The term scleroderma is taken from the Greek words “skleros” and “derma.” It simply means hard skin. Scleroderma is a rare group of autoimmune diseases, and they cause the skin or connective tissues to thicken and harden—it’s also known as skin fibrosis.
According to the Scleroderma Foundation, scleroderma affects approximately 300,000 Americans. Furthermore, the World Scleroderma Foundation reports that scleroderma affects 2.5 million people around the globe.
The two main types of scleroderma are systemic and localized. Localized scleroderma only affects the skin, whereas systemic scleroderma will affect the skin, blood vessels, and internal organs.
What Causes Scleroderma? Am I at Risk?
The exact cause of scleroderma is unknown; however, doctors believe that abnormal immune system activity will lead to inflammation and the overproduction of collagen. Too much collagen can cause the connective tissue to build up and become tight and thick. A form of chemotherapy treatment called bleomycin is also thought to increase the risk of scleroderma. Other influential factors include exposure to silica dust, trans-fatty acids, heavy metals like mercury, and industrial solvents like paint thinners.Scleroderma typically affects people between the age of 20 and 50. (The disease is very rare with children.) Women are approximately three times more likely to get scleroderma than men. There are higher scleroderma rates amongst the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and among young African American women.
There are two types of localized scleroderma:
- Linear scleroderma will cause streaks of hardened skin on the forehead, legs, and arms.
- Morphea scleroderma will cause oval patches of thickened skin that are purple around the edges and white in the middle. You will find these marks on the stomach, back, chest, arms, and legs.
There are three types of systemic scleroderma:
- Diffuse cutaneous systemic scleroderma is characterized by skin hardening on the neck, face, trunk, legs, arms, hands, and fingers. It will also affect both sides of the body, and it can affect internal organs such as the lungs, kidneys, heart, and esophagus.
- Limited cutaneous systemic scleroderma will affect the skin on the neck, face, legs, fingers, and lower arms. Other symptoms of limited cutaneous systemic scleroderma include GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease); red spots on face and hands; tight, thick skin on fingers or toes; and swollen blood vessels on the lips, face, forearms, palms, and hands. People may also experience Raynaud’s phenomenon, which is sensitivity to cold in the feet and hands.
- Sine scleroderma only affects internal organs, not the skin.
Preventative Care and Treatments
Your doctor may recommend preventative methods for scleroderma, such as the annual flu or pneumococcal vaccine. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may also be prescribed for inflammation or joint pain relief.
Other drugs will reduce symptoms associated with scleroderma, such as
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers
- and Calcium channel block
Sulfasalazine, methotrexate, and hydroxychloroquinine will help slow the progression of scleroderma. However, bear in mind that medications can produce side effects such as allergic reactions, vision problems, seizures, and unusual behavior or thoughts.
Natural Remedies for Scleroderma
1. Vitamin D
People with systemic scleroderma often have low levels of vitamin D. In a 2011 study published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology, researchers suggested that treating vitamin D deficiency could benefit autoimmune disorders such as scleroderma. In a 2014 study published in the journal Archives of Dermatological Research, further data supported the use of topical vitamin D to treat thick and hardened skin associated with scleroderma.
To help manage systemic scleroderma, consult your doctor for the proper vitamin D dosage. Try getting more sunlight and consume foods rich in vitamin D, such as eggs, cod, shrimp, and sardines. (Click here to find Natural (and Delicious) Sources of Vitamin D)
2. Vitamin E
In a 2009 study published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology, researchers treated 27 systemic scleroderma patients with topical vitamin E gel. They discovered when applied topically, the vitamin E soothed pain in people who had digital ulcers from systemic scleroderma. Vitamin E gel also produced a faster healing time.
Turmeric contains the well-known anti-inflammatory phytonutrient curcumin—this can help decrease inflammation in the body. It is also an effective pain reliever and complements the supplement bromelain. In a 2011 study published in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, researchers discovered that curcumin could suppress the excess fibrous connective tissue associated with scleroderma.
Other animal studies indicate that curcumin may be able to suppress the spread of the excessive lung fibrous connective tissues. Some data suggests that 300 mg of turmeric daily is the appropriate dose.
4. Gotu kola
Gotu kola, also known by its plant name Centella asiatica, is a perennial plant that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. It is an adaptogen that helps the body adapt to stress. Some evidence suggests that gotu kola may decrease symptoms associated with scleroderma; it is said to help with circulation, connective tissue maintenance, and blood vessel health, while also strengthening weakened veins.
The suggested gotu kola dosage for scleroderma is 50 mg to 250 mg, two to three times per day. Check with your doctor to see where you would fall in that dosage range.
Natural treatments for scleroderma also include acupuncture. In a 2013 study published in the journal Chinese Acupuncture & Moxibustion, researchers concluded that acupuncture needling, among other natural treatments, could safely and effectively improve skin sclerosis in localized scleroderma patients.
The six-month study observed 42 patients with localized scleroderma. Acupuncture may improve blood flow in the fingers and hands, decrease the formation of fibrous tissue, relieve pain, and help heal ulcers in the fingertips.
Other Natural Treatments for Scleroderma
Probiotic supplements, evening primrose oil, and omega-3 fatty acid supplementations (such as fish oil) are other alternative remedies that can help reduce the symptoms of scleroderma. How else can you treat scleroderma naturally?
Opt for simple lifestyle changes:
- Avoid exposure to stress and cold, as it can aggravate circulation.
- Do not smoke cigarettes—nicotine can worsen scleroderma.
- Avoid other stimulants, like alcohol and caffeine.
- Exercise! Regular exercise can help increase the flexibility in joints and skin. Exercise around 30 minutes a day for up to five days weekly.
- Avoid processed foods, especially pastas, breads, and sugar.
- Eat more antioxidant-rich foods, such as blueberries, apples, asparagus, and broccoli.
Zelman, M., et al., Human Diseases: A Systemic Approach (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2015), 21-22, 30-31.
“Scleroderma,” University of Maryland Medical Center web site; http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/condition/scleroderma, last accessed June 16, 2015.
Wong, C., “Natural Remedies for Scleroderma,” About.com; http://altmedicine.about.com/od/healthconditionsdisease/a/scleroderma.htm, last accessed June 16, 2015.
Caramaschi, P., et al., “Very low levels of vitamin D in systemic sclerosis patients,” Clinical Rheumatology, December 2010; 29(12): 1419-1425.
Vacca, A., et al., “Vitamin D levels and potential impact in systemic sclerosis,” Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology 2011; 29(6): 1024-1031.
Usategul, A., et al., “Topical vitamin D analogue calcipotriol reduces skin fibrosis in experimental scleroderma,” Archives of Dermatological Research 2014; 306(8): 757-761.
Fiori, G., et al., “Vitamin E gel reduces time of healing of digital ulcers in systemic sclerosis,” Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology 2009; 27(3 Suppl 54): 51-54.
Gohil, K.J., et al., “Pharmacological Review on Centella asiatica: A Potential herbal Cure-all,” Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 2010; 72(5): 546-556.
Yan, X.N., et al., “[Efficacy observation on acupuncture and moxibustion combined with hot compress of TCM herbs for scleroderma],” Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion 2013; 33(5): 403-406.