Managing Psoriasis Naturally: An Interview With Patient Advocate John Redfern

Health Writer
John Redfern

For many years, John Redfern let his psoriasis control his life. From the time he was first diagnosed with it at age 14 until his 30th birthday, he lived a life of covering up – covering his arms and legs so people wouldn’t see the red, scaly, inflamed skin that covered much of his body. And also covering up his struggle with the condition and refusing to talk about it openly.

Now, at 39, Redfern is not only open about it, he runs the Smart Psoriasis Diet website, where he shares information he has gleaned over the last nine years of finding ways to keep this chronic autoimmune disease under control using natural methods. He promotes what he calls the “beating psoriasis trifecta” – a combination of maintaining healthy vitamin D levels (through supplements and sunshine), managing stress levels, and eating a psoriasis-friendly diet.

Born and raised in Ireland, at different points in his adult life Redfern has lived in New York city, Sydney, Dublin and throughout South East Asia. He’s currently living on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. Through all this, he’s experienced drastically different lifestyle and diet changes, and he began to see what areas had the most impact on his skin condition.

HealthCentral: What motivated you to start the Smart Psoriasis Diet website?

John Redfern: Smart Psoriasis Diet is my side project, it’s my passion. A lot of people just need someone to listen to them, to talk to them. I know what it’s like. Before I figured out the psoriasis trifecta, I couldn’t leave my house without my tube of steroid cream, without looking in the mirror. Now, I don’t even have steroid creams, I just have my trusty jar of coconut oil.

I’m the kind of guy who likes to work behind the scenes. I try to write articles that interest me, and I try to help people in the community, but I always feel like I should be doing more.

HC: You have written about dealing with some pretty bleak feelings regarding psoriasis and the condition of your skin. What has your journey with psoriasis been like?

Redfern: My God, the lows were so low. I got a spot of psoriasis near my belly button when I was 14. The doctor first diagnosed it as ring worm, but within six weeks I was covered head to toe with it everywhere. The doctor basically said, “here is some steroid cream, see how it goes.” But it just kept getting worse and worse. During the summers, I sometimes had a bit of remission from being outside in the sunshine. But I had it so bad during the winter months.

Before I had psoriasis, I used to love Christmas, but once I was diagnosed with psoriasis, it was horrible. I would lock myself inside the house, too embarrassed to go out. When I was 18 and 19, I was so down about it. I should have been out, enjoying life, but instead I was inside feeling sorry for myself. To be honest, I couldn’t get my head around it. I would cover up everything up, as much as possible: my arms, my legs. I would wish it would just clear up enough so I could wear a t-shirt. So, I would say I had a 16-year low, until I was 30. That’s when I had a mental shift.

HC: How did you finally take control of your condition and how are you now?

Redfern: It was around my 30th birthday that I really started to figure it out. In the last seven years I really narrowed it down to the three main areas of diet, vitamin D, and stress. I started testing things on myself, doing experiments on myself to see what worked. At first, I gave up everything that was bad. No junk food for nine months. I started making green smoothies. I took them three times a day and my friends started commenting how good my skin looked.

Before, because I was pretty sporty, I would eat whatever was in front of me. But you still have to put in the right foods. I know that if I eat a load of chocolate cake, I’ll get a blotch on my forehead. And if I drink 10 pints of Guinness, I know I’ll have an outbreak.

I had always thought sunshine was the biggest driver to keeping my skin clear, but it wasn’t true. Stress is a major trigger for outbreaks. I began to see when my psoriasis was good, bad, or in-between while living in different areas. For instance, when I was living in New York, I was basically getting sun every day, and my stress was low, but my diet was bad. My coverage was at about 5 percent then. When I went back to Dublin, I was barely getting any sun, I had a horrible diet, and my stress was high. My coverage was at 95 percent. Then I spent time traveling in South East Asia. I had no stress, I was eating healthier foods, and getting lots of sunshine, and I basically had no coverage at all. (Redfern says he uses the palm of his hand to measure the amount of psoriasis covering on his body.)

Once you’re able to start talking about it, you realize you’re not alone. We all have something.

HC: How did traditional approaches to treating psoriasis work for you?

Redfern: I’ve tried all the conventional treatments. The worst thing I ever tried was methotrexate, which is basically a chemotherapy drug. I felt so anxious while I was on it, and I lost all energy. And it really didn’t work for me. I finally said, “I can’t take it anymore, I’m done.” And that was it, I haven’t gone back to the doctor in eight years.

I have met a few doctors who were helpful. One doctor brought up the idea that stress could be causing my psoriasis. And another doctor asked me, “When is it good?” And when I told him it was good when I was in the sun, he said, “Well why are you living in Dublin then?” That was actually one of the best pieces of advice I ever got.

I would never try and stop someone from seeing a doctor or using conventional medicine. Let’s say you’ve just been diagnosed. You need to go see a doctor, you need to get advice. You have to try stuff for yourself. Eventually, a lot of people come around and they start looking for more information and they’ll start looking for websites like mine.

HC: How is your psoriasis now? Do you still experience challenges with your condition?

Redfern: Overall, my psoriasis is now under control, usually less than 5 percent coverage. But stress is still a challenge, and that’s something that’s nearly impossible to avoid in our day in age. We live in a world where we’re in a constant “fight or flight” mode. Even getting a “What’s App” message can give us a mini-jolt of stress. The body sees it all as a type of stress, and that’s going to affect your health.

I have found that exercise helps. I love running, it helps get my thoughts in order and I go for long walks with my wife two or three times a week. You also need to socialize with friends. Go hang out with people you like, people who make you feel good. Cut the negative people in your life.

I also really enjoy taking long, hot baths. I put a couple drops of jojoba oil in my bath and I can stay in there as long as I want. When I get out, I apply extra virgin coconut oil as I have found that keeps my skin moisturized for the longest time.

I keep a stress journal, where I write down how stressed I’m feeling three times a day, and I rate my psoriasis, how scaly and itchy it is, the color. By doing this, you can plot how you improve over time.

HC: What advice would you give to a young person who has been newly diagnosed with psoriasis?

Redfern: You have to talk to people about it, don’t keep it inside. And if that means talking to a professional (counselor) you need to do that. It took me a long time to open up about it. When I was young, I was so embarrassed about my skin, I refused to talk about it. I was playing Gaelic football and hurling at the time, playing at the highest level for my age group. We were going to start playing away games, so we would be traveling away from home. But I was so embarrassed, I refused to shower after games. So, I just quit the team. Looking back, it was so stupid. I have a skin condition, who cares?

When you start talking about it with other people, you realize that every person has something that gives them low confidence, something that doesn’t seem like a big issue for you, but it is for them. I have two good friends, one is obsessed with losing his hair. And I have another who is still obsessed with a bit of acne he still gets. Once you’re able to start talking about it, you realize you’re not alone. We all have something.

See more helpful articles:

Foods to Avoid When Living with Psoriasis

Living With Psoriasis: Memo to Me

What It's Like Being a Dermatologist With Psoriasis