Its name is derived from a Greek word meaning “have an itch,” and psoriasis more than lives up to the description. The primary symptom of this inflammatory skin disorder is a sharply bordered red rash with overlapping silver scales, most frequently on the scalp, wrists, elbows, buttocks and knees, as well as sites of repeated trauma. Pitting of the nails is common and some patients may also develop arthritis.
Psoriasis is an extremely common condition, and a challenging one to treat. It affects men and women equally and can appear at any age, although the mean age of onset is twenty-seven. It’s particularly common among Japanese and people living in temperate climates, but for some reason is rare among American Indians.
Psoriasis is classified as an auto-immune condition, meaning that it causes cells to attack the body itself. In the case of psoriasis, skin cells divide at up to one thousand times the normal frequency, a rate even higher than squamous cell carcinoma, a virulent form of skin cancer.
The ultimate cause of psoriasis remains a mystery, but a number of factors can trigger the condition. These include food sensitivities (most frequently to dairy and wheat products), nutritional imbalances, impaired liver function, prescription drugs and alcohol. Fifty percent of cases are genetic. One of the most common causes – and one of the most treatable – is stress.
A variety of treatment options are available. Steroids, in either topical or oral form, reduce inflammation and heal existing lesions but don’t stop the appearance of new ones, and can weaken the skin with excessive use. Omega 3 fatty acids both combat inflammation and rehydrate the skin. Salmon and mackerel, anchovies, herring, sardines, flax and hemp are all high in Omega 3, which is also available as a dietary supplement.
Other beneficial nutrients include the antioxidant vitamins A, B, C and E, as well as the minerals zinc and selenium. Probiotics – so-called “good” bacteria – correct imbalances in the bacterial flora of the digestive tract and thus can help to treat gut dysbiosis (“leaky gut”), one of the underlying causes of the disorder. Herbs such as licorice root, chamomile, milk thistle and goldenseal may also reduce symptoms, and aloe vera and neem tree creams can help soothe itchy skin.
Treating psoriasis often requires larger dietary and lifestyle changes. Identifying problematic foods may involve a simple scratch test, blood work or electrodermal screening, but certain foods are best avoided in any case. Red meat, peanuts, dairy, fried and processed foods should be eaten sparingly if at all, and saturated fats replaced with more healthful fats found in foods such as fish, almonds, seeds, avocado and olive oil.
Some of the most important steps to control psoriasis are among the easiest to implement. Avoid scented soaps, cosmetics and perfumes. Get lots of sunshine and drink eight glasses of water every day. Above all, try to reduce stress, through regular exercise, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation or acupuncture.
Psoriasis cases differ widely in the range and severity of symptoms, and treatment is sometimes a frustrating process of trial and error. A knowledgeable health practitioner can help to identify triggers and build a treatment program that will combat the physical effects of the disorder and help the patient deal with whatever discomfort remains.
©Dr. Gordon, 2011.