Medically reviewed by Dr. John Harris, dermatologist and Director of the UMass Vitiligo Clinic and Research Center.
There are many changes that occur in the body that lead to the development of vitiligo. In general, vitiligo can be understood as an inflammatory and autoimmune condition that leads to the destruction of pigment producing cells, called melanocytes. However, the initial causes of vitiligo – what leads to these melanocytes being incorrectly targeted by the immune system for destruction – is still being studied. One of these topics of study is oxidative stress.
What is oxidative stress? Your body tries to keep a balance between a group of damage-causing chemicals and the body’s protective mechanisms. These damage-causing chemicals are called reactive oxygen species, and the protective mechanisms are called antioxidants. Oxidative stress occurs when the balance between the two is thrown off. In other words, this type of stress occurs when the damage caused by reactive oxygen species is too much for the body’s protective mechanisms to handle.
The exact interplay between oxidative stress, your genes, and your immune system is still being studied; however, it appears that oxidative stress plays an important role in the development of vitiligo. Here’s why.
Oxidative stress can damage melanocytes
Oxidative stress seems to play a role in the early stages of vitiligo. Studies have shown that patients with vitiligo have elevated levels of reactive oxygen species and low levels of antioxidants in their skin. For example, studies have found abnormal levels of hydrogen peroxide, a type of reactive oxygen species, in the skin of patients with vitiligo.
What do reactive oxygen species have to do with vitiligo?
In this example, high levels of hydrogen peroxide impair the functioning of melanocytes, the pigment producing cells. This means that these cells can no longer produce the pigment that colors your skin. But that’s not all. The high levels of hydrogen peroxide also impair the ability of the melanocyte to repair itself after suffering damage. So not only can the cell not create pigment, but it also can’t heal itself.
Oxidative stress may trigger autoimmunity
As a reminder, autoimmunity occurs when the body’s immune system incorrectly targets and destroys its own tissues. This is where oxidative stress may play yet another role in vitiligo. Increased reactive oxygen species, unchecked by decreased levels of antioxidants, can damage melanocytes. This damage releases pieces of the melanocytes that the body incorrectly targets as “foreign” to the body. As a result, the body subsequently targets and attacks the melanocytes, leading to depigmentation.
The role of antioxidants in stopping oxidative stress
Many researchers are studying the oxidative stress pathway in order to discover new treatments and treatment strategies for vitiligo. Much of this research involves understanding how antioxidants may help combat oxidative stress.
Antioxidants bind to and neutralize or break down reactive oxygen species. This helps keep the body’s balance of reactive oxygen species and antioxidants and helps prevent oxidative stress from occurring.
Antioxidants include vitamins C and E, among others, and can be produced by the body or consumed as part of the diet.
So, should you start consuming antioxidants if you have vitiligo?
A multitude of researchers have studied the use of antioxidants in the treatment of vitiligo with mixed results. While there is no definitive guideline about which vitamins or supplements may be “best” for vitiligo patients, many doctors recommend a balanced diet that includes foods that are high in antioxidants, such as almonds and blueberries.
Moving forward, studies will try and determine whether supplementing antioxidants, alone, or in combination with other treatments, such as light therapy, can help prevent or reverse the depigmentation in vitiligo.
If you are interested in trying a vitamin or antioxidant, make sure to talk with your dermatologist first, as some herbs or supplements can have adverse effects or interfere with other treatments that you are on.
Do you take any antioxidant supplements for your vitiligo?
Disclaimer: This list is provided for informational purposes only. Please consult your dermatologist to determine the best treatment options for you.
Jake Besch-Stokes is a medical student from Phoenix, Arizona. He is pursuing a career in dermatology and has an interest in dermatologic autoimmune disorders and cutaneous lymphomas. When he’s not studying, he enjoys woodworking, and exploring Arizona. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.