What is Psoriasis?
Psoriasis is an autoimmune skin disease that leads to a rapid build-up of skin cells. They grow abnormally fast — faster than the body can lose them — causing inflamed patches on the surface of the skin. Sometimes the patches itch, burn or sting and, in some cases, they open up and begin to bleed. Usually something triggers the lesions to flare.
Psoriasis may affect any part of the body, but it usually shows up on the elbows, knees or scalp. Symptoms vary depending on the type of psoriasis. The condition is also related to other comorbid conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and depression (x).
Causes of Psoriasis
The cause of psoriasis is still puzzling to doctors and researchers alike. However, physicians now attribute two main factors to the condition — genetics and the immune system.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition, meaning the immune system mistakenly attacks itself and the body. In psoriasis, the immune system causes inflammation and rapid skin cell growth. T cells — a type of white blood cell — stimulate the immune system when they come into contact with bacteria or viruses. T cells end up in the skin and attack skin cells, causing the body to produce new skin cells a lot more rapidly than it would normally. The body produces new cells faster than it needs to and then transports them to the surface of the skin, where they begin to accumulate as dead cells (x, x).
Under normal conditions, skin cells take about a month to reproduce. But with psoriasis, the process may only take a few days (x). New cells start their growth deep beneath the skin and gradually rise to the surface of the skin until they fall off as dead cells. But psoriasis causes new skin cells to reach the surface along with dead ones and there is not enough time for cells to fall off before the new ones take their place (x).
It’s possible that some people have certain genes that increase their probability of developing psoriasis, though researchers haven’t found the specific genes. According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, at least 10 percent of people inherit the gene that is related to psoriasis, but only 2 to 3 percent end up developing the condition (x). A twin study discovered an 80 percent heritability for psoriasis, concluding that it is heritable (x).
- Skin injuries – cuts, burns, vaccinations
- Alcohol and tobacco
If the psoriasis covers less than 3 percent of the body, the case is considered mild. If it covers between 3 and 10 percent, it is moderate, and a case is considered severe if it covers more than 10 percent. Symptoms depend on the type of psoriasis and usually vary among infected individuals (x, x).
This is the most common type. Symptoms include thick, raised, red patches with white dead skin cell buildup. The plaques usually show up on the elbows, knees, scalp and lower back. Sometimes they itch, crack and bleed (x, x).
This type often begins in childhood, triggered by strep infection. It shows up as tiny pink bumps on the torso, legs and arms, as well as the face, scalp and ears. It usually resolves without treatment after a few weeks or months and may not flare up again after it clears, but some people have it for life (x, x).
Inverse psoriasis flares where the skin touches skin — behind the knees, in the underarms or in the genitals — in smooth, sore red patches with white coating. Sometimes it accompanies other types of psoriasis at the same time (x, x).
Generalized Pustular Psoriasis
This type can be life-threatening and spreads all over the skin, making it red, dry and tender. It develops into pus-filled bumps, which break open and the skin dries out and peels. Then new bumps form and the process repeats itself (x, x).
Erythrodermic psoriasis is especially aggressive, but uncommon. It covers most of the body, making the skin look burnt with an intense itching or burning sensation. Other symptoms include fever, muscle weakness, and chills, which can develop into hypothermia. It is one of the most severe variants and can be life-threatening (x, x).
People with psoriasis can develop psoriatic arthritis, which causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints because the immune system causes inflammation in the body. Most people notice it after they develop psoriasis, but some people have psoriatic arthritis without psoriasis. Other symptoms include fatigue, swollen fingers and toes, blurred vision and sensitivity to light. Psoriatic arthritis can cause permanent joint damage without treatment (x, x).
People with psoriatic disease, including psoriatic arthritis, are more likely to develop other health conditions, including (x):
- Cardiovascular disease
- Cancer – lymphoma, nonmelanoma skin cancer
- Crohn’s disease
However, studies suggest that treating psoriasis symptoms may reduce the risk of comorbid conditions (x).
Although there is no definite cure for psoriasis, there are treatments to help reduce the accumulation of skin cells and tone down inflammation. There are also treatments to remove plaques as well as relieve the itching and dryness. The type of treatment usually depends on a number of factors including age, general health, the severity of the condition and the area it appears. There are three types of treatment (x, x, x, x).
Usually doctors will order topical treatments for patients first for mild or moderate cases. These treatments may effectively treat the condition, but it may take about six weeks for results. Topical treatments may include shampoo for scalp psoriasis, steroid creams or Vitamin D analogue creams.
Phototherapy treats psoriasis using exposure to natural and artificial light that aims to slow down skin cell growth. Patients undergo these treatments if topical treatments are ineffective.
If the case is severe, doctors may prescribe systemic treatments that travel through the bloodstream. Medications are either biological — usually injections — or non-biological — usually tablets or capsules.
When they are combined with other treatments, natural remedies may also be effective in treating psoriasis, including (x):
- Aloe vera to reduce redness and swelling
- Tea tree oil that acts as an antiseptic
- Apple cider vinegar to relieve itching
- Dead sea salts to remove plaque
- Mahonia, which contributes to immune response
Supplements for Psoriasis
Supplements can benefit overall health and may also help treat some of the symptoms of psoriasis, when paired with other treatment methods. Some supplements for psoriasis include:
Psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis patients are at a high risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. Omega-3-6-9 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce the rate at which people contract heart diseases (x). The recommended dosage is three softgels once or twice per day.
Milk Thistle Extract Powder
Glutamine makes up more than half of the body’s skeletal muscle tissue and is an effective energy source. It also promotes immune health. The suggested serving size is 1,000 mg up to three times per day on an empty stomach. Take the supplement either one hour before a meal or three hours after.
Aloe Vera Extract Powder
Typically used as a topical gel, aloe vera has been shown to reduce scaling and redness that comes with psoriasis when it is applied directly to the skin (x). The extract powder promotes immune system and circulatory health. Take 1,000 mg once a day with water.
Vitamin A Palmitate Powder
Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) Powder
MSM boosts skin health and supports healthy joints, which can be beneficial for psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis patients. One study reported improved pain from osteoarthritis (x). The recommended serving size is 1000 to 1300 mg four times every day.
The Bottom Line
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells. In psoriasis, the immune system causes skin cells to grow faster than the body can get rid of them, resulting in lesions that build up on the surface of the skin. There are also genetic factors that increase the possibility of developing it.
Symptoms vary depending on the type of condition and are usually triggered by factors such as stress, medication, allergies and infections. There is no cure for psoriasis, but it can be controlled by topical treatments, phototherapy treatment and medications. Natural remedies such as essential oils and supplements can help soothe symptoms and promote overall health.