Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system attacks healthy tissues in the body. Depending on where the immune system attacks, this highlights the type of autoimmune disorder. For instance, when the immune system overreacts, causing rapid reproduction of skin cells, this is called psoriasis. While autoimmune disorders have no cure, many patients have found that symptoms are heavily affected and stymied with certain diets. When it comes to psoriasis, it’s found that modulating a diet to exclude inflammation-causing foods and including anti-inflammatory foods, has had positive effects on managing outbreaks.
Let’s take a deeper look at what psoriasis is and how plant-based foods can help manage outbreaks!
What is Psoriasis?
Psoriasis falls under the umbrella of autoimmune disorders, meaning that “psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis are actually caused by an overactive immune system.” While the medical field doesn’t know what causes psoriasis, it is known that the “immune system and genetics play major roles in its development.”
So, what exactly is psoriasis?
It is a very particular and virulent skin condition that “causes the body to make new skin cells in days rather than weeks.” With the amped-up rapidity of the process, the cells “pile up on the surface of the skin,” creating itchy, scaly, and oftentimes painful thick patches called plague and, if left untreated, can develop into lesions. While psoriasis oftentimes appears on the elbows, knees, or scalp, breakouts can happen anywhere on the skin.
How is a breakout triggered? Unfortunately, there is no single answer.
Triggers are somewhat personalized and curated per case and person, yet researchers have found that there are a few triggers that many psoriasis sufferers share. These include high levels of stress, skin trauma, — referred to as the Koebner phenomenon in which vaccinations, sunburns, and even scratches can trigger psoriasis — certain medications, — lithium, antimalarials, Inderal, quinidine, and indomethacin — any infection that affects the immune system, — in particular, streptococcus infection, also called strep throat — allergies, and even the foods you eat, your diet, may be triggering breakouts.
Along with being painful and itchy, psoriasis is also “associated with other serious health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, and depression.”
Variations of Psoriasis
While there are many triggers that can spur psoriasis, there are also five specific forms that this autoimmune disorder may take. Depending on the type of psoriasis you develop, this will change the management and treatment options.
Plaque psoriasis is the most common form of the condition. Around “80% to 90% of people living with psoriasis get plaques.” As skin cells reproduce and begin to build on the skin, these are called plagues (placks), taking the form of thick scaly patches. Plague patches can appear anywhere on the body and vary in size, yet they are most commonly found on the knees, elbows, lower back, and scalp. If left untreated, the itching can become intense and the skin may begin to sting, burn, tighten, or feel painful.
Guttate develops in about ten percent of psoriasis sufferers, making it the second most common form of psoriasis. While plague manifests in large, scaly patches, guttate psoriasis “appears as small, dot-like lesions.” This type of psoriasis is oftentimes triggered by a streptococcus infection and may begin in childhood and/or young adulthood.
This type of psoriasis also goes by intertriginous psoriasis. As the name implies, inverse psoriasis manifests in red, smooth, shiny lesions within hidden areas of the skin, such “armpits, groin, under the breasts and in other skin on the body.” Unfortunately, this type of psoriasis may be accompanied by another “type of psoriasis elsewhere on the body at the same time.” While this form of psoriasis “lacks the scale associated with plaque psoriasis,” it is subject to aggravation from rubbing and sweating.
Pustular psoriasis manifests with “white pustules (blisters of noninfectious pus) surrounded by red skin,” yet the pus — created by white blood cells — is not an infection and they are not contagious. This type of psoriasis may be “limited to certain areas of the body — for example, the hands and feet” — or you may develop generalized pustular psoriasis, which “can cover most of the body.”
There are three types of pustular psoriasis: von zumbusch, — a life-threatening form “characterized by widespread areas of reddened skin” — palmoplantar pustulosis (PPP) — characterized by “pustules on the palms of the hand and soles of the feet” — and acropustulosis — a “rare type of psoriasis characterized by skin lesions on the ends of the fingers and sometimes on the toes.”
This type of psoriasis is a “particularly inflammatory form of psoriasis that often affects most of the body surface.” Erythrodermic psoriasis generally occurs in conjunction with pustular psoriasis — most commonly von zumbusch — and unstable plague psoriasis and is incredibly rare “occurring once or more during the lifetime of 3 percent of people who have psoriasis.” It’s characterized by “widespread, fiery redness and exfoliation of the skin.” This is a life-threatening form of psoriasis.
Psoriasis, Inflammation, and the Role of Plant-Based Foods
While there are many factors that can trigger psoriasis, most are out of our control. With that said, there is one factor that is completely in your hands and that’s your diet.
With psoriasis, the immune system overreacts, attacking healthy tissues, and causes chronic inflammation. If you were to take a microscope to the process, you’d see proteins called cytokines, carrying out the inflammatory attack, and triggering inflammation. When it comes to psoriasis, this immune system “battle is waged in the skin and joints.” Unfortunately, researchers have not identified the “substances inside the body that the immune response mistakes for antigen,” yet it is understood that infusing the body with healthy anti-inflammatory agents, while also avoiding specific triggers, may help manage the aggravated inflammatory response.
[That] “reducing alcohol, gluten, and nightshades – members of the plant family that includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers – led to noticeable improvement in their symptoms. Adding fish oil, vegetables, and vitamin D proved helpful as well. Respondents also named several special diets as particularly effective in alleviating their symptoms: the Pagano diet (based on the principle that psoriasis is caused by a toxic buildup or “leaky gut”), the vegan diet, and the Paleo diet. The gluten-free, low carbohydrate/high protein, Mediterranean and vegetarian diets were also seen to be helpful.”
Foods that Aggravate Psoriasis
After years of research on psoriasis, there are a few food groups that have been found to be major instigators and aggravators to the disease. Here are the foods that should be avoided and why. With that said, it’s important to speak with your doctor before changing any aspect of your diet!
Red Meat and Dairy
While there are many reasons to avoid red meat and dairy products, when it comes to psoriasis, it’s specifically about the polyunsaturated fatty acid called arachidonic acid.
What is this acid, you ask?
Arachidonic acids are present in the phospholipids of membranes “of the body’s cells, and is abundant in the brain, muscles, and liver,” in particular, in the skeletal muscle. This acid is “involved in cellular signaling” and regulation of signaling enzymes, and is a “key inflammatory intermediate.”
Why does it generally trigger a psoriasis response? Research has found that “by-products of arachidonic acid may play a role in creating psoriatic lesions. Foods especially high in arachidonic acid include processed red meats such as sausage and bacon, beef, and eggs.
Gluten happens to be one of the main food groups that almost all autoimmune disorder sufferers should avoid. What’s the connection? Unfortunately, those that have a preexisting autoimmune disorder generally have “increased markers for gluten sensitivity,” which means they have a higher risk of Celiac disease — a “condition characterized by an autoimmune response to the protein gluten.” Steer clear of gluten-containing foods such as wheat, rye, barley, malt, certain processed foods (look at the ingredients on the package), some condiments and sauces, beer, and other malt beverages.
Alcohol and Processed Foods
These two groups are lumped together due to the fact that they both should be avoided for their ability to cause increased bodily inflammation.
Consuming large amounts of processed foods, especially those that are high-calorie, may “lead to obesity, metabolic syndrome, and a variety of chronic health conditions.” This, in turn, leads to “chronic inflammation in the body, which may be linked to psoriasis flare-ups.” Alcohol plays a similar role in psoriasis flare-ups as processed foods due to its “disruptive effects on the various pathways of the immune system.”
Even if you haven’t heard the term nightshades, if you practice a plant-based diet, you’ve most likely been consuming them. Nightshades are veggies that are “part of the plant family Solanaceae,” and, while safe for consumption in the vegetable form, “contain an alkaloid called solanine, which is toxic in high concentrations.” Vegetables in the nightshade group include popularly consumed produce white potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, and spices including cayenne and paprika.
While these veggies are safe and nutritious, they are also “one of the most commonly reported triggers for psoriasis flare-ups.” Researchers believe this is due to the solanine content, which may cause increased inflammation.
Food Groups that Manage Psoriasis Symptoms
Now that we know what to avoid, what about foods that can help manage psoriasis outbreaks? While nightshade veggies are on the “don’t eat list,” other anti-inflammatory plant-based foods are actually good for psoriasis. Here are a few food groups to include in your psoriasis-fighting diet!
If you’re looking for a diet that reduces inflammation, look no further than fruits and veggies! Most of these food products are high in antioxidants — properties that “reduce oxidative stress and prevent the body from producing ‘free radicals,’ or reactive oxygen species,” which may prevent or reduce inflammation. In particular, try to incorporate foods that are high in “vitamins A, E, and C, and the minerals iron, copper, manganese, zinc, and selenium.”
Along with fruits and veggies, many spices and herbs also have antioxidant properties. By infusing your plant-based meals with flavorful herbs and enriching spices, you’ll also be infusing your body with a double dose of inflammation fighting properties. In particular, you’ll want to focus on cloves, peppermint, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, and sage.
Infuse your food with inflammation-fighting herbs and spices with these delicious recipes: Pumpkin Puree Sage Risotto, Cinnamon Roll Cake, Cauliflower Salad with Roasted Almonds and Brazil Nut Parmesan, of this 5-Ingredient Artichoke Oregano Spread.
While it’s recommended to consume heart-healthy oils from fatty fish (such as salmon, sardines, and trout), for those practicing a plant-based diet, these oils can be found in plant-based sources such as olive oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, and safflower oil. Healthy oils are higher in inflammation-fighting omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which have been shown to have various other health benefits on top of reducing inflammation.
Try substituting heart-healthy oils in your baking recipes, such as in these coconut oil Two-Bite Chocolate Cookies, this extra-virgin olive oil Chickpea Crust Rainbow Alfredo Pizza, or these flaxseed oil Baked Falafel Balls with Flax and Tahini Sauce.
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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