Q: I have psoriasis, and I don’t want to take prescription medication. What else can I do to clear up my skin?
Psoriasis is a type of autoimmune disease in which surface skin cells turn over with excessive rapidity. Usually it takes skin cells about 3 weeks to move from the lower level of the epidermis to the surface. With psoriasis, this turnover happens in 2–3 days. Therefore a lot of skin cells build up and create the characteristic silvery scales on the elbows, knees, scalp, and groin. Sometimes the nail bed is involved, creating yellow discoloration and thick, pitted nails; sometimes psoriatic patches are scattered all over the body; and sometimes, even the joints are affected (psoriatic arthritis).
Drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and eating lots of red meat tend to exacerbate all forms of psoriasis, as does a deficiency of vitamins A, D, and E; zinc; and selenium. Such deficiencies may be caused by “leaky gut” or other types of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Psoriasis is also typically worsened by stress, constipation, poor digestion, and several common pharmaceutical drugs, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (Aleve, Ibuprofen), antimalarial medicines, ACE inhibitors, beta-blockers, and lithium.
In general, the first order of business with any skin complaint is to check the diet. Ideally, food should be optimally digested and assimilated without the help of the immune system. Unfortunately, we often eat things that our digestive system rejects, and that’s when the immune system gets involved to root out the offending substance.
New research connects a high salt diet—especially from canned foods or fast foods—with many autoimmune diseases, including psoriasis. In a study of 100 healthy people published in the February 2013 issue of Nature, participants who visited fast-food restaurants more than once a week saw a marked increase in their levels of inflammatory cells, which the immune system produces to respond to injury or foreign invaders, but which attack healthy tissues in autoimmune diseases. Regardless, it’s a good idea for everyone to lay off the processed and fast foods, whether you have psoriasis or another autoimmune disease or not.
Beyond salt, the “Big 9” food irritants are wheat, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, caffeine, tomatoes, peanuts, and shellfish. Avoiding these foods completely for 2–6 weeks will often clear up your skin beautifully. If that doesn’t work, you may want to try a short-term liquid diet—3–10 days of water or fresh juice fasting—to see if your skin starts to clear. Sometimes this is miraculously helpful. (Consult an experienced practitioner before engaging in any sort of fast.)
The Benefits of Fish Oil
Fish oil is one of the most important nutrients for the skin, an emollient that works from the inside out. I especially like cold-pressed wild Alaskan salmon oil because it’s minimally refined, which makes it easier for the body to absorb than any other fish oil I’ve found on the market.
Most itchy, flaky skin complaints are due at least in part to irritated, inflamed skin cells, and fish oil can help there as well, since it’s a potent anti-inflammatory thanks to its high omega-3 fatty acid content. Another easy way to promote a natural anti-inflammatory effect is by using more kitchen herbs in cooking, especially turmeric, ginger, cumin, anise, fennel, basil, rosemary, garlic, and thyme. All of these common seasonings can block the inflammatory white blood cells (cytokines) responsible for psoriasis and other skin afflictions. Many of these herbs are also available as supplements, which can have a more potent effect.
The Importance of Vitamins
Many patients with psoriasis show a deficiency in one or more B vitamins, including folic acid. Because blood levels of B12 and folic acid are inadequate for measuring tissue stores, other tests have to be performed. For instance, a blood test that measures homocysteine, a byproduct of the amino acid cysteine that requires B vitamins for processing, can indicate folic acid deficiency or malabsorption. And high methylmalonic acid levels can confirm a B12 deficiency.
It’s also a good idea to check your vitamin D3 blood levels, which should be 60–90 ng/mL. If you need to boost your D, oral doses of up to 8,000 IUs daily are safe, and this level of supplementation may be required for up to a year to raise your levels to normal. Typically, skin problems (as well as mood, joint, and bone loss issues) improve with optimal vitamin D3 levels. But don’t take vitamin D2—it’s much more expensive and doesn’t work nearly as well for most people.
Finally, be aware that some natural products—including echinacea, inula, burdock, biotin, ginseng, and doses of vitamin C higher than 500 mg daily—can actually aggravate psoriasis, so you should avoid them. And, as with most diseases, stress management is critical when treating psoriasis, so try to get a little exercise and fresh air daily, which is a good idea for everyone.
Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc, has a private practice in Juneau, Alaska, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is the author of two books on health, including Managing Menopause Naturally. Visit her online at dremilykane.com.