and keeping your gut lining healthy.
Stress is often a factor in psoriasis, and you’ll probably find your condition worsens when you’re stressed. This is because your immune system makes more T cells when you’re under stress – inflammation is your body’s way of dealing with a stressful event. Stress plays havoc with your digestive health, too.
Some people with psoriasis have been found to have low levels of vitamin D. Made from sunlight hitting the skin, vitamin D is important for controlling inflammation, and it’s known to balance the activity of the immune system.
Conventionally, psoriasis is treated with steroid or moisturising creams, or medication designed to reduce skin cell turnover. Sometimes, UV light therapy can be effective. However, these treatments don’t address the causes of psoriasis, which as you now know arise from gut and immune system health.
The functional medicine approach will support your healthy gut bacteria, heal inflammation in your gut lining, replace missing nutrients important for your immune system and use lifestyle strategies to manage your stress if it’s a factor for you. Functional tests can easily assess your microbiome health and discover any food sensitivities contributing to your condition. Meanwhile, maximising intake of anti-inflammatory foods can calm your immune system over time.
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