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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2 years ago
Posted by AutismNewsBeat

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck..

2 years ago
Posted by JIB

The man is not a Quack. The last Doctor my wife went to regarding her Thyroid was the top in Chicago according to this publication. He and several failed to diagnose my wife with hashimoto Thyroiditis. Mercola helped my wife identify what was wrong and how to manage it. The man changed her life and made our lives together what is once was before the effects of her disease crippled her. I also do a lot of heavy weight training and had severe joint issues. I stopped taking excessive amounts of three supplements after his recommendation for a supplement that all but cured my joint pain.

2 years ago
Posted by quackquack

He is absolutely the worst kind of quack and snake-oil salesman!! Do you REALLY think that your doctor doesn't want the best outcome for you? REALLY??? I'll stick with my MD (no DO for me please) and her scentifically proven medical advice over this jerk off or that other quack "Dr." Oz anyday. And Mercola's "girlfriend" is a 40 year old nut-job. Birds of a feather people.

2 years ago
Posted by nyscof

Apparently this reporter doesn't know how to navigate the science literature. It would serve the reader to know that Dr. Mercola has science to back him up and people like Dr. Stephen Barret do not.

We don't need to know the color of his clothes or the archetectural details of his office. We need hard science.

2 years ago
Posted by NaturalCures

Beware of people trying to make you healthy so that you can avoid expensive doctor visits, expensive meds, and expensive operationsl. BEWARE!!!!!

2 years ago
Posted by Edith Prickly

Beware of people online hucksters trying to make you healthy afraid of real doctors so that you can avoid expensive doctor visits avoid getting properly diagnosed, waste your money on expensive medsuseless snake oil treatments, and need expensive operations when believing the quack grifter causes you to ignore a real illness until it’s too late to treat it less invasively. BEWARE!!!!!

FTFY

2 years ago
Posted by Edith Prickly

Sorry for the HTML fail above. The point I was trying to make is that this guy is a completely shameless huckster who is putting people's health at risk by deliberately trying to frighten them off from mainstream medicine and then lining his own pockets selling useless quack treatments instead. He may have been a legit doctor at one point but obviously realized he could make a lot more money by telling people fairy tales about "natural cures" online, thereby avoiding the need for tedious office visits with complaining patients and more importantly, escaping any responsibility when his bad advice doesn't work.

2 years ago
Posted by michael.h

As long as the FDA is a Wholly Owned Subsidiary of pharma, those who be believe that conventional drugs are safe and effective are in jeopardy. The medical journals are just an extension of a very flawed, at best, if not outright scientifically and ethically corrupt system, which only perpetuates itself.

Mercola is not perfect, but going to Barrett and Gorski, Oy vey. Mashuganas they are.

Mercola is more right than he is wrong.

2 years ago
Posted by mary_aspinwall

Mercola asks people to look at possible causes of ill health and make lifestyle changes to prevent illness. His success in spreading this message is entirely due to the internet. Main stream media is owned by huge corporations and receives a large portion of its income from advertising revenues. For this reason is highly unlikely to upset either its owners or its patrons, including pharmaceutical companies. Mercola goes where MSM dare not tread.
Those who are quick to label Mercola a quack would do well to see how so called "real doctors" are faring. Let's look at a JAMA report on iatrogenic illness (illness caused by medical treatment) which estimates (conservatively) that it causes 225,000 deaths per year and so constitutes the third leading cause of death in the United States, after deaths from heart disease and cancer.
Most conventional doctors are in an increasingly visible glass house, its time to put the stones down...

2 years ago
Posted by ColoradoNurse

Mercola is nothing less than a modern-day John R. Brinkley, the fellow who made a fortune in the 1930s transplanting goat testicles into men's scrotums. Both have gotten rich railing against science-based medicine. Who knows how many people have suffered needlessly from this sort of charlatanism.

2 years ago
Posted by TNboy

Barrett with Quackwatch; OK that's enough for me. I can't believe anything that man posts on his website. He's a paid hack for the industry. And, using him as a source for any article puts real doubt into the intentions of the writer.

I started using some of the advice of Dr. Mercola back in 2007. Not everything he proposes works for me. However, I was once a health wreck that my doctors couldn't treat with anything but drugs. I stayed sick all the time. Then I discovered the fluoridation scam quite by accident, and stopped using fluoride in any form. Dr. Mercola has been fighting against fluoridation for years. I also had my mercury amalgams replaced with a safer material. Within several weeks my health changed for the better.

Bottom line: I can't tell you how good it is to be healthy and free of the mysterious symptoms that plagued me for 25 years. Mercola isn't perfect. But, he's a heck of a lot more trustworthy than the industry hacks that made me sick in the first place.

2 years ago
Posted by StephieC

Dr. Mercola is a brilliant doctor. I, along w/my three children, was a patient of his for 7+ years. I feel very lucky to have had those experiences as I witnessed my son's successes w/his autism protocol and I experienced a great deal of healing myself. He was kind, compassionate and took the time to explain and educate which so many practitioners don't do. I think the traditional, western medical establishment including big pharma feels extremely threatened by him which creates the need to attempt to discredit him like this. So many people are waking up and realizing that something is majorly wrong/backwards/corrupt w/medical care in this country that goes far beyond health care (sick care) coverage. I think it's a safe guess that anyone referring to him as "the worst kind snake of snake oil salesman" is either in the "traditional" medical field or pharmaceutical field OR has no clue what they're talking about. And to whomever thinks, "I'll go see an MD, NOT a DO...", well enjoy the temporary band-aid your "MD" likely slaps on whatever ails you. Documentaries like FOOD MATTERS are really helping the masses to understand how unnecessary most drugs and surgeries are and how downright crappy most "medical" advice is. Most MDs don't know jack about NUTRITION. Hello?! I had one point to a picture of a food pyramid and say, "Do that." If it wasn't for Dr. Mercola's very thorough allergy testing, my daughter and I would likely still have severe IBS/celiac issues. After years of pain, going off of gluten was all I needed. I don't blame mogst of the MDs. I think they go to medical school w/the right intentions. But the traditional medical establishment was corrupted a long time ago. You can already cure cancer, kids are dying from contaminated vaccines and so many ppl are needlessly suffering from many diseases b/c the money is not in the cure and the treatment is controlled by corrupt gov't and pharma w/the threat looming over many doctor's heads that they could lose their license if they think outside the box they were taught to practice in.
His site is a site I visit regularly and it's full of wonderful advice and great articles and the TRUTH. Lots of love

2 years ago
Posted by scienceisforsale

Chicago Mag. Credible Journalism or Pharma RAG?

"He is absolutely the worst kind of quack and snake-oil salesman!! Do you REALLY think that your doctor doesn't want the best outcome for you?........"

Hey you Quack MD! Pharma SHEEPLE Bully Thug. I WILL NEVER EVER EVER spend ONE cent for ONE second of your "MD" thuggery. You are a worthless piece of TRASH. You are arrogant and useless to anyone who desires HEALTH and WELLNESS. Go ahead, spew your satanic nonesense. The sheeple are waking up. Get on board or shut your pie hole.

I'm so sick and tired of you MD beasts defending the atrocious disease management price gouging layers of FAT. Good bye, will the real scum bag Quack stand up!!! We hire you and WE FIRE you arrogant pharma beholden Quacks! Your days are numbered.

I highly recommend Dr. Mercola.

2 years ago
Posted by scienceisforsale

Chicago Mag. Credible Journalism or Pharma RAG?

"He is absolutely the worst kind of quack and snake-oil salesman!! Do you REALLY think that your doctor doesn't want the best outcome for you?........"

Hey you Quack MD! Pharma SHEEPLE Bully Thug. I WILL NEVER EVER EVER spend ONE cent for ONE second of your "MD" thuggery. You are a worthless piece of TRASH. You are arrogant and useless to anyone who desires HEALTH and WELLNESS. Go ahead, spew your satanic nonesense. The sheeple are waking up. Get on board or shut your pie hole.

I'm so sick and tired of you MD beasts defending the atrocious disease management price gouging layers of FAT. Good bye, will the real scum bag Quack stand up!!! We hire you and WE FIRE you arrogant pharma beholden Quacks! Your days are numbered.

I highly recommend Dr. Mercola.

2 years ago
Posted by Healthy DIning Chicago

He's part visionary...part quack. Problem is 99% of educated people, including me, would find it almost impossible to differentiate the info he disseminates as to which is which.

2 years ago
Posted by maiasmommy

I've seen more quacks, of the M.allard D.uck persuasion, than I've ever seen of real healers. Shame, shame, Chicago mag for not revealing that Dr. Barrett's "business" location is his shabby basement as a paid hack for a zombie allopathic predator cult.

2 years ago
Posted by thetruthergirl

How can you trust the FDA when their food safety czar, Michael Taylor, is a former Monsanto lobbyist? Just to give one example.

2 years ago
Posted by elive

Dear Chicago Magazine and Bryan Smith,

Worst case of one sided journalism I've seen in a long while.

Did you ever take journalism 101 or do you not have a degree in the particular subject (I'm guessing the latter)

First rule *I* learned in my introductory class was that you interview the person/subject (in this case Dr. Mercola) and then you interview people both FOR and against him. But YOU (one sided unfair journalism) only interviewed people (plural!) against him!

I am thoroughly disgusted by this magazine. Between that and the ads for escorts (oops I mean personal ads for rich dating companions) in the back it's really gone downhill almost as bad as your poor excuse for journalism. Go back to school if you've ever been at all.

Funny all the ads seem to be against your piece. No surprise.

2 years ago
Posted by DrRexDexter

I would weigh into this one, this way. Dr Mercola challenges us to investigate further, something one should do regardless of which "Authority" is making statements. Failure to do this has given us the mess we have Politically, Economically, Medically, and Legally in this country we are now challenged to fix.

Is Mercola always right? To say so is the same "lock-step" pattern he alludes is a problem with "Traditional Medicine". However, the quote "Real Medicine really work...", is one of the most inept "blanket statements" that a "Traditional Physician" could have chosen to make in defense of the bloated Medical Industry.

(A) Actually and often, it DOESN'T. When you see the commercials, 1/3 of the time explains the benefits, 2/3+ of the time is devoted to the potential problems. Odds are, the drug in question could end up recalled and/or the basis of a class action suit.

(B) In fact, under the guidance of Big Pharma and Food Giants like ADM and Monsanto, Paramilitary raids, wherein no arrests are actually made are being carried out all the time, most recently one against California's Largest Organic Food Company, Organic Pastures. There were no specific complaints, no violations of any Health Code, and any conduct that would need to be called into question. None the less, property was destroyed, people detained and released, and products and animals seized.

It's time "WE The People" realize that we should not blindly trust ANYONE with regards our Health. If we want to achieve and maintain that health, it's likely going to require a learning curve and some responsibility on our parts.

2 years ago
Posted by andia

This article has nothing to do with honest reporting . It has defaming bias of Dr. Mercola vast achievements in the field of natural health maintenance and supplementation. I strongly believe it was written by special order of big pharma interest groups. Dr. Mercola has always the right answers but if he is wrong sometimes he admits it in his writings. I follow his advices and confront his ideas with other sources. Most of them I agree with. Many people who like to take care of themselves and want to avoid trouble in dealings with very costly and overpriced health industry, hospitals, etc, should at least understand how the body function, what toxic materials should be avoided in this modern world (fluoride, mercury), be aware of supplementation, nutrition and medication. You could find all answers in Dr. Mercola articles. I use his healthy shop for my own benefit and I am confident it works. By the way, there is no problem at all with refunds. Dr. Mercola is a man of honor, very passionate and reporting very honestly. I wish all of our media are free and independent and broadcast as frankly, directly, fairly and openly as Dr. Mercola.

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