Medical Examiner

Political Hack, Medical Quack

Glenn Beck says he has adrenal fatigue. Endocrinologists beg to differ.

Photo by John Sommers II/Reuters

Bright-eyed and bushy-glanded once again.

Photo by John Sommers II/Reuters

Glenn Beck used to be a very sick man. Last week he revealed that he has suffered through years of debilitating physical symptoms—intense pain in his extremities, an inability to speak, vision loss, and severe chronic insomnia. He feared for his career, and even his life, until he was diagnosed and treated for adrenal fatigue and other unspecified disorders. Beck says he’s now on the road to recovery.

I’ve never met Glenn Beck, nor listened to him for more than a few minutes at a time. In fact, I didn’t realize Beck was still working until a Slate colleague sent me an article about his health revelation. As a fellow human, I’m genuinely pleased that his health has improved, but I’m very concerned about the story he’s telling.

Let’s start with one of Beck’s diagnoses—adrenal fatigue. You have two thumb-sized adrenal glands sitting atop your kidneys. They produce many of the hormones you know by name, including testosterone and adrenaline. Like any other part of your body, the adrenal glands can malfunction. The accepted scientific term for most of these problems is “adrenal insufficiency.” The autoimmune system, for example, sometimes attacks the glands, suppressing production of cortisol. The result is Addison’s disease, which can cause muscle fatigue, weight loss, nausea, and a host of other symptoms. Acute cases can be fatal, especially in young people.

Adrenal insufficiency, however, must be kept separate from adrenal fatigue. Immunologist James Wilson coined the latter term in 1998 to describe a syndrome caused by prolonged stress overburdening the adrenal glands. The symptoms supposedly include extreme fatigue, a general sense of unwellness, and what Wilson calls “gray” feelings.

Wilson is prone to overstatement. He boasts of three doctoral degrees, but two of them are in the scientifically dubious fields of chiropractic and naturopathic medicine. He claims that adrenal fatigue affects millions of people around the world, but provides no credible data to support that statement.

Wilson also says his book on adrenal fatigue has been “received enthusiastically by physicians.” Not exactly. The Endocrine Society—the world’s largest association of people with formal, legitimate training in the treatment of adrenal disorders—says that adrenal fatigue is “not a real medical condition.” The group goes on to say that the diagnostic tests are “not based on scientific facts or supported by good scientific studies,” and that some of the supplements prescribed for the disorder, which include extracts of animal glands, have not been adequately tested for safety.* The statement concludes by urging patients “not to waste precious time accepting an unproven diagnosis.” Endocrinologists apparently do not beat around the bush.

Robert Vigersky, a past president of the Endocrine Society, says that the adrenal glands perform in precisely the opposite manner that Wilson suggests: “When you’re under stress, the adrenal glands increase output of cortisol and related hormones, and they don’t fatigue. They continue to produce those stress hormones.”

The clinic that diagnosed and treated Glenn Beck also deserves a mention. The Carrick Brain Centers were founded by “chiropractic neurologist” Ted Carrick, who, like James Wilson, has questionable credentials. His Ph.D., for example, comes from a for-profit university that now operates exclusively online. Carrick has made wild claims about restoring patients’ eyesight and hearing. He also claims to bring people back from comas. If extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, you’d think Carrick would have a series of massive, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind studies to prove his results. In fact, he has nothing but anecdotes. Yale neurologist and noted quackery hawk Steven Novella sums the situation up nicely: “Chiropractic neurology appears to me to be the very definition of pseudoscience—it has all the trappings of a legitimate profession, with a complex set of beliefs and practices, but there is no underlying scientific basis for any of it.”

Glenn Beck says relatively little about how he was diagnosed with and treated for adrenal fatigue. The treatment included electrical stimulation, hormonal supplements, and being whirled around in some sort of gyroscope.

If this is all nonsense—as I believe it is—then why is Glenn Beck feeling so much better? Here’s one possibility: He made a bunch of life changes that are known to treat a wide range of disorders. He slept. He ate healthier foods. He exercised and went through physical therapy. Those are reliable first-line treatments for everything from high blood pressure to diabetes to some mild psychological disorders. If Beck benefitted from a miracle cure, these lifestyle changes were it.

There’s a particularly irksome layer to Beck’s story that shows how quacks sell themselves to patients. If his account is to be believed, it appears that some of Beck’s treatment providers spent as much time stroking his ego as treating his ailments.

Beck claims that the doctors told him it was “normal for someone processing as much information as he was” to become disoriented and forget familiar faces. There are many things wrong with this statement. First, I’m not sure how a doctor could quantify Beck’s daily information processing burden—whatever that means—let alone conclude his was higher than the data load of us mere mortals. Even if that calculation were possible, is there any evidence to suggest that people who “process” high levels of information forget what year it is? If that’s true, I think we need to worry much more about air traffic controllers.

Beck also said that his doctors “told him he should not have been standing, and only his faith in God had kept him moving.” Wow. That doctor certainly knew how to make Glenn Beck purr. Or perhaps Beck confused his doctors with his priest. Either way, I humbly suggest that you seek a second opinion when a doctor attributes your health to divine intervention.

A final, more general point: Why do celebrities keep forcing us to have these conversations about their private medical problems? Glenn Beck, Tom Cruise, Jenny McCarthy, and their ilk are entertainers, but they don’t know the first thing about evidence-based medicine. Their commentary isn’t helpful to people who do, and it has the potential to mislead people about how to manage their own health.

“When you get celebrities touting their personal stories and what they think is a cure, you’re going to see some ‘outbreaks’ among patients,” says Vigersky.

So welcome back, Glenn Beck. Now please get back to making misleading statements about politics, and leave medicine alone.

*Correction, Jan. 8, 2015: This article originally repeated a claim by the Endocrine Society that some supplements prescribed for adrenal fatigue contain extracts of human glands. This is not true. The Endocrine Society is correcting its fact sheet. (Return.)