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The link between stress and physical and mental health was established a long time ago, and further research has provided more evidence that suggests a correlation between the autoimmune disorder vitiligo and stress. 

If you or someone you know is suffering from vitiligo, it is very important to understand what causes and what can exacerbate it. Knowing what can trigger your vitiligo is the first step in managing it. Let’s talk about how stress can trigger vitiligo or exacerbate it and make it worse.

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What is Vitiligo?

Vitiligo is a relatively common skin condition that causes the loss of pigment in patches of skin, turning it from its original color to white. This is caused by a body’s immune system attacking and destroying cells called melanocytes that produce melanin in a case of mistaken identity. The result is the destruction of the pigment that gives skin color, turning the skin white.

This condition usually affects the scalp, hands, and face, but it can affect any part of the body. It appears as patches that usually start small but it can progress to covering large areas of the body. Vitiligo can also cause the loss of color in hair and eyes as well.

Vitiligo can affect people of all ethnicities and skin colors. Most cases of vitiligo occur before an individual turns twenty years old, usually during the ages of childhood. 

While vitiligo is not normally a dangerous condition, it can have a significant impact on someone’s life in both physical and emotional ways. It can affect someone’s self-esteem and can even interfere with their social life. When vitiligo occurs on parts of the body like the face, hands, or scalp, it can make sufferers feel self-conscious about their appearance and sometimes even embarrassed, causing them to suffer from emotional and psychological distress.

Related: Koebner Phenomenon in Vitiligo and Atopic Dermatitis in Young Girls

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a stressed out man sitting on the edge of his bed

Treatments for Vitiligo

There currently is no cure for vitiligo, but there are treatments that can lessen the appearance of vitiligo. These treatments include topicals, ultraviolet light therapy, and even surgery in severe cases. 

Topical corticosteroids are creams, lotions, or ointments that contain anti-inflammatory medication. These can be applied directly to the areas affected by vitiligo and can help restore some of the skin color lost to the condition.

Ultraviolet light therapy, also called UV light therapy, is a treatment that is used for a variety of skin conditions, including vitiligo. This form of therapy is a generally effective and safe way to treat vitiligo by stimulating the production of melanin in the affected areas as well as reducing the appearance of the patches of discolored skin.

This treatment works by using specific wavelengths of ultraviolet light in a series of treatments to restore the skin’s normal ability to produce melanin. Depending on the size of the area to be treated, a single treatment can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. 

There are several surgical options that can be used in the treatment of vitiligo but the two most common ones used currently are skin grafts or cell transplantation

Skin grafts are a surgical procedure where a section of healthy skin is removed from one part of the body, usually from the inner thigh or the lower back, and transplanted onto another part. This type of surgery is commonly used to help patients heal from burns, wounds, and skin conditions such as vitiligo. Skin grafts are completed under general anesthesia and can help vitiligo patients restore some of the color and texture that was lost.

Cell transplantation is a treatment option for vitiligo that has become much more popular in recent years. This treatment involves taking some of the skin cells from a donor with healthy skin and transplanting them into the areas affected by vitiligo. These donor cells can be taken from close family members such as a parent or sibling to reduce the chances of the transplanted cells being rejected by the patient.

Related: Thyroid Autoimmunity in Vitiligo

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What Causes Vitiligo?

Although vitiligo is a common condition that affects many people around the world, the exact cause of vitiligo has not yet been discovered. While the exact reason why vitiligo happens is unknown, there are a few theories as to what can cause it.

Since the body’s immune system response has a large role in vitiligo, it is possible that vitiligo is caused by an autoimmune disorder. This causes the immune system in the body to mistake healthy cells for harmful germs and destroy them. In the case of patients with vitiligo, the body’s immune system attacks the cells that produce melanin, which gives your skin color.

Sunburns are caused by the ultraviolet, or UV, radiation that is generated by the sun and is believed to be a trigger for sunburns. This damages the cells of the skin, especially the melanocytes that are responsible for creating melanin. Damage to these cells can become permanent, causing patchy spots of vitiligo to occur.

Repetitive trauma to the skin can also cause an autoimmune reaction that can be a trigger for vitiligo. When the skin is damaged, whether it is by a cut, burn, or bruise, it can cause the destruction of the melanocytes that affect a skin’s pigmentation by releasing cytokines. Cytokines can directly attack the melanocytes in the skin, which can trigger vitiligo or worsen it.

Genetics can also play a role in whether an individual develops vitiligo. Vitiligo can run in families, with about a fifth of vitiligo patients reporting that at least one relative in their family has it as well. This suggests that there are certain genes that can predispose an individual to be susceptible to vitiligo and increase their risks of developing this condition.

Need to learn more information about vitiligo? Take a look at our Vitiligo Condition Center to learn everything you need to know.

a hand shaking a hand of a person with vitiligo

So How Does Stress Cause Vitiligo?

Stress can be a significant factor in whether an individual develops vitiligo. When a person is under stress, their body tends to release hormones linked to stress called cortisol and adrenaline. The release of these stress hormones in the body can trigger the inflammatory response of your body’s immune system causing it to mistakenly destroy healthy cells in the body, in this case, the melanocytes.

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Cortisol is a hormone that is produced in the adrenal gland and plays a critical role in how your body responds to stress. This stress hormone is responsible for many important bodily functions, such as regulating blood pressure, metabolism, and even blood sugar levels. It is also involved in dictating how the body’s immune system responds to perceived threats which can lead to damaged or destroyed melanocytes.

Adrenaline is a hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands and increases blood flow to vital parts of the body, like the brain and muscles. This occurs during times of great stress, usually when the body’s fight or flight response is activated and prepares the body for emergency situations such as running from a threat or fighting against one. Adrenaline can even stop you from feeling pain while you are injured.

While there are many benefits to having adrenaline in your body, research has shown that there is a link between higher levels of adrenaline and vitiligo. Adrenaline can also contribute to a rapid onset of vitiligo due to the increased production of white blood cells, which can begin to attack melanocytes. This can happen surprisingly fast and may catch certain patients off guard.

Oxidative stress occurs when the body has an imbalance of free radicals against the body’s ability to mitigate and counteract their damaging effects. Free radicals are unstable molecules that are created during cell metabolism that cause damage to other molecules like proteins, lipids, and even DNA. Oxidative stress disrupts the melanogenesis process, which is the process that creates melanin pigments. 

Related: Improving Diversity in Vitiligo Research

Final Thoughts

While we do not yet fully understand the connection between stress and vitiligo, it is clear that stress is a significant factor in the development and exacerbation of vitiligo. Since stress can interfere with or alter how a body’s immune system functions, it can contribute to vitiligo in certain individuals. Managing stress should be an important part of every vitiligo patient’s treatment.