Vitiligo is nothing to be ashamed of, as celebrities like supermodel Winnie Harlow have proved. But despite growing awareness and acceptance, there is still a lot of stigma attached to the skin condition, and it's well known to have a negative impact on self-esteem and quality of life.1
Affecting some 1 to 2 percent of the population, vitiligo is a puzzling, often progressive, condition that causes depigmentation (whitening) of the skin in patches. It happens when melanocytes, the cells responsible for the pigments that give color to the skin, die or are unable to function normally.
What causes vitiligo is still unclear, but the leading theory is that it's an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system targets the body's own pigment cells and tissues.2 Oxidative stress—an imbalance in the body between damaging free radicals and antioxidants to defend against them—is also thought to play a role.3 And some suggest it's oxidative stress that triggers the autoimmune response.4
For mild vitiligo, the usual treatment is topical corticosteroids, which can be effective but come with side-effects such as thinning of the skin and hormone problems.5
For more extensive skin changes, the most widely used treatment is to attract more pigmented cells to the surface of the skin through phototherapy using ultraviolet (UV) A or UVB radiation—as seen naturally when you lie in the sun to get a tan—either on its own or in combination with other treatments such as light-sensitive psoralen drugs. Concerns have been raised, though, over side-effects like phototoxic reactions and blistering, and the lack of data concerning the risks of skin cancer with long-term UV irradiation.6
As for natural remedies, there are several showing promise for vitiligo, especially if used in the early stages of the condition, although most have been trialed in combination with conventional therapies, so it's unclear what effect they'll have on their own.
Your best option is to work with an experienced naturopath who can put together a holistic personalized program. But here's a roundup of the best natural options to try.
Opt for antioxidants
Oxidative stress is thought to be involved in vitiligo, and antioxidants are showing promise as a treatment. In one study, an antioxidant supplement containing alpha-lipoic acid, vitamins C and E and polyunsaturated fatty acids boosted the effects of narrow-band (NB)-UVB phototherapy. Nearly half the treated patients saw more than 75 percent repigmentation vs only 18 percent in the placebo group.7 Another trial found that those taking vitamin E supplements alongside NB-UVB treatment had better results than those treated with the phototherapy on its own.8
Suggested dosages: 100 mg alpha-lipoic acid; 100 mg vitamin C; 40 mg vitamin E
Dose up on D
Low levels of vitamin D, the 'sunshine vitamin', have been linked to vitiligo,9 so it's a good idea to get yours checked. In a study of children treated with the conventional topical medicine tacrolimus, only those also given vitamin D supplements—1,500 IU/day or 3,000 IU/day depending on their existing levels—saw an improvement in their vitiligo.10 Home vitamin D testing kits are available via the Vitamin D Society (www.vitamindsociety.org) and Better You (www.betteryou.com), along with personalized recommendations on how much to take.
Investigate other vitamin deficiencies
Deficiencies in other vitamins have also been associated with vitiligo, specifically folate (vitamin B9), vitamin B12 and vitamin C.11 In one small study, supplementing with these vitamins led to marked improvements in vitiligo after three months, and even complete repigmentation in some cases after one to two years.12 Another long-term study reported repigmentation in around half of those using a combination treatment of sun exposure, folic acid and B12 supplements.13 Consult with an experienced practitioner who can help you to identify any deficiencies and correct them with the right supplements and dosages.
Look out for L-phenylalanine
Supplements of this essential amino acid, found in meat, dairy and beans, seem to be effective for vitiligo when used in combination with phototherapy.14
Suggested dosage: 50 mg/day per 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of body weight
Several herbs appear to be useful for vitiligo. Here's what's worked in clinical trials.
Ginkgo biloba. Known for its potent antioxidant properties, this herb was pitted against a placebo and found to be effective at both stopping the progression of vitiligo and improving pigmentation.16
Suggested dosage: 40 mg three times a day
Khella (Ammi visnaga). Khellin, the active constituent in this North African herb, appears to stimulate repigmentation of the skin in vitiligo patients when exposed to sunlight.17
Suggested dosage: 120-160 mg of khellin
Polypodium leucotomos. Patients taking this South American herb in combination with NB-UVB therapy saw better results than those treated with the phototherapy alone.18
Suggested dosage: 250 mg three times a day
Get help from homeopathy
Homeopathy may be helpful for vitiligo, according to case reports of 14 patients treated with individualized homeopathic remedies. Those treated in the early stages of their condition had the best results, the researchers said.19 To find a homeopath near you, visit www.homeopathycenter.org (US) or www.homeopathy-soh.org (UK).
Try Chinese herbal medicine
In a review of five trials, vitiligo sufferers taking oral Chinese herbs in combination with phototherapy experienced more repigmentation compared to those using phototherapy alone.20 To find a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner near you visit www.nccaom.org (US) or www.atcm.co.uk (UK).
Evidence suggests there's a psychological aspect to many skin disorders, including vitiligo, and that hypnosis may be able to help as a complementary therapy.21 To find a hypnotherapist near you visit www.psychologytoday.com (US) or www.hypnotherapy-directory.org.uk (UK).