Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition and autoimmune disease in which the immune system prompts skin cells to turn over much more quickly than normal. This causes an accumulation of cells on the surface of the skin. The shed skin cells become thick, raised, red welts with silvery scales and may be painful, dry, and itchy.
Topical medications can soothe your skin and reduce inflammation. Oral medications suppress the immune system to slow the progression of the disease. However, another form of treatment for psoriasis involves one of the most natural elements on earth: the sun.
Phototherapy is the term used to describe natural or synthetic light treatment for psoriasis. Your skin absorbs the ultraviolet rays as you sunbathe or expose your skin to a special light box.
The sun’s ultraviolet rays are categorized as UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays are more effective at treating the lesions and plaques caused by psoriasis, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF, 2012). UVB exposure slows the rapid rate of growth and shedding of the skin cells.
Your doctor may choose to treat your psoriasis with UVA rays instead of UVB. UVA rays are shorter than UVB and penetrate your skin more deeply. Because UVA rays are not as effective in clearing the signs of psoriasis, medication is added to the light therapy to increase effectiveness.
Psoralen, a drug that causes photosensitivity, makes your skin more sensitive to the sun’s rays. You’ll take an oral form of the drug or use a topical prescription on the affected skin before your UVA treatment to help the light interfere with the skin cell turnover. This combination treatment is generally abbreviated as PUVA.
Although sunlight can benefit psoriasis, you should take care to protect yourself from sunburn. The disease predominantly strikes light-skinned people, who are at a greater risk for sunburn and dangerous forms of cancer such as melanoma. Natural sunbathing is not monitored in a medical setting like phototherapy is, and medications you make be taking can increase photosensitivity. This can heighten your risk even more.
Though it may seem counter-productive to wear sunscreen when you want your skin to soak up the sun’s rays, protection is a must. For best (and safest) results, follow these tips:
- Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen to all areas of unaffected skin.
- Wear sunglasses.
- Undergo natural sun therapy sessions when the sun is strongest to reap the most benefit possible.
- Stay outside for only 10 minutes at a time to reduce the risk of sun damage. As long as your skin can tolerate the exposure, you can slowly increase your sunbathing by 30 seconds to a minute each day.
The sun not only helps clear psoriasis symptoms in some cases, but it stimulates your body to produce more vitamin D.
Psoriasis and Vitamin D
Vitamin D contributes to reducing inflammation throughout the body. The National Psoriasis Foundation suggests that the nutrient, as well as the UV rays from light exposure, can help clear or prevent psoriasis plaques (NPF, 2011). Sunlight triggers your body to make the nutrient, which is beneficial to strong bones and immune function. However, vitamin D is a nutrient found in few foods naturally.
The British Journal of Dermatology published findings that state that people with psoriasis tend to have low vitamin D levels, particularly in colder seasons (BJD, 2012). If your vitamin D levels are deficient, you can boost your intake of foods rich in the nutrient, including:
- fortified milk and orange juice
- fortified margarine and yogurt
- egg yolks
- Swiss cheese
Sun therapy and diet are not the only ways to treat psoriasis with vitamin D. Consult your healthcare provider to determine if topical vitamin D ointments or creams can alleviate the inflamed, dry, and scaly skin.