I was looking for a list of pseudoscience topics for a little April Fool’s Day prank. As I scrolled through lists of things like UFOs and belief in a “flat Earth,” something rocked me back.
A health condition that I had been diagnosed with was on the list.
This was not something I was expecting to see. I wasn’t even thinking about health issues at the time. I was in a joking and creative mood. It was a bit like being splashed with cold water.
Then I nodded to myself. Okay. When the data change, the conclusion must change. New evidence needs to result in a new attitude.
This is because I’ve learned to identify with being a scientific person, rather than identifying with a diagnosis.
Now, this posture is not easy. It’s hard to figure out exactly where to draw the line sometimes between “traditional doctors and medicine have not been helpful to me” and “I am a completely unique organism on whom no standards apply.”
Just because I have not been served well by the traditional system, just because I may not have gotten answers for what is bothering me, does not then automatically mean that the alternative system has any answers either.
It also doesn’t mean there are no answers at all.
What I have tried to do is to become more rigorous about tracking my own metrics, analyzing my own data, and doing things that make sense to take care of myself. In practice, this usually puts me at odds with... just about everyone.
I had a discussion with a Kaiser doctor about stress. The basic tenet of modern medicine seems to be that “stress causes illness.” That makes no sense to me. How does stress know which of 70,000 possible medical conditions to cause? I told the doctor that it made more sense to me that “illness causes stress.” Most people start with low-level health issues, like chronic dehydration, sleep deprivation, and mineral deficiencies. Anyone with a chronic underlying issue would then feel some level of mental or emotional stress, because how could they not?
She nodded along and told me I had a point.
My stance is that my ideas are testable. It would be possible to collect objectively verifiable numeric data. Whereas it doesn’t seem possible to test the idea that “stress” causes [diabetes, cancer, lupus, or whatever] and then guess in advance what disease an individual was going to develop out of that stress. To me that idea is mystical in the extreme. It’s like a cop-out. Who in our culture is going to be able to avoid “stress” in order to stay healthy?
Anyway. I suppose you’re curious what pseudoscientific diagnosis I was given that was so weird it landed on a Wikipedia page.
It was ‘adrenal fatigue.’
The year was 1998, and apparently this was a new concept in alternative medicine at the time.
How was I to know one way or the other? The person who diagnosed me has a degree, worked in a clinic, and was wearing a white lab coat and a stethoscope.
The basic idea of adrenal fatigue was that a chronic state of exhaustion could deplete the adrenal glands, causing a state of fatigue that would not be resolved until the adrenal glands could sort of catch up production.
What caused this is that I was working forty hours a week and taking fourteen credit hours per term as a university freshman. I would get up in the morning, ride my bike 5 miles across town, take a class, ride back downtown, put in a full day at work, ride back to campus, take another class, and then ride my bike home again. After dinner and chores, I would do my reading and homework and then go to bed.
I was sleeping about three hours a night, five on weekends. I was riding my bike 15-20 miles a day.
Nobody told me, because nobody asked, that sleeping 30 hours a week for a year was going to start affecting my energy level.
It never really occurred to me that other people weren’t trying to do what I was doing.
What drove me to the doctor’s office was that I collapsed at work. I also collapsed at the grocery store. I had been having migraines and was generally exhausted all the time. Clearly something was wrong.
It didn’t take a formal medical diagnosis, though. Probably even a preschool-age child could have said, “Gee, lady, you aren’t getting enough sleep.”
Again, nobody asked how much I was sleeping.
I was sent to a mainstream doctor. They did an EEG and referred me for an ultrasound of my heart. Whatever came back, I was put on a prescription for beta blockers and told that drinking alcohol could give me a stroke. (Fortunately, I’ve never been a drinker and that was not an issue for me the way it might have been for other people my age).
I was 23.
What wound up happening was that I took the summer off from school. I had no classes and no homework, and of course I started sleeping more.
Then fall term started, and I tried to kick into gear again.
I wasn’t able to handle the strain. I dropped out, eating the cost of my first term’s tuition. Then my husband asked for a divorce, we split up, and I wound up enrolling again a couple years later. While I had a work-study job and several side hustles, I no longer attempted to both work and take classes full-time.
The common-sense answer to my situation was to get more sleep. Most people probably could have told me that if I took out loans, I could quit my job and go to school full-time. That didn’t occur to me until years later.
The traditional medical answer to my situation was to run me through two scanners, do a bunch of blood tests, and then prescribe a pharmaceutical.
The alternative medical answer given to me by a naturopath was to diagnose “severe adrenal fatigue” and then refer me to a physician. That’s probably fair.
But then neither the naturopath nor the physician asked any questions about my finances, my support system at home, or anything about my habits, neither sleep nor nutrition nor fitness.
My basic common-sense rule of fitness is now to start with sleeping eight hours a night, drinking at least 64 ounces of water, eating 4 cups of vegetables a day (mostly cruciferous), and track what I’m doing. That way I have records if I need to argue with my doctor about something, like, say, his refusing to order me a COVID test until I gave him a page-long list of my symptoms.
One day, our smartphones will be capable of diagnosing all sorts of things, from heart arrhythmia to eye conditions to parasitic infection. I’m convinced of this. It will be a major revolution in medicine when we don’t have to depend on the opinions of exhausted, distracted doctors, and when we don’t turn to questionable alternatives out of sheer frustration and desperation.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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