Foreword: I asked fellow colleague and nutritionist Cateri Purdy to write a guest blog sharing her personal struggles with psoriasis and how working on her gut health and managing stress keeps it under control.
When Anna asked me to write a blog recently, my mind started swimming with ideas. But as I write I feel it becoming an extension of my constant chatting about one of my favourite subjects, the gut (which you may have guessed from the video interview I did with Anna earlier this year). Yes I know I need to get out more, but my passion for all things gut related and the link between the gut and our health in general, is difficult to suppress.
Take my life long battle with psoriasis. I have the genetic link from my father, and my earliest recollections are of the endless scratching on the top of my feet, just after my preschool vaccinations. It then progressed to my ankles, which resulted in endless trips to the hospital dermatologist (at least it got me off school for the day). Having my legs bound with smelly coal tar bandages are not the happiest of my childhood memories.
So, what has all this got to do with gut health?
Well I only wish I had known then what I know now; the health of the gut is intrinsically linked to skin health.
At the end of the day we are just an elaborate tube. Technically we could draw a line from our chin, back into the mouth, down through the stomach, the intestines, and back out again up to the chin! Just as our inner skin protects us from all things toxic, absorbs nutrients, gets ride of waste and triggers the immune system to act on invaders, so our outer skin does exactly the same, albeit in different ways.
We have around 3 pounds of bacteria in our gut and some 500 different species, most of which have not been identified yet. Our skin too has its own bacterial layer, which helps to protect it and keep it healthy. Any disruption to this delicate mantle can result in all manner of skin diseases.
Back when I was a child, antibiotics were the cure all of everything. I had regular sore throats and tonsillitis and spent many years on antibiotics. Strep throat is often the trigger on the genetic gun of psoriasis, but often this link is never made.
Throughout my research, it is clear that psoriasis is one of the hardest diseases to cure. In fact it is often said that there is no cure for it at all, but personally have seen a great improvement in my own skin by employing various dietary changes. However, as we all know, we are all different, and there is no “one size fits all” approach to psoriasis or indeed any other dietary protocol aimed at improving health. More about gut flora later………
So, what causes psoriasis? That answer still remains illusive, but studies show that it is an autoimmune condition. This is where the immune system over reacts and attacks the body instead of the invader……if there is one.
The gut lining is supposed to be like a sieve, allowing properly digested nutrients into the body and keeping out unwanted toxins and undigested food. Certain substances can make the lining more like a colander, allowing larger particles through which the body does not recognize. This is known as gut hyperpermeabilty or, as it is more commonly referred to as, “leaky gut”. The immune system then makes an unwarranted attack on these particles causing the backlash of symptoms such as the flakey, scaly rash on the skin that psoriasis patients commonly live with.
What can we do to help psoriasis? Well, as I said before, it is difficult to produce a standard protocol that will help everybody, as psoriasis is a multi factorial disease. The gene can lie dormant until something comes along to trigger it. Studies show the average age of onset to be 19, yet mine started at age 5. Any negative trigger can come along and start the process, so this is where the functional approach of taking complete client history can make the difference. For me, there are several factors which exacerbate my symptoms, and studies show that these are common for many people.
Gluten: This sends my psoriasis into overdrive. I have never been tested for gluten sensitivity or Coeliac disease, but I know when I have eaten it and the further away I get from any kind of consumption, then the better my skin gets. Gluten is known to be a cause of “leaky gut” and according to Dr. Tom O’Bryan, it can take around two weeks for the body to stop producing gluten antibodies, and up to six months for them to be cleared from the body. This may be why some people do not see an immediate change in the severity of their psoriasis when they give up gluten.
Dairy: A very common trigger with similar effects to gluten. This is because when dairy and gluten are broken down, the results are proteins that are similar in structure. Dairy also contains a fatty acid called arachidonic acid, which has an inflammatory effect on the body, triggering the inflammatory process that can exacerbate psoriasis.
Nightshades: These include tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, potatoes and tobacco. Some people find that excluding these from the diet (and smoking), have a positive effect on their psoriasis as they have compounds in them that irritate the gut and contribute to …….. yes you have guessed it……. “leaky gut”!
Alcohol: There are a lot of studies that have shown a link between alcohol and psoriasis. Alcohol can increase the permeability of the gut wall – leaky gut again – and has a detrimental effect on the liver (see below).
Vitamin D: Known to help the immune system and consequently autoimmune diseases, vitamin D has been used topically in the treatment of psoriasis. Sunshine is usually very therapeutic for those with psoriasis and they are often prescribed light treatment by dermatologists. Personally, my rashes drastically diminish whilst in the sunshine, and I also make sure I get enough vitamin D, either via supplementation or through short bursts of sun exposure. However, it is always a good idea to get a vitamin D test before embarking on any supplementation, as you can get too much of a good things in this case.
Emotional stress: I know as soon as I am stressed, off I go scratching again! Stress puts us into fight or flight, shutting down digestion in order to save energy so that we can run from whoever is chasing us……… or that is why the mechanism was invented. Today we don’t run anywhere. We just stay stressed for longer periods, keeping our digestive systems out of action. Consequently, our food does not get digested properly, leading to undigested particles seeping through that leaking gut. Stomach acid not only digests protein but kills off any bad bugs that enter the stomach with our food. Consequently, lack of acid allows those bad guys to get in and cause havoc in the gut. This may be why we have a flare of skin problems after a stressful episode in life.
Overburdened liver: This is something to consider as the liver is like a housekeeper for the body. If it is working to hard getting rid of extra, unwanted substances (including alcohol), normal metabolism of waste products slows down and the body has to get rid of them via another route. One way is through the skin!
Gut flora: And now to my favourite subject!
More and more research is confirming the existence of not just a link between our health and gut flora, but a partnership that exists between ourselves, and our little friends inside us. If the layer of bacteria that lies on top of the skin is breached, then signals are sent to our immune system to attack or get rid of the invader. Although the mechanism is not entirely understood, immune cells responsible for a microbial attack are released beneath the psoriatic plaques on the skin. Beneficial bacteria have been shown to reduce certain inflammatory markers in people with psoriasis, but not in people without the disease. These good guys also help to prevent ……. yes here we go again ……… “leaky gut”, which helps to reduce psoriasis triggers. Having a healthy balance of gut bacteria helps to keep the environment right for the rest of the body’s microbial communities, including that of the skin.
So, a few things to consider if you have psoriasis, or indeed even if you don’t would be:
- Remove gluten and dairy for a couple of months and see if there is any difference in your skin.
- Get your vitamin D levels checked and supplement if low.
- Get 15 minutes a day of sunshine during the months of March to October. During the winter months the sun’s rays are not strong enough to stimulate vitamin D production in the skin, so again supplement if necessary.
- Consider removing nightshades from your diet – you may wish to consider some advice on this one, as it can be quite tricky to avoid nightshades.
- Consider removing alcohol completely, and see if there is a change.
- Aloe vera gel is soothing both internally and externally. Studies show topical application of aloe vera gel to be very effective in soothing psoriasis plaques. Make sure you use a gel on the skin and drink aloe vera juice suitable for consumption.
- Dead sea bath salts and Epsom salts can be soothing, and again very effective for some.
- And of course, make sure you treat your gut bacteria with respect by eating fermented foods, reducing sugar in the diet and eating lots of vegetables and a small amount of fruit.
Have I ever conquered my psoriasis? Yes I did on one occasion. I went though a detox and elimination diet and it did go – in just 10 days! But then life kicked in big time and it came back very quickly. Today, I manage my psoriasis very well until some gluten or dairy sneaks into my diet and it puts me back again. But, I am convinced that I am a work in progress and I will get the better of it one day…….soon! When I do I will let you know.
Are you suffering from digestive issues or a skin related disorder? Would you like some help?by