Traditional Chinese Medicine For Vitiligo (Loss of Pigment)Adina Stanescu, R.TCMP September 1, 2007
Vitiligo is characterized by loss of pigment (melanin) in the skin, leading to bleached white spots, which may spread over a large part of the body. Auto-immunity is suspected as the cause of this condition. Western medicine prescribes some form of immunosuppressive therapy, such as topical steroids, but readily admits that it doesn’t work, and considers that there is no cure.
However, as a Traditional Chinese Medicine skin specialist, I know that this is not always the case.
Chinese herbs offer a solid hope of cure to recent cases or new lesions, and of some repigmentation to long standing ones.
Steven (not his real name), age 7, was brought to me by his parents a few months after developing vitiligo spots on his face, seemingly as a result of a fall. This is known as the Koebner phenomenon when a skin lesion develops at the site an of injury.
The good news was that the vitiligo spots were still fairly small, and the onset was recent.
The bad news was that they were on his face, and the little boy was dark skinned. The psychological suffering in such cases can be extreme, and his parents were understandably very worried.
Vitiligo treatment in TCM revolves around clearing toxins and improving proper flow of Qi and Blood to the skin. Blockage and stagnation, whether of blood, energy, body fluids or emotions, are considered the root of many health problems. When these vital substances don’t flow properly, toxins cannot get eliminated, and can easily build in the body. The Koebner phenomenon is itself a very clear illustration of this principle, as the trauma produces an instant bruising/blockage, and if the person is predisposed to vitiligo, it may then trigger its onset.
Steven’s treatment included internal as well as external herbal therapy. Internal therapy involved the boiling of a 10-12 herb mixture, and drinking it twice a day. Most of the herbs are Blood and Qi circulators, while some are more modern additions which have been found to have an anti-vitiligo effect. An interesting example of this latter category is gingko leaf.
The external therapy consisted of applying a psoralen-rich tincture to the spots, followed by short exposure to natural sunlight. Psoralens are chemicals found in certain plants, which make the skin more sensitive to the sun, and spark the interrupted melanin production. This, however, is a two edged sword, as too much exposure can cause sunburn, so it must always be applied exactly as directed and under the supervision of an experienced practitioner.
Steven’s skin began to repigment within the first two weeks of treatment, as the vitiligo patches began to fill in with his natural brown pigment. After six months, his skin was back to normal and treatment was stopped. Photos of Steven’s treatment progression can be seen at www.thetcmclinic.com
This successful case illustrates the enormous benefit of starting treatment early, i.e. in the first 2-3 years.
It makes all the difference in the outcome. It is one of my greatest frustrations that TCM’s potential with vitiligo is not well known, and so many cannot benefit from early intervention. However, even in longstanding cases, there may be more recent lesions, and if treated promptly, these have a good chance to repigment.
In addition to lack of awareness about TCM, the taste of the herbs is another potential obstacle to treatment. Many Western patients are unaccustomed to drinking bitter brews, and some, unfortunately allow this to defeat them. This is another reason I chose to present the case of a child. If he can drink the teas, surely an adult, faced with a life-altering condition, should be able to do the same. It is just as the cough syrup jingle says: “it tastes awful, but it works.”