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Jodi Franklin talks about vitiligo, a loss of skin pigmentation, and the Vanishing Vitiligo program that can help put this disease into remission, reversing some of the effects, as well as improving overall health and immune response.
John Maher: Hi, I'm John Maher and I'm here today with Jodi Franklin, a certified practitioner of applied functional medicine and co-founder of Flory & Franklin, a functional medicine practice in Massachusetts helping clients from around the world reverse their chronic health issues without medication. Welcome, Jodi.
Jodi Franklin: Thanks so much for having me, John. I appreciate it.
John: Sure. So Jodi, today our topic is Vanishing Vitiligo. What is vitiligo and how did you start working with people who have it?
Jodi: Oh, great question. Vitiligo is actually caused by a lack of pigment in the skin. And you may remember that Michael Jackson is probably the most famous person who had vitiligo, where his skin started depigmenting. It was a big source of controversy. But it actually causes the loss of skin color in your skin. And the skin tends to get blotchy and the pigment producing cells die and they stop functioning.
And melanin is produced by skin cells and those cells are called melanocytes and it gives your skin its color. But in vitiligo there just aren't enough working melanocytes to produce enough melanin in your skin, so this causes white patches to develop in your skin. And you'll see it more noticeable on people with darker skin color, but you'll notice it definitely with any skin color, can happen to any skin.
And it really, for some people can be very debilitating in terms of feeling like they don't look right. And some people wind up getting depressed from it, unfortunately. It's a sign that there's something going on in the immune system, for sure. And unfortunately, it's a nuisance and there's not a heck of a lot of research. There's more research in recent years on it. But because it's not a real life-threatening disease per se, it's a nuisance for most people.
But you asked me how I got into this work, working with vitiligo, and I actually had an autoimmune skin disease myself that I suffered with for over 20 years and that's what got me into functional medicine in the first place. Because I was able to research my way out of it and actually put my skin disease into remission, and then I decided I wanted to help other people with skin issues to reverse their skin diseases. So a client came to me about five or six years ago and she had lost about 60% of her pigment, and her skin was darker in color and it was very noticeable. So she's had this since she was six years old and it's gotten in the way of her social life, it's always given her lower self-esteem in the way she looks. She always felt like she looked different than everybody else.
And I had never worked with vitiligo before at that point, but I was eager to try. I knew I had really good knowledge of functional medicine. I had studied it extensively and had the backing of a scientist teacher, a chemist with three degrees from MIT. So I knew that I could bring it to her if I couldn't really figure it out on my own.
But the reality is, working with her, at first we weren't really sure, I was willing to take it on. And it took a while before we were able to figure things out. But by doing some testing and really figuring out what the root drivers were for her issues, we were able to put her into remission. And I remember it right about the eight month mark she couldn't even talk to me, she had to message me because she was crying so hard because she had actually seen significant repigmentation on her arms, they started filling in with pigment. And it was a very emotional moment for her, she could barely speak to me. She was crying and really, really excited about what was happening and seeing for the first time that this was reversible and that she had control over this. And it just made me want to work with more people.
And I remember I posted her results with her permission on my social media and all of a sudden people were contacting me all over the world, wanting to work with me who had vitiligo. And fast forward five years, six years later I've worked with over 100 people, maybe 120 people who have had vitiligo. And I think I've had the most success with this disease of anybody out there because I know how to get to the root causes, I know what the commonalities are and what to do about it. And can I get everybody 100% better? No. But if we can get them 80% better, 50% better, or stop the depigmentation and reverse some of their other health issues, some of the root drivers, they usually feel pretty good.
So it's really exciting to be able to work with this disease and see noticeable changes. I work with a lot of autoimmune diseases, but seeing skin diseases, it's easy to see the improvement because you can see it. Other organs, you can't necessarily see, you have to test and look at symptoms. So it's fascinating and it's really exciting to be able to work in this field.
John: A lot of people probably think that once they have vitiligo they're just sort of stuck with it for life, but you're saying that that's not the case?
Jodi: Absolutely not. And unfortunately, that's what people are told when they're diagnosed is that you're just going to have to live with this and it's just not true. This can be put into remission. Like I said, I've done this dozens and dozens of times. And this is why I wanted to get on today to explain that it's really hard for me to work one-on-one with so many people because there's such a demand for this. So a business partner of mine and I put together a program called Vanishing Vitiligo, and this is a group program where we can address the root causes of the vitiligo and meet together as a group over time to help people navigate this and to figure out the root causes for each individual person and address them.
So we do lab tests and meet one-on-one with people throughout the program, but then they also have the benefit and comradery of the group. So we're able to address this on a large scale basis and help even more people, and have more impact for the people that are suffering with this disease.
John: And that group structure must really be helpful for people too who are suffering from this disease who maybe feel like they're kind of alone and are suffering through this alone without people who really understand it. But being able to see other people who are going through the same thing and talk with them about it, that must really help.
Jodi: It does. In fact, I think there's some lifelong friendships were formed in our last group because, see people are going through it together and they don't feel so alone and they can help each other out. There are some significant lifestyle changes that have to happen. And in a way you have to be a bit of a deviant in society. And we could talk about some of the root drivers, but I really think that it's difficult for a lot of people to make lifelong changes. And to have the support of the group is really, really helpful for so many people. And I think in a way it almost can work better than working one-on-one because you have that support system in place.
John: Right. Is there a problem with just ignoring vitiligo and just accepting that the skin is losing pigment or are there other deeper issues that you really do need to address?
Jodi: Well, you can certainly ignore it, but the problem is... And some people say, "I like my spots, they're attractive. It makes me different." And there's nothing wrong with that. I don't have any problem with the look of it. What I do have a problem with is that once you get it -- and vitiligo is an autoimmune skin disease -- you are actually eight times more likely to get another autoimmune disease, sometimes within the next five years.
So I almost always check thyroid output when people come to me with vitiligo because I can't even tell you how many times we've seen that people will have autoimmune activity in their thyroid as well. The number one autoimmune disease is Hashimoto's. So we often see that. And it can be a vicious cycle because if your thyroid doesn't work properly you can't heal very well. And so it just becomes a vicious cycle where people get worse and worse because their thyroid doesn't work properly because of the autoimmune activity there.
But I just had a client who came to me within the past few months who has four autoimmune diseases, vitiligo, colitis, psoriasis, eczema on the autoimmune spectrum. So sometimes people come to me with multiple autoimmune diseases and it gets harder and harder when you go down that rabbit hole, when you have all these different health issues and they feed upon each other, and sometimes people on multiple medications, which in the long-term can sometimes make things worse.
Jodi: So I work with a lot of autoimmune skin issues, particularly psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, vitiligo, eczema, urticaria -- which is what I had myself, that's hives -- rosacea, even acne. So we are experts in autoimmune skin issues, and we feel very confident that we can help people. And it's so exciting when we can see results for people and see their lives changing around.
And not only does their vitiligo go away, but they start feeling better. Maybe they had less energy, maybe they have more energy now, maybe their skin's glowing now, maybe they had some gut issues, which is common and those have gone away. Constipation, diarrhea, stomach aches, all kinds of issues that can go away. Sometimes they'll come to me for vitiligo, but they'll get relief in so many other areas of their other autoimmune diseases as well.
John: Right. You mentioned, Jodi, that your treatment seems to help people more than almost any other place that they might be able to go. What are some of the problems with the typical ways that dermatologists treat vitiligo?
Jodi: Well, the problem is that the conventional treatment for vitiligo is things like creams and maybe lighter laser therapy. And while these could be helpful, they're really band-aid approaches and they don't get to the root cause of the vitiligo. So if you're not getting to the root causes, again, you're eight times more likely to get another autoimmune disease, number one. And number two is that if you stop the treatments the vitiligo just continues.
And I know that so many of my clients have done these creams with varying degrees of success, but most people are saying that the creams really don't work for them. And the creams can have adjuvants that can have toxic ingredients in them that can actually lead to more issues with depigmentation in the long run, so that can be an issue too. Because toxicity is a big part of why people get vitiligo in the first place, some of the things that we slather on our skin every day, and pesticides, and foods, and heavy metal toxicity and mold; we can talk more about that as well. But the reality is that putting those things on your skin can be a problem. And the problem with light therapy is, again, a band-aid approach. If you stop doing the light therapy you just start depigmentation again, it's not a root cause resolution.
And so I do like the light therapies and the laser therapies, but we wait until people start seeing their skin repigmenting on its own or at least we stop the depigmentation first and then that is a great time to start light therapy or start laser therapy where you can see the pigment coming back on your skin. We look at UVB narrow-band light treatment is effective, but we have to wait until we see results first, and then they get lasting results from the light therapy.
John: Yeah. So tell me a little bit more about that and your functional medicine approach to vitiligo and the way that you treat the root problems of it rather than just the surface issues.
Jodi: Sure. So we look at all the possible causes and it's always multifactorial. Nobody just wakes up one day with vitiligo, there are things that were in place that made that happen. It's almost like a recipe. And we even work with babies who have vitiligo, which is really scary that this was something that just didn't exist years ago. And a big part of why that happens, as I mentioned earlier, is toxicity.
We have found over 260 toxic ingredients or toxic chemicals passed on from mother to child in their umbilical cord blood. So we are seeing more and more children having vitiligo, babies with vitiligo. This is something that was unheard of years ago, and small children that have vitiligo. So it's not necessarily something that they're exposed to later on in life, or it can be, but it actually is something that they can be born with because of all the toxicity their parents have passed on to them, or their mother in particular.
So this is why I'm a real stickler and a real advocate for using non-toxic products, non-toxic lawn care, eating organic foods, and just making sure that your life is as toxin-free as possible. And on our website, if you go to the store there's toxin-free household products and toxin-free personal care products in there that are 100% free from all toxins. And I really feel strongly that everybody should be using toxin-free ingredients in their home.
And unfortunately, a lot of the products that you buy at Whole Foods still have toxins in them. And people don't realize this, if it has a shelf life, if it's sitting on a shelf in a store, 99.99% of the time it's got toxic preservatives in there because it just wouldn't have the shelf life. Anyway, that's why I like to have people buy it from my store where it's made in small batches and sent out immediately so it doesn't sit on a store shelf and it doesn't need to have toxic preservatives in it, but you can use these products and they're very effective.
So toxicity is a huge issue. And we even see things like mold toxicity and especially heavy metal toxicity in my clients. You will find people that have had amalgam fillings in their mouth, that the mercury will actually outgas over time and can cause some autoimmune response. You will see people that have aluminum. Sometimes I work with people that work with building materials and those have a ton of different toxins in them, arsenic and all kinds of different led, and all kinds of different toxins.
I was working with a client the other day whose father was a builder and they used to burn all this building material and he'd sit there and breathe it in all the time and he came down with the autoimmune activation as well.
So we see that the toxicity is a huge theme in vitiligo, but also, usually there are gut issues as well. And this can be anything from dysmotility, like constipation, diarrhea, bloating.
Sometimes they have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Sometimes they have overgrowth of endemic bacteria in their gut that are supposed to be there, but just too much of them are in the gut. There's a whole planet of bacteria in your gut and they actually outnumber our own cells 10 to one. So we are just teeming with bacteria. It kind of makes me laugh when people use antibacterial products because we are just loaded with bacteria as humans.
But sometimes these bacteria, you get overgrowths of potentially pathogenic or pathogenic bacteria in your gut as well. And I'll often have people I work with, they have vitiligo, they've traveled overseas and they picked up a pathogenic species or even a parasite. And parasites exist here in the US too. We work with people all over the world, but I see a lot of people that live in countries that maybe don't have the sanitation that the US has or even in the US as well, that will wind up with all kinds of pathogenic species in their gut.
So these are all things that can stress the immune system and trigger the immune system. And food choices are part of what goes on in the gut, but food choices are so key. And unfortunately, the foods that we're eating nowadays are not very rich in nutrients and they look like a toxin to the immune system.
You can just picture the immune system looking at everything that comes down into your stomach and saying, "what is this Cool Ranch Dorito? Is this oxygen or is it... I think there's some corn in there, I'm not sure what really this is." And it surveys what's going on. It's like a surveillance system and it eventually will attack what's getting into the bloodstream. And your immune system will start attacking its own cells at some point. And this is what really triggers a whole autoimmune response, where in the case of vitiligo it's the melanocytes that are being attacked by the immune system.
So we have to calm down that immune system and really look seriously at food choices, make sure they're not toxic, make sure it's real food that people are eating so that their immune systems can calm down. We also look at intestinal permeability, that's leaky gut. We see that all the time in vitiligo, where the gut is supposed to be a semi-permeable membrane where this tiny molecules of nutrients get into the bloodstream.
But what happens in an autoimmune response is that the lining of the gut, those tight junctions will loosen up and bigger chunks of food can get into the bloodstream, and again, the immune system will start attacking. And we have to heal that gut lining. And there's ways we can do that that can reverse this whole dynamic, but we have to look at the toxicity, the gut issues. We look at people's stress, we look at their food choices.
We also really want to just maximize the best nutrients they can possibly get. And usually people with vitiligo have nutrient insufficiencies or deficiencies. Maybe they're not digesting well because of what's going on in their gut, or maybe they're not absorbing the nutrients very well, or maybe it's not getting into their cells very well for some reason. So we you look at all these reasons why they're just deficient in nutrients. And a lot of times we need to use really targeted medical grade supplements based on the lab results that we see and what they need, what each individual needs.
So we will use those supplements to replenish what's missing, and it's hopefully a short term use of the supplements. Sometimes people have genetic “snips”, they're called, SNPs or singular nucleotide polymorphisms that will predispose them to getting vitiligo and predispose them to not being able to clear toxins from their system or to methylate. So we need to look at what are those drivers, why are they are not methylating? And if they have genetic snips we may need to put them on a supplement for life that will help them to methylate or a series of supplements.
So it really depends on each individual. And that's why we look at each person, who is this person? What is going on with them? And how can we help this? And this is why our group program, we have individual visits built in with our practitioners as well. So it's a group dynamic as well as a one-on-one dynamic so we can look at the labs and make proper recommendations based on what each individual needs. Those are really the main causes. We want to maximize the nutrition, we want to minimize the toxins and then just allow the body to heal. And that can take time.
For some people it seems like they'll get pigment back within just a few weeks they'll start repigmenting. And more commonly it can take up to, eight, nine, 10 months, a year and sometimes longer. So it really depends. This is why our Vanishing Vitiligo program is actually a nine-month program, so we can see the results happening in it. And again, it takes time and it takes a lot of dedication and it's not for everybody, or it's not for people, I should say, that don't want to make lasting changes. Because there are a lot of changes you have to make in your life in order to do this.
But the good news is people usually feel so much better. I find people that have had anxiety and depression that tends to go away. People have other nagging health issues, aches and pains in their joints, et cetera, it goes away. So they're usually really, really happy with the results. Even if they don't get 100% of their pigment back, they're usually thrilled with the way they feel and the way their skin's starting to heal and feeling more energy, and vitality, and sleeping better, all these good things that come as part of being healthy. So a healthy body really doesn't depigment. So we have to address all those root drivers and that's how we have success with this.
John: Right. People don't even realize that they have a lot of other issues in their body than just the vitiligo that are caused by all these toxins in their diet and things like that. Once you correct all of that with a specialized diet and supplements, it's not just the vitiligo that starts to go away, but it's all of these other issues that they didn't even realize they had.
Jodi: That's so true. And I know sometimes people will come to me for one issue and I'm a big fan of rapid relief and helping them in some way quickly, that something that's bothering them in their health. And sometimes they'll come to me for one issue, but okay, they have acid reflux, that's been a nagging issue they've had forever so we'll work on that first. And within two weeks, three weeks, they'll come back to me and say, "oh my gosh, my acid reflux is gone. I can't believe this. I've been suffering with this for 30 years."
And so we do address the entire way a person presents to us, we address all the different nagging health issues. And again, people don't realize that most diseases can be reversed. And I know that sounds really out there. And if you had told me this about 10 years ago, I never would have believed you after suffering with chronic urticaria for so many years, myself, and having just been told it's a life sentence, and this is just the way I am, and there's nothing you can do, and here's some medication you can take for it.
But in all my years of working in functional medicine, I have just seen miraculous transformations in my own practice and that of my colleagues. And vitiligo is just one of the many things that we work with. We had a client come to my practice recently who had stage four liver disease and basically was told she was going to need a liver transplant or she's going to die. And she's on the list for it, and she came to us in desperation to see if there's anything we could do. And within two months her liver enzymes came way down, her score came way down whether or not she needed a liver transplant. And she went for a check-in with her doctor and they took her off the transplant list. She no longer needs a liver transplant.
Jodi: So there are so many things that are just completely reversible. I know this is a little off topic too, but we had a client come to us who was told she was infertile and she was 46 years old and wanted to have a baby. And sure enough, we were able to help her to get pregnant without any intervention at all. She just got pregnant with no hormones, no nothing, and had a baby, a healthy baby at age 46.
Jodi: I could go on and on with all the incredible transformations that have happened using functional medicine, but I really feel for the people with vitiligo, having had an autoimmune disease myself. And just having so much success with it that I really wanted to make this my first group program that I offered because there's just so many people suffering with it and it's just not even necessary.
John: You mentioned that it's a real lifestyle change for people and that's part of the reason that you have this group session with people to sort of support them through that. How difficult is it? It sounds like a change in diet, and maybe taking some supplements and things like. Is it really hard for people? And what do you do to kind of help them to go through that in terms of their lifestyle change?
Jodi: Well, it can be difficult to make the lifestyle changes, but we take it in steps. We make it very easy for people to follow the program. And we usually ask people, "how aggressively do you want to work, on a scale of one to 10?” One meaning almost nothing, very, very baby steps, and 10 meaning “just tell me what to do, I'm going to do it."
Jodi: And most people are around a seven or eight. And some people come to me and they say, "I'm a 10, tell me what to do."
Jodi: We will work with people as aggressively as they need to, and so we give them steps to take. We can't tell them everything to do at once because it's actually impossible. It's probably not great for the body to shock everything at once. We want to take things in steps, and this is why we do things over time. And it takes a while for the body to heal. So we will look at each individual and spend a couple hours going through their lab work and figuring out a plan for them so that they are able to work it into their own life and take the things and do the things that they need to do for their unique body in order to heal.
So we may only give one or two things to do in a two week period. And then two weeks later they'll come back and say, "oh my gosh, I can't believe this." Or something positive happens and that usually galvanizes their commitment to wanting to do more. So they come back and they'll say, "oh my gosh, tell me what else to do. This is fantastic."
And I had this with a client, even just listening to somebody I met with his wife, who kept coughing and clearing her throat throughout the consultation with him for his health issues and I said to her, "can I make a couple suggestions for you over the next two weeks?" And she came back two weeks later and said, "oh my gosh, you're a genius. My coughing went away, I can't believe it." And it's just a bonus of working together.
But there were so many little things that add up to disease, and you address the small things and you chip away at all the different root drivers and people get better. So it's amazing to see the transformations. It's been the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life is seeing these huge transformations of every everything from nagging little symptoms to huge transformations in health.
But sometimes people will come to me for just vitiligo, but then they realized that their energy was tanked. They didn't realize that and now instead of their energy being a 3 out of 10, it's now a 9 out of 10, or other things like their colitis has cleared up, they feel so much better, they don't have to take their medication anymore. Sometimes people will come to us with 8 to 10 different medications or sometimes more.
And unfortunately, one of the leading causes of death is polypharmacy. People don't realize every medication as blessed as this medication can be, and as much as it can give you wonderful relief, it's a toxin and your liver has to deal with it. And people don't sometimes realize that the effects of multiple, multiple medications can have a lot of stress on the liver, which the liver's job is really to clear your toxins out of your body. So you may have trouble clearing the toxins, which is a big driver for disease, including vitiligo.
So anyway, those are the big issues with vitiligo. And we love to help people with all their different health issues. But this program, I think will be transformative for so many people out there. And if you know anybody that has vitiligo that may need some help and support, please let them know about our program.
John: Absolutely, yes. Well, that's really great information, Jodi. And thanks again for speaking with me today.
Jodi: Thank you so much, John.
John: And for more information, you can visit the website at floryandfranklin.com or vanishingvitiligo.com.