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Endocrinologists speak out about two 'Internet diseases': adrenal fatigue and Wilson's temperature fatigue

September 15, 2010

Everyone knows there is a lot of garbage on the Internet, particularly medical information that is distorted, misleading or flat-out wrong. The Hormone Foundation, the public-education affiliate of the Endocrine Society, on Wednesday issued fact sheets about two "Internet diseases": diseases that exist only in the minds of people who post about them on the Internet. The so-called diseases in question are adrenal fatigue and Wilson's temperature syndrome, diseases apparently conceived only in an effort to sell products promoted to treat them.

Adrenal fatigue, whose symptoms are said to include tiredness, trouble falling asleep at night or waking up in the morning, salt and sugar craving and needing stimulants such as coffee to get through the day, is said to be caused by overstimulation of the adrenal glands. Long-term life stresses, the theory goes, wear out the adrenal gland so that it can no longer keep up with the body's daily needs for stress hormones such as cortisol.

Those symptoms, the foundation said, may be produced by other diseases and can also occur as part of a normal, busy life.

Adrenal fatigue "is not a real medical condition," the foundation said. There are no scientific facts to support its existence, and it cannot be diagnosed through blood tests -- which would reveal a shortage of adrenal hormones.

Vitamins and supplements promoted to treat this "disease" often include extracts from human adrenal glands and hypothalamus that could be dangerous, and none of them have been tested for safety. Unfortunately, Congress has not given the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate nutritional supplements such as those marketed for adrenal fatigue.

The foundation noted, however, that there is a very real disease called adrenal insufficiency. It is not caused by stress, but by physical damage to the adrenal glands or by tumors growing on them. Its symptoms include dehydration, confusion, weight loss, weakness, dizziness and low blood pressure. Other symptoms include stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It can be diagnosed through blood tests and is treated with medications that replace the hormones the adrenal glands would normally make.

Wilson's temperature syndrome was supposedly identified in 1990 by "E. Denis Wilson M.D." of Longwood, Fla. He said that stress and illness result in a hormone imbalance that causes a lack of the thyroid hormone T3, resulting in low body temperature and slow metabolism. He promotes a product called WT3 that is supposedly a time-released version of the hormone T3, as well as special herbal and nutritional supplements. Such treatments are dangerous because too much T3 can stress the heart and damage bones.

Again, there is no medical evidence to support the existence of Wilson's temperature syndrome, no medical test can diagnose it, and there's no clinical evidence that the drugs and supplements promoted by Wilson offer any benefit. 

"Doctors urge you not to accept an unproven diagnosis like Wilson's syndrome," the foundation said. "Your symptoms could be caused by a serious health problem. To take care of your health, it is important to get a correct diagnosis and proper medical treatment."

Wilson's temperature syndrome is also discussed at Quackwatch along with other "fad diagnoses."

Neither Medicare nor insurance companies will pay for treatments for either disease because they are not considered real conditions.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II / Los Angeles Times

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