In the wake of Psoriasis Awareness Month, it’s high time this often distressing condition is brought to the attention of the general public. Affecting 2-3% of the UK population, psoriasis can affect many aspects of a person’s life. With implications beyond the physical symptoms (alone a difficult task to endure), sufferers are often plagued by stigma – a consequence of a general misunderstanding by the public, often routed in people’s fear of contagion, which is entirely inaccurate. As a result, living with psoriasis often affects people’s relationships, their romantic life, their job and their mental health. Centred around embarrassment of appearance and feelings of social rejection, 42% of people with psoriasis report a lack of confidence and almost 25% report suffering from depression.
Psoriasis is not technically a skin condition, but rather an immune disorder that results when the skin cells multiply at a rate almost ten times faster than they should. Due to the number of cells being produced, they form raised patches on the body, often white and scaly in appearance, forming a residual ‘plaque’. The skin also tends to be very inflamed, and it can cover a person’s entire body. Often extremely itchy and painful, psoriasis may severely disrupt people’s sleeping patterns, exacerbating stress levels.
Treatment is often in the form of steroids which, although they perhaps provide temporary improvement, are not safe for long-term use. Whilst their effectiveness is due to their immune-suppressing qualities, which halt the over-production of skin cells, a suppressed immune system can expose the patient to many other diseases and infections, and can even thin the skin.
Sufferers have long been advised to apply topical creams to areas of the body where the psoriasis occurs, in order to prevent painful cracking and bleeding, although many of these creams are not easily absorbed, and those that contain perfumes or chemical additives can aggravate the affected skin, which is already incredibly sensitive.
Research suggests that diet plays a vital role in treating the condition, with omega-3 fatty acids being of particular importance because of their anti-inflammatory and healing properties. Biopsies of psoriasis lesions have shown increased concentrations of the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (AA) and its eicosanoid derivatives; indeed these are known to play a direct role in inflammation and increased cell growth – both key elements in psoriasis. Responsible for higher levels of AA are grains, which many of us consider our staple diet, as well as red meat from grain-fed animals. It’s not that grains are bad for us per se, but that our diets are brimming with them and with too few of the omega-3s to balance the ever-shifting ratio.
The reason for omega-3 being so important in psoriasis is due to the actions of EPA, which directly competes with AA by reducing the production of inflammatory eicosanoids whilst increasing anti-inflammatory products; in doing so it therefore helps to reduce inflammatory activity directly in psoriasis affected areas of the skin. What is also becoming apparent from the research evidence is that the levels of EPA required to alleviate symptoms is rather higher than one would realistically achieve by relying on fish consumption alone, and it would also involve eating a good deal more than the Food Standards Agency’s guidelines of 2-3 portions of fish weekly – a standard set according to the safe levels of exposure to metals such as mercury, as well as dioxins and PCB, an unfortunate consequence of polluting our oceans. Taking a purified fish oil supplement, such as Vegepa, can provide a safe and convenient solution, by providing not just high doses of EPA, but also evening primrose oil, which is rich in the nourishing another type of omega-6, this time with potent anti-inflammatory actions – the omega-6 GLA. Vegepa also contains Vitamin E, an important nutrient which promotes skin healing and is found in many topical skin creams.
For those who’d rather look first to eating fish, opt for smaller, short-lived oily fish such as anchovies, sardines and mackerel – not only is the pollutant build-up less in these smaller, younger fish, but the omega-3 is stored in their flesh as opposed to their livers, which is the case with white fish such as cod.
Certain foods in the diet can also affect levels of inflammation, responsible in part for the angry red and often itchy and painful patches of psoriasis. Foods known to help alleviate the condition include those rich in vitamins and minerals, such as fruit and vegetables, as well as nuts, seeds and wholegrain cereals. It is advisable to cut out, or at the very least reduce, those foods which promote inflammation and can induce flare-ups; these include sugary, processed foods, red meat, dairy and alcohol. Smoking is also key to avoid if you suffer with psoriasis. A recent study  shows a positive correlation between psoriasis and smoking, increasing susceptibility in non-sufferers by up to 78%,  as well as significantly worsening existing conditions. Toxins in cigarette smoke are thought to have a negative effect on immune function – an influential factor in the pathology of this condition. By stopping smoking scientists believe that this decreases the levels of smoke-induced inflammation, helping to decrease the overactive immune system. By giving up smoking you’ll also be making an undeniable step towards a healthier life.
 Psoriasis Association. Available: http://www.psoriasis-association.org.uk
 Ginsburg, I.H.,& Link, B.G.(1989). Feelings of stigmatisation in patients with psoriasis, Journal of the Academy of Dermatology, 20(1), 53-63.
 Mayser P, Grimm H, Grimminger F: 2002 n-3 fatty acids in psoriasis. Br J Nutr 87:S77–S82.
 Behnam, Shahrad, and Koo, John, ‘Smoking and Psoriasis’, SKINmed, Volume 4 Issue 3 June 2008, p.174-6.
 Choi, H.K.,Setty, A.R., Curhan, G. ‘Smoking and the Risk of Psoriasis in Women: Nurses’ Health Study II’ American Journal of Medicine, Volume 120, Issue 11.