Let’s pretend vitiligo is its own comic superhero, with an identity all its own. It’s bringing news to the ecosystem of your body but it’s obviously using a language you don’t understand to communicate that news. Actually, that’s not true for me entirely. I do understand some of the things it’s saying like: get more rest, try to calm the fuck down more regularly, notice your inner beauty.
But like any good superhero, it had an origin story. I spoke with an integrative dermatologist today who said, generally speaking, that any immune disorder (vitiligo included) has to have 3 things:
- Genetic predisposition
- A trigger
- Ripe conditions
I’m paraphrasing for number 3. But basically, just like planting a cactus on a coral reef won’t work, there are some body climates that won’t support certain disorders.
For me, I have my doubts about the genetic predisposition. As far as I know, there aren’t any cases of vitiligo in my ancestry on either side of my family, ever. Autoimmune disorders do not run in my family,. My grandmother had arthritis, and my dad had hypothyroid, but never mentioned that it was caused by Hashimoto’s which means it could have been unrelated to the immune system.
However, depression and anxiety are rampant in my family, and based on my experience with Low Dose Naltrexone (more later), I’m starting to believe that immune function and mental health are like peanut butter and jelly.
When I first noticed vitiligo, I had just had baby number 2, my dad had died the previous year, my marriage was on the rocks, we were somewhat broke, and I was getting no sleep. I saw whitish spots on my fingers scattered about. It was more a curiosity than anything given their small size (pea-sized or smaller) and they weren’t on every finger, and I didn’t see them anywhere else. I also noticed other changes to my body. Gray hair, more cellulite, less muscle tone, more fatigue. TMI?
The first time vitiligo is mentioned in my medical history is a year after that child was born. It’s right there in my chart notes. The dermatologist I saw identified it as vitiligo, said that for some people it didn’t spread and wasn’t a concern, and said to keep an eye on it. Oh, that I would have taken steps back then to remedy it. What I didn’t hear her say was, “Once you have it, at any point, stress can spread it rapidly all over your body. You need to address this now while it’s new and here’s how.” This was one of a dozen different times that a Western doc has blown off something that could have been quite life-changing if it had been addressed.
Setting aside my disappointment with Western medicine, she also didn’t mention that it was an autoimmune disorder. I had already been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s almost ten years prior. Had she looked at my chart and seen that diagnosis, she might have been more inclined to mention that this would make autoimmune issue number 2.
As it turns out, I learned that vitiligo was an autoimmune disorder when I googled it because I noticed it was spreading. It dribbled across my fingers a bit during my 2nd’s toddler years when my husband and I were getting no sleep due to my toddler’s sleep disorder. But in the spring of 2017, it was like a brush fire was lit, and it spread from my fingers to my hands, forearms, elbows, chest, and feet.
So what was the trigger?
I have some guesses.
- Lack of sleep. Having a baby and parenting during early childhood is a bitch on the nervous system. We have 3 kids. During those nursing years, for each baby, I was waking every 2-3 hours. I also went for 4 years with my sleep being interrupted at least twice a night by our son who had sleep issues…unless I slept away from home. With 3 kids that’s roughly 8 years of not getting a good night’s sleep.
- Stress. Money, relationships, moving, pregnancies, and my dad, grandmother, and stepmom died within 7 months of each other.
- Birthing. In the birthing suite, after birthing my 3rd baby and placenta, the midwife said, “That is seriously the biggest placenta I have ever seen.” What can I say? I build good placentas. But it got me thinking that building 3 babies, feeding them internally, nursing them…all of that in Traditional Chinese Medicine would equate to the need to build blood. Build and restore energy. Which I don’t think I necessarily spent a ton of time doing.
So what about the Body Climate?
I grew up on pizza, sandwiches, nachos, and Hostess cupcakes. I took loads of antibiotics in my twenties for chronic sinus infections. I was on Accutane for acne. And now…I eat pretty damn healthy. I’m not vegan, I love cheese and sugar and bread and wine. But I like veggies, I buy organic when I can, I avoid GMO’s. I’m gluten-light. I keep hearing from functional medicine docs that gut health is always the first step to healing auto-immune issues. And it’s hard for me to hear. Because who I am now, what I do now would mean my gut is healthy. But if all those gmo treats and antibiotics made for a bad gut party in my past, and guts and immune systems are best buds, then it makes sense that there might be some collateral damage. Any stress my gut may have had lingering from the years I took antibiotics might not have fully repaired.
IDK. So much of understanding vitiligo is guesswork. But in trying to navigate some of that guesswork I sought out pros who could help steer through the murky waters and unanswered question of Western medicine toward some kind of answers.