After being prescribed steroid creams and immunosuppressants by GPs to no avail, Günseli Yalcinkaya decided to reframe her understanding of her body and health
My first run-in with psoriasis was during my university finals, when I was 20. It’s not particularly surprising because stress is a major trigger for those with an underlying tendency towards the condition. (Along with cold weather, hot weather, dry weather, smoking, drinking, infections such as strep throat and even certain medications.)
But it wasn’t until last year (when I was 26) that I had my first proper psoriasis flare-up. Appearing a couple of weeks after my second Covid vaccination – a fact that’s not directly correlated, but my dermatologist tells me is likely connected – my body broke out into small reddish spots. Initially, I assumed it was an allergic reaction or, perhaps worse, bed bugs. But, as the symptoms got progressively worse, I went to my GP, who told me I had guttate psoriasis and prescribed me a round of thick (and deeply unpleasant) steroid creams.
Around 1.1 million of us in the UK are affected by psoriasis and 7.5 million in the US, yet the condition is hardly ever spoken about. An autoimmune disease that visibly manifests on the skin, psoriasis isn’t a skin condition but a chronic, genetic disease that appears in the form of red, scaly patches over the body. Beyond the physical symptoms, those who suffer from it usually experience its psychological and social impact: anxiety and depression triggered by flare-ups is common, while the underlying social anxiety around showing your skin in public is a constant.
“When exploring holistic treatments for psoriasis, it was important to reframe my understanding of health.”
Aside from the short-term relief – the steroid cream did make the patches disappear until a few days later when they would reappear on different parts of my body with a vengeance – the psoriasis worsened as winter progressed. At its peak, it was covering 95 percent of my body. Since psoriasis is triggered by stress, the stress brought on by a flare-up is likely to exacerbate the condition further. It’s a vicious circle.
So I returned once again to the doctors who prescribed me UVB phototherapy light treatment and methotrexate, an immunosuppressant that reduces inflammation, but requires regular blood tests and can damage the liver and kidneys. Worried by this ,and increasingly sceptical of the westernised approach to medication, I embarked on a journey to find alternative treatments to treat my psoriasis. Here’s what I found.
When exploring holistic treatments for psoriasis, it was important to reframe my understanding of health away from a western perspective, which focuses on eliminating symptoms, but fails to address adverse effects on the body, to a Chinese outlook, which considers principles of balance within the body, and seeing it as one interconnected biosystem.
Speaking to specialists at London Acupuncture Clinic and 180 Health Club, I was told that the treatment of psoriasis involves analysing each symptom, relating it to organ disharmonies, deficiencies, excesses and changes in energy flow to ultimately get to the root of the problem. In this understanding, psoriasis can appear due to an invasion of external wind in the body, as well as blood and Qi (energy) stagnation. This leads to internal heat and liver stagnation, which in turn, throws your Yin (structure) out of balance.
One of the most popular ways to treat psoriasis in Chinese medicine is acupuncture. Fine needles are inserted into the skin at specific points to trigger specific responses from the body. “Acupuncture presents the combination of specific points for such treatment, always thinking about dispersing where it is stagnant and toning where it is deficient,” explains Renata Nunes, a therapist at 180 Health Club. “Cooling where it's too hot and heating where it’s weak and cold – and always thinking about generating harmony to the body.”
As well as being a great stress reliever, acupuncture helps to detangle any blockages of Qi within the body, while strengthening your immune system by focusing on pressure points linked to the kidneys and liver. It’s not a quick fix – therapists recommend a minimum of eight weeks’ treatment – but I found that the experience left me feeling more relaxed and energised. Besides, it feels good to tackle the problem by exploring triggers within the body, rather than mindlessly slathering myself in thick and greasy creams. Would I recommend? Definitely.
According to Chinese medicine theory, herbs can be prescribed to treat psoriasis. The mixture of herbs depends on the individual, with the practitioner examining your skin and asking questions about your energy levels, menstrual cycle, and stool, as well as a tongue examination to check your overall health (the tongue is believed to be connected to the organs of the body through meridians, or energy pathways). My treatment came in the form of a powder to mix into hot water daily. I’ve only been using the herbs for a week, but I’m already beginning to see a change in my skin.
Since the appearance of psoriasis is a result of skin cells growing too quickly, research has shown that infrared saunas can help to improve circulation, remove dead skin cells, deliver nutrients to the epidermis layer of the skin and help boost the immune system. Why infrared? Unlike traditional steam saunas that make you sweat 95 per cent water, the infrared goes even deeper, activating a ‘deep sweat’ that removes toxins in the body, like heavy metals, sulfuric acid, sodium, ammonia, uric acid and fat-soluble toxins. Plus, it’s super relaxing!
While none of these treatments are a quick fix by any stretch, exploring these alternatives has given me a better understanding of my body and the importance of external factors – stress, diet, weather – in managing my symptoms. Stepping away from a strictly western outlook has made me more forgiving of my body, helping me locate triggers and stressors, instead of slathering myself in creams and ointments and hoping for the best. It’s hard to pinpoint which treatment has been the most useful, but there are certainly benefits. My skin is getting clearer, I feel less stressed, and more positive.