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Dr. Mercola: Visionary or Quack?

Americans’ growing interest in alternative medicine has helped turn suburban Chicago doctor Joseph Mercola into one of the most popular voices in natural health. So why does he have so many people riled up?

Photo: Taylor Castle

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Dr. Mercola as a guest on 'The Dr. Oz Show'
“Plenty of my fellow doctors are going to be angry with me for asking him back [on my show],” Oz said when introducing Mercola in 2011.

Mercola didn’t always stand on the fringes of health care. Early on, he eagerly embraced so-called allopathic medicine—a term that originally referred to the practice of traditional health care but has become a mocking putdown by certain alternative-medicine advocates.

Born and raised in Chicago, Mercola lacked professional role models at home: His mother was a waitress and his father a deliveryman for Marshall Field’s. But, he says, he was “always passionate about learning.”

After graduating from Lane Tech College Prep High School and from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he majored in biology and chemistry, he got a job compounding prescriptions in the pharmacy of a medical center. Next came a degree from the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine, a small school in Downers Grove. (Unlike an MD, an osteopath, or DO, is trained to focus on prevention and holistic treatment. DOs and MDs are considered equivalent by state licensing boards.)

In 1985, Mercola launched a small private practice out of an 800-square-foot office in Schaumburg. At first, he was a traditional drug-prescribing doctor. He even worked as a paid speaker for a drug company, promoting estrogen replacement therapy. “I thought drugs were the answer,” he says with a shrug.

That changed in the early 1990s, when conventional treatments failed to help a young patient with recalcitrant diarrhea. Flummoxed, Mercola found a possible answer in a book called The Yeast Connection. After he tried the all-natural protocol the book recommended, he says, “the kid had a miraculous recovery.”

Over the next several years, Mercola began networking with a number of like-minded physicians “who were getting pretty good results with nontraditional therapies.” He grew increasingly skeptical of traditional medicine and interested in treatments designed, he says, to “treat the whole person” rather than just symptoms. “I became very passionate about this new approach. I immersed myself in the science of nutrition and found peers who had better results making patients truly responsible for the care of their bodies,  teaching them how to do so without writing out a new drug prescription for each office visit.”

In 1997, as a way to share what he had found that would be “useful and helpful,” he started Mercola.com. It proved a hit. But because it didn’t charge for content or accept ads, it was also a money drain. In the first three years, Mercola estimates that he spent half a million dollars on the site. To keep it afloat, he says, “I had three options: to get paid subscribers; to sell information, which I didn’t want to do; or to sell products, which is what I wound up doing. . . . The purpose for selling items is to have a revenue stream so we can pay our staff to provide information to educate the public and make a difference and fund [our] initiatives.”

The success of the site gave a significant boost to his practice, Mercola says: “I had people flying in from all over the world. It always puzzled me: when people came in, I wouldn’t tell them anything different than I had written on the site. They could have just as easily looked it up for free. But they had to hear it from me.” (Mercola stopped practicing medicine six years ago to focus on the website.)

His success also afforded some lifestyle perks. In 2006, for example, he bought a spacious $2 million waterfront home with a pool in tony South Barrington. But Mercola is not one of those bold-faced names who are regularly spotted rubbing elbows with the city’s society set. He has never married and has no children; he does have a girlfriend, he says, but he declines to discuss her.

As he built his site, Mercola began filling it with articles he wrote, on subjects such as his conviction that vitamin D “positively influences” conditions from heart disease to diabetes to cancer. (Some studies do suggest that elevated levels of vitamin D may protect against certain cancers.) He shared his views about issues such as hospital-acquired infections and the overuse and improper use of antibiotics. He reiterated the importance of preventive care and said that spending more time with patients could help them heal. And he recommended eating unprocessed foods and getting plenty of exercise. These are all stances that few mainstream doctors would argue with.

But he also took more controversial positions. On pharmaceuticals, for example: “There are a few drugs—very, very few—that I would recommend.” Among his reasons: Drugs treat symptoms rather than underlying causes, many are unproven, and they can cause immense harm.

“You have more than 100,000 people every year [in the United States] dying from taking legally prescribed drugs,” Mercola says, citing a 1994 study from the University of Toronto. “No people in a typical year are dying from vitamin supplements,” he continues, his voice rising. “And yet vitamins are vilified and drugs are identified as the hero. It doesn’t make sense.” (It’s not unknown for people to die from overusing supplements, which escape FDA review so long as they do not make health claims on the label.)

“Fraud. Kickbacks. Price-setting, bribery, and illegal sales activities,” Mercola rants in a characteristically scathing web posting. “Add in all the doctored and back-dated documents, federal and civil lawsuits, and billions of dollars in government sanctions, fines, and penalties—not to mention the deaths—and you’d think it was the script for a thriller global action movie. But no, it’s just Big Pharma at its deceitful best, dancing all the way to the bank while . . . endangering the lives of regular people like you and me.”

It’s true, of course, that many prescription drugs have been yanked from the market over the years because of serious health risks and side effects. Consider Vioxx, which Mercola says he flagged as potentially dangerous years before Merck withdrew it in 2004 over reports that it raised the risks of heart attack and stroke.

It’s also true that not all drug companies have the cleanest reputations. Just last November, British drug maker GlaxoSmithKline agreed to pay a record $3 billion settlement to the U.S. government over allegations of improper sales and marketing practices involving numerous drugs, including the diabetes medication Avandia. Federal prosecutors also accused GlaxoSmithKline of paying doctors and manipulating research to promote the drug, which has been linked to heart problems.

“There’s no doubt that people die after taking conventional medicine,” Salzberg says. “Those things happen and are bad and should be corrected, absolutely. But the solution is not to believe the claims of Dr. Mercola that because something is natural it’s better. He’s really just changing the topic on you.”

Joseph Ross, a cardiologist and an assistant professor of medicine at Yale University, agrees with Salzberg. “The issue is more complicated than Mercola is making it. Yes, there are problems with the [drug] industry, problems with the relationships between the industry and the profession, and problems with the medical literature due to industry distortions. However, many of the pharmaceuticals available to us today are both safe and effective and are improving the lives of patients. I do not advocate throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

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