Vitiligo is caused by the destruction of the cells called melanocytes which are responsible for imparting the skin its particular color. The result is formation of discolored patches on the skin that may be localized to one area of the skin or may appear in several places.
Saturated fats, aka the “bad fats”, play a villain’s role not only in cardiovascular diseases but have also been implicated in the exacerbation of vitiligo. In order to understand how saturated fats aggravate this skin condition, it is imperative to first understand the mechanisms leading to vitiligo.
What Causes Vitiligo?
While the exact cause of vitiligo is not known, myriads of researches have been carried out to delve into the mysteries behind vitiligo. Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain the causes of vitiligo.
Autoimmunity is the foremost process. The body’s immune system goes haywire and starts attacking its own cells, perceiving them as foreign invaders; in this case, the melanocytes.
Inflammation is another process by which vitiligo develops. Formation of free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS) by the environmental factors (UV light, for instance) and an imbalance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory factors in the body cause oxidative damage to the skin cells. As a result, the cells lose their functions and start dying. Vitiligo follows in its wake.
Saturated Fats and Vitiligo
There are two proposed mechanisms by which saturated fats can aggravate vitiligo:
1. Saturated fats have a pro-inflammatory effect in the body. They trigger the formation of certain mediators of inflammation, particularly inflammatory cytokines. These inflammatory mediators stimulate the signaling cascade of inflammation that ultimately results in the destruction of the pigment cells of the skin. This not only aggravates vitiligo but can also lead to cardiovascular problems, diabetes and accelerated aging (e.g. reduced skin elasticity). Consuming anti-inflammatory nutrients can help combat this.
2. Saturated fats decrease the fluidity of cell membranes. Cell membranes are the outer ‘layer’ of the cells; membranes are made up largely of fats. Usually, these membranes are made up of a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fats, however, in someone who consumes a lot of saturated fats, the membranes will be made up almost entirely of saturated fats. This disrupts the functioning of the receptors and ion channels found in the membranes leading to deranged cell function. This is the reason why, for example, a diet high in saturated fats causes diabetes – because the cells stop being responsive to insulin. In the case of vitiligo, the cells stop secreting melanin.
Therefore, curbing the amount of saturated fats in the diet is tantamount both for vitiligo and for general health.
Saturated Fat Sources to Look Out For
Saturated fats mainly come from animal sources. They are found in abundant amounts in
- Fatty and processed meats
- Animal fats like tallow, lard, duck fat and goose fat etc.
- Cheese, especially hard cheeses
- Full-fat dairy products like milk
- Chocolate, including dark chocolate
Make the Switch
Try to avoid saturated fats and replace with unsaturated fats instead. It is very important to limit meats (avoid processed meats completely), chocolate, pastry and creams. Choose low-fat dairy products, such as skim milk (zero percent milk), low-fat yogurt and choose fresh cheese (e.g. ricotta and cottage-cheese) rather than hard cheeses. Instead of butter, use low-fat margarine or olive oil – the latter is almost 100% unsaturated fats.
Instead of red meats, good protein sources are nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and other legumes, and fish (including oily fish as the fats in fish are unsaturated). If you do not regularly consume fish, it is recommended you use a high quality supplement such as Dr. Tobias Triple Strength Fish Oil, as you may be lacking omega 3s.
Chicken and other poultry are fairly low in saturated fats (particularly if you stick with the breast and remove the skin) so you can include these in your diet. In addition, if you tend to use white creamy sauces for pasta, try to switch to red sauces (which will be based on olive oil).
Reducing saturated fats in your diet will go a long way to halt the spread of vitiligo and aid with restoring the melanocytes’ function. In addition, this change will also benefit your other organs and general health.
1) Basak, Pinar Y., et al. “The role of helper and regulatory T cells in the pathogenesis of vitiligo.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 60.2 (2009): 256-260.
2) Valdearcos, Martín, et al. “Lipin-2 reduces proinflammatory signaling induced by saturated fatty acids in macrophages.” Journal of Biological Chemistry 287.14 (2012): 10894-10904.