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How I beat psoriasis - Saving my skin

About the author: 
Joanna Evans

Hanna Sillitoe,38, suffered for years with painful, itchy psoriasis—until she discovered the healing power of food.

When people used to ask me, "How are you?" I'd automatically reply, "I'm fine, thank you," like we all do. But the truth is, I wasn't fine at all. I was miserable and in constant discomfort and pain.

I was 15 when I first noticed a little clump of itchy, red dots on my tummy. Over the course of a week they seemed to spread and multiply. My doctor diagnosed scabies—a contagious skin condition caused by tiny mites that burrow into the skin—and prescribed a cream and an antibiotic to stop the infection from spreading. But I'd been misdiagnosed. The cream had zero effect, and the antibiotics made my skin problem much worse.

It took several more visits to my general practitioner and a consultation with a dermatologist to get the correct diagnosis: psoriasis—a chronic, non-contagious disorder that causes cells to build up rapidly on the surface of the skin.

Topical treatments

I still remember sitting there helpless in the doctor's office, being told 'there is no cure.' The best I could hope for were periods of remission through using steroid creams. Steroids can decrease inflammation, relieve itching and slow the development of new psoriasis patches. But although they can be effective in the short term, long-term steroid use can cause skin to get thinner, eventually leading to stretch marks.

Still, I used those creams. I used special emollients, moisturizers, bath oils, shampoos and shower lotions. The moisturizers were extremely greasy, and the medicated shampoo made me look as though I had a severe case of dandruff. Some of the treatments burned my skin, and some smelled of tar. I remember my boyfriend at the time telling me he'd driven past some road work and the smell reminded him of me!

All consuming

Psoriasis took over my life physically, mentally and emotionally. I couldn't dress like everyone else. Tank tops and dresses got shoved to the back of my closet, replaced with sweaters, long pants and long-sleeved cardigans. I felt self-conscious and unattractive. The discomfort prevented me from sleeping and stopped me from studying. I'd use makeup to try and disguise the red, scaly plaques and tried blister bandages to ease the itching, but nothing seemed to work.

By the time I went to college, my skin was horrendous. Teenage dramas coupled with the pressure of exams didn't help, and the junk food I ate was stoking the fire. By that time, I had acne and eczema as well as psoriasis.

I ditched sports and rarely walked anywhere; my skin conditions made even basic activity uncomfortable. I was sapped of energy, and so it became a vicious cycle.

On top of an already terrible diet, I discovered cigarettes and alcohol. I spent the early part of my career working as a DJ in bars, when smoking indoors was still legal. By my mid-20s I was easily going through 20 to 40 cigarettes a day. Full-bodied red wine was my preferred poison; I could happily drink my way through a bottle each evening.

The turning point

By the age of 35 I was sick—really sick. As well as my skin problems, I suffered from recurring urinary tract infections, dangerously high blood pressure, and I was overweight and permanently exhausted. Eczema covered my eyelids, and plaque and guttate psoriasis spread across my arms, legs, chest, tummy and scalp.

Plaque psoriasis is the most common form of the condition, appearing as red, raised patches covered in silvery scales. Guttate psoriasis shows up as tiny, red teardrop-shaped dots. At first, I would notice a handful of these little dots, but they would begin to multiply and eventually join to form big red patches. The itching would keep me awake at night, and the feeling of my clothing brushing against my red-raw skin would leave me crying in pain.

By this stage, so much of my skin was affected that my doctor wanted me to consider a medicine called methotrexate—a chemotherapy drug. The idea was to suppress my immune system, to stop it from overreacting (see box, right). In theory it made sense, but some of the potential side-effects included acne, low energy, itching, hair loss, stomach ulcers, seizures, hepatitis, infection, kidney disease and lung or liver failure. And it was possible it would have no effect at all on my psoriasis. It certainly wasn't a long-term cure.

This was my turning point. After 20 years, I'd finally had enough. I refused the medication and began some research of my own.

More than skin deep

Over all the years I was treated for my various skin conditions, not once was diet suggested as a potential factor. In fact, one doctor told me point blank it would have no effect whatsoever.

But once I started trawling the internet for alternative ways to treat psoriasis, everything seemed to come back to food. The concept of what's on the skin's surface reflecting a problem within made sense. And I was determined to find and fix that problem.

Reading The Juice Master, Jason Vale's story, and watching the Joe Cross movie, Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, gave me hope. These advocates of juicing both healed their chronic skin conditions through diet alone.

My main hurdle was my love of food. I knew I had the willpower to get through a short-term juice fast, but, ultimately, I had to come up with a long-term, sustainable plan. For me, this turned out to be an anti-inflammatory, high-alkaline diet incorporating plenty of skin-friendly foods and juices, and avoiding the foods I discovered were problematic for my skin.

Acid vs alkaline

Of all the things I learned about food, the importance of an alkaline diet is perhaps the simplest and most powerful principle.

Fresh vegetables, most fruit, nuts, seeds, pulses and filtered water are considered alkaline. At the opposite end of the spectrum, sugar, junk food, processed or refined foods including white bread and pasta, sweets, carbonated drinks, alcohol and drugs are considered acidic (see chart, page 71).

After switching to an alkaline diet, the heat in my skin, the redness and unbearable itching were all reduced within days, and healing began within weeks.

I'm impatient by nature, so to see such rapid results after years of fueling my system so badly was remarkable. After less than a month, I went out in short sleeves for the first time in years.

Eating healthy soon became part of my everyday routine. I naturally chose to eat salads, fresh vegetables and fruit because I knew how good these foods would make me feel and the effect they'd have on my skin. Similarly, I avoided caffeine, alcohol, sugar, processed and junk food, dairy, wheat, strawberries, peanuts, nightshades (like tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes) and oranges because my skin reacted badly to them.

Dairy was one of the very last things I eliminated from my diet for good. I dramatically reduced my intake for a while and initially switched to more alkaline variants such as goat's cheese and yogurt. But after I had spent a fortnight in Thailand where dairy foods barely feature, the improvement in my skin was so dramatic I decided to cut out dairy altogether.

Staying social

One of my biggest fears when I made a commitment to changing my diet was giving up alcohol. Much of my social life revolved around bars and restaurants. But my skin was so bad that I knew I needed to make some tough choices. I'd quit smoking, but also knew I had to give up the booze.

I remember the first time I went out with friends after beginning this new lifestyle—I took some flak for ordering water. But to make sure I didn't feel left out they ordered a round of shots and a shot glass of water for me. I realized then, tough as it was, that an evening out was much more about being in the company of good friends than what I was pouring down my throat.

As the weeks and months went by, my change in diet and alcohol abstinence simply became my chosen lifestyle. I can honestly say I rarely think about drinking these days, and the feeling of never having a hangover is pure bliss.

As for eating out, admittedly, that's a bit harder. But restaurants are fast adapting to a growing desire to eat well. Most understand the importance of preparing fresh food to cater for specific dietary requirements. Lots offer gluten-free options along with herbal teas and juices. It's not so much about never eating out again, just changing what you order. I used to love big plates of pasta and doughy garlic bread at Italian restaurants, whereas now I stick to soups and superfood salads.

Moving on

Another part of my lifestyle I changed was my activity levels. I started off with a 20-minute walk each morning and evening, which eventually turned into a half-hour jog. Within a year I was competing in triathlons. Now, I Thai-box, wakeboard, lift weights, run, swim and cycle, and I don't feel as though any of it is a chore. I genuinely love the sports I do, and that's the important part.

Feeling good

After re-educating myself on the benefits and detrimental effects food and lifestyle can have on health and wellbeing, my life changed completely. My psoriasis, eczema and acne cleared up, my recurring kidney infections disappeared, my bleeding gums healed, I lost 70 lbs without trying, and my energy levels bounced through the roof. The saying 'beauty comes from within' and the old adage 'you are what you eat' ring so true in every sense.

These days, when people ask me how I am, I can genuinely say, "I'm very well, thank you. I'm full of energy, fit and healthy, with clear, glowing skin."

Psoriasis: an autoimmune disorder

Psoriasis is thought to be caused by an over-responsive immune system. When the immune system functions properly, a highly complex collection of processes work together as our first line of defense to prevent disease. However, this defense system can go wrong, causing autoimmune disorders. The body thinks there is a problem, and the immune system goes into overdrive to defeat the perceived problem. Except there is no problem. So the immune system attacks perfectly healthy tissue, replacing it far too quickly and erratically. For psoriasis sufferers, the result of this unnecessary response is red, flaky patches on the body that are usually itchy and painful.

Immunity ramen recipe

This soup is packed full of healthy, seasonal greens, immune-regulating shiitake mushrooms and deliciously fragrant, healing spices. The combination of vitamins, antioxidants and powerful spices make it a wonderful, immune-system-healing broth.

Makes two servings

Ingredients

2 Tbsp organic, gluten-free bouillon powder dissolved in 4½ cups water (or 3 cups homemade vegetable stock)

2 servings buckwheat noodles (usually sold in packets divided into servings)

6 broccolini

2 baby bok choy

4 baby leeks

3 spring onions

6 shiitake mushrooms

2 garlic cloves

Small chunk of ginger, peeled

Juice of 1 lime

4 star anise

Salt and pepper

To serve:

Sesame seeds

Handful of fresh coriander (cilantro)

Directions

1 ) Heat the 3 cups homemade stock, if using, with an extra 1½ cup water in a large saucepan. (You may wish to change the ratio depending on how strong your stock is.) If you're using powdered bouillon-based stock, there is no need to add extra water as you already have the appropriate volume. Allow the stock to simmer gently.

2 ) Add the buckwheat noodles to the stock and simmer for 1-2 minutes.

3) Add the vegetables and all the other ingredients and simmer for a further 5-7 minutes. The noodles should soften, and the vegetables should stay bright green and crunchy, retaining all their wonderful vitamins.

4) Season with salt and pepper and serve in two large soup bowls, sprinkled with sesame seeds and coriander (cilantro).


Healed from head to toe

Don't let them eat cake

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