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Thoughts on Managing Vitiligo Naturally
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim
My experience with vitiligo started when I was nineteen years old. I was in my second year of university, struggling to meet academic expectations, and unhappy with my relationships at home.
Ultimately, trying to meet my parents' expectations for my academic career and failing to reconcile the mixed feelings that I had about being a pastor's kid of a new church created more pressure than I was capable of handling.
During this angst-filled time, I distinctly remember days when I would lie face down in bed and wish that I could get sick in some way so that there would be less expectations for my life.
I guess on some level, I thought that if I became ill, my parents would feel sorry for me and show me that it was okay if I didn't fulfill their hopes for my life.
After several months of constant stress, worry, and self-pity, I woke up one day and noticed a small patch of white skin under my right eye.
I didn't think too much of it until a few days later, I noticed another white spot on my neck.
A few weeks and several new spots later, a visit with our family doctor and a dermatologist led to a diagnosis of vitiligo.
Over the next several years, unaware of how my diet and emotional stress were causing steady progression of my vitiligo, I went on to lose about 25 percent of my skin color.
Fortunately, my studies led me to a field of promoting health via healthy living called natural hygiene. Over time, I came to an understanding of autoimmune illness, which helped me formulate a plan to address vitiligo through natural means.
Here's what everyone with vitiligo should know:
Your melanocytes (pigment-producing cells), unless irreversibly destroyed, are always ready and willing to restore pigment to your skin.
In order to restore color to areas of your skin where your melanocytes are still functional, the key is to make sure that your diet and lifestyle (including emotional stress) don't continuously undo the re-pigmenting work that your melanocytes are constantly engaged in.
If you read through my articles on the root causes of autoimmune illness and natural ways to prevent and reverse autoimmune illness, you'll have the knowledge you need to follow a diet and lifestyle that minimize the inflammation that characterizes the loss of skin color in people with vitiligo.
To briefly summarize these dietary and lifestyle measures, they are:
Eat a plant-centered diet - the bulk of your food choices should be vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains that your body doesn't have trouble digesting.
Ensure adequate vitamin D status through diet and sunlight exposure and supplementation if necessary.
Avoid intake of dairy products and flesh meats.
If you choose to eat some animal products, stick with small amounts of organic eggs and wild fish. Closer to raw is best. Lightly cooked is acceptable.
Strive to be emotionally balanced. Work at being a master of managing emotional stressors.
Get high quality sleep as often as possible. For most humans, nine to ten hours of restful sleep every day is an optimal amount.
These measures give your melanocytes all the support that they could ask for to produce pigment in areas that need it, as well as to minimize new bouts of inflammation that can create more loss of skin color.
But there is one other essential stimulus for re-pigmentation: sunlight exposure.
Your melanocytes produce pigment (melanin) in response to sunlight exposure, as melanin serves to protect your skin against burning.
The trouble with this requirement for re-pigmentation is that for someone with vitiligo, sunlight exposure is hard to tolerate physically and emotionally.
On a pure physical level, the challenge is avoiding sunburn because areas with no pigment are unprotected against ultraviolet rays.
For this challenge, I recommend being ultra conservative with sunlight exposure - just a few minutes at a time - and increasing intake of red beets, carrots, and dark green vegetables - these pigment-rich vegetables appear to provide some level of natural protection against sunburning from the inside-out. Just be careful not to overdo it with the beets and carrots if you have a problem with your blood sugar-regulating mechanisms, as these root vegetables are rich in natural sugars.
Emotionally, sunlight exposure can be challenging because it leads to greater contrast between areas that still have pigment and areas that have lost pigment.
And because some melanocytes in de-pigmented areas may no longer be functional, there's no guarantee of full re-pigmentation with sunlight exposure, which means that getting lots of sun can help stimulate some re-pigmentation, but at the cost of having the vitiligo that remains to be more noticeable.
As someone who has lived with vitiligo for almost 20 years, I know full well that the emotional component of living with vitiligo can be a huge challenge; it's not an exaggeration to say that it can be crippling.
Because you look different, particularly if you have darker complexion to begin with, having your vitiligo be more noticeable with sunlight exposure increases the number of stares that you get on the street. It can affect what you wear, your confidence level, and how you interact with others.
Because everyone's situation is unique, I don't think there are any sure-fire ways to deal with and overcome the emotional challenges of living with vitiligo. My belief is that all of us have to create our own journeys and make choices and realizations on our own timetables.
Though my vitiligo has been relatively stable for many years now and I do experience some re-pigmentation here and there during the summers, I would be lying if I said that I never feel self conscious about it.
At the same time, I can say that I'm deeply grateful for all of the experiences and realizations that I've had because of my vitiligo.
Developing vitiligo was the main stimulus that caused me to learn about experiencing optimal health through healthy living - I'm grateful in knowing that I'm coming close to accessing my full health and life potential because of my daily choices.
Having vitiligo has deepened my capacity to empathize with others who suffer with anxiety about their appearance or any other perceived disability.
Having vitiligo has given me the gift of being able to almost instantly identify and appreciate people who have extra compassion for others. I think it takes especially kind souls to treat others with vitiligo or some other unique physical trait as though nothing stands out. I'm not writing about being apathetic to another person's appearance at first glance. Rather, I'm thinking about this special gift that some people have, this gift of communicating warmth, acceptance, and genuine care through their friendly gaze. And I believe that living with vitiligo has developed my radar for such people.
Really, I could write many pages on how having vitiligo has made me feel more human. It's forced me to mature in ways that I may not have without it.
During the first few years, I remember being humiliated whenever someone asked me about my vitiligo. For example, one day while having lunch with a good friend and Matt, my friend's adorable toddler son, Matt suddenly paused his chewing, looked at me intently with cupcake icing covering his lips, and asked, "what are those white spots around your mouth?"
Matt's question, perfectly innocent and appropriate for an inquisitive 3-year old, paralyzed me. I was too embarrassed to answer.
As the years went by and I grew to accept that I shouldn't be ashamed of my vitiligo, I realized that people who ask about vitiligo - especially young kids - just want to know more about it; rarely is there intention to cause embarrassment.
These days, whenever children ask me about my white spots, I typically ask them if they know of any animals that have white spots, say, those that emit "moos" or dogs that live at fire halls. As soon as their eyes answer yes, I explain that I'm the same way, that I have white spots here and there, but that they don't hurt, that that this is just the way that I am, just like some animals. And as soon as they understand this, I see in their eyes that I am nothing unusual to them - I'm just Ben, Joshua and Noah's daddy.
Adults really are the same as children in this regard. Even those who stare at first and appear to be a bit uncomfortable, wondering if what I have is contagious - once they see that I'm comfortable with who I am, it seems that they become more comfortable with who I am.
When I was younger and not as comfortable with my vitiligo, I think that others could feel my self consciousness, which may have contributed to them being extra conscious of my unique appearance.
I suppose my point here is that natural management of vitiligo should go far beyond nutritional considerations. In almost all cases, even those involving young children, my belief is that there is a significant emotional component. To work at curing vitiligo without taking time to consider the many life lessons that it presents is to miss out on some serious marrow, I think.
Which brings us to one final life lesson that I've learned from living with vitiligo, one that I'll end this post with:
"...there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
Thanks to my good friend, Chet Day for putting good old Shakespeare back into my head this morning. :)
If you would like to share any thoughts on vitiligo or anything related to the main themes in this post, please feel free to add to this discussion via the comments section below.
Thanks for reading.
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