The word ‘inflammation’ comes from the Latin ‘flamma’ which means flame. This will ring true for sufferers of the inflammatory skin condition known as psoriasis, who will often feel the heat, redness, itch and pain of their skin ‘on fire’. Paradoxically, the ‘treatment’ that people with psoriasis often report as being most effective, is a tropical holiday in the hot sun.
Like many skin conditions, people with psoriasis often have it come and go throughout their lives, flaring up and settling down with lesser and greater amounts of discomfort. The patches of raised scaling skin known as ‘plaques’ in psoriasis are commonly found on elbows and knees, and around the hairline of the scalp, but can be present anywhere on the body. While it is definitely not contagious, when an individual has a worsening of their psoriasis it does ‘spread’ and the plaques grow or new ones can come up. Psoriasis can be incredibly itchy for some people, and also very sore. Some people eventually end up with psoriasis affecting their nails, and sometimes also their joints.
While working out the exact cause of psoriasis is still a work in progress, enough is known to point the finger in a few general directions. Sometimes genetics play a part, as it can be hereditary, but not always. Sometimes an infection may be a trigger, the most common one being streptococcal tonsillitis. The immune system definitely plays a part. Whatever the initial trigger, once the inflammation has been set up, active plaques are the results of the overproduction of extra skin cells which makes the skin ‘thicker’. There is increasing evidence suggesting a few things that can make psoriasis worse; trauma to the skin, emotional upset/stress, cigarette smoking, alcohol, lowered immunity. And some things make it better! Most people with psoriasis are better for sunlight (90%), and some women are fine when they are pregnant.
While 90% of people with psoriasis have improvement with sunlight however, for the other 10% it makes it worse! This highlights the complexity of the issue, and reminds us that like any health complaint, each person with psoriasis is unique and will have a specific set of factors which can either flare up or improve their condition.
While there is some research to suggest that gluten sensitivity may play a part for some people with psoriasis, each person is an individual and will have foods that either agree well with them or are reactive. Eating the right foods for your system is a key component to improving skin health. Because people with psoriasis often have difficulties with poor digestive function and gut balance, high-protein foods such a red meat can sometimes be problematic. Links have also been postulated with Nightshade (Solanaceae) family vegetables, especially tomatoes, and foods with high levels of histamine, such as pickled foods and aged cheeses.
The right balance of nutrients in the body is also essential for skin health. Zinc and Essential Fatty Acids are important for the skin, while Vitamin D also has a part to play. This is a gross oversimplification however, and each person is unique in their nutritional make-up and their needs for specific vitamins and minerals.
So let’s get back to lying on the beach in Rarotonga. Before you say that a tropical holiday is the best treatment for pretty much everything (which is kind of true), the specific combination of factors involved in such a holiday are actually quite specific for psoriasis. Sunlight has both UV (used for treatment of psoriasis) and increases Vitamin D production in the skin (also used for treatment). The other bonus is a reduction in stress, also known to contribute to psoriasis. Another possible factor is the food we eat on a tropical holiday- mostly fish and fruit! Diet has definitely been linked to psoriasis. And then there is of course the swims in the saltwater. While I can’t find any specific research on seawater improving psoriasis, I have a sneaking suspicion it just may be a part of the magic package too.