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Fasting, Vaccines, and Controversy: Q&A with Dr. Joseph Mercola

Dr. Joseph Mercola is one of the most influential physicians online today, and also one of the most controversial. We spoke with the doctor about his website, medical advice, and his response to critics on some hot-button issues.
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When it comes to distributing health and wellness information online, few have been in the biz as long as Dr. Joseph Mercola. A board-certified family physician and Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, Mercola promotes natural healing methods as solutions to many of today’s most common healthcare challenges. Since launching Mercola.com in 1997 — before many of us even had Internet connections — Dr. Mercola has led one of the Web’s most trafficked health sites and penned thousands of articles and several books on a huge variety of wellness topics. His site also launched its own line of branded nutritional supplements in the early 2000s.

But his success hasn’t come without controversy. Researchers, other healthcare professionals, and the FDA have criticized his site for providing a forum for harmful fringe theories ranging from the “true” source of HIV/AIDS to purported risks of common vaccinations. His personal opinions have also been attacked for misleading readers in order to sell supplements. And he’s recently come under fire for questioning the effectiveness and safety of mammograms for finding cancer while advocating for alternative methods of detection.

We spoke with Dr. Mercola about his advocacy of fasting, his criticism of vaccines, and how his team develops content for one of the biggest health websites in existence.

Note: This interview has been condensed for clarity. As with all interviews, Greatist is not necessarily condoning any of the techniques or practices mentioned here, and the answers are the interview subject’s opinions and theirs alone.

You talk a lot on your site about intermittent fasting. Why do you recommend intermittent fasting, and what protocol are you the biggest proponent of?

They probably all work to some extent, but I’m a big fan because I think it’s a very powerful tool to improve your health, and it does that by improving leptin and insulin the same way. I believe it’s because we’re largely designed to operate how our ancestors did, and thanks to modern technology most of us don’t really go through a fasting component; we’re in a constant feasting mode. As a result our biochemistry tends not to be optimized.

What are some specific health benefits of intermittent fasting?

In most of our country, most of the population is overweight, two thirds or so. The most significant benefit is to optimize your weight. In addition to that all the signs would be optimized cholesterol levels, improved blood sugar control, and normalized blood pressure. Plus you’ll start to feel better. For me, once you’ve made the transition — which could take more than a few weeks for some people — your hunger and cravings for sugars and carbs tend to disappear and you’re able to go long periods without feeling hungry.

Can you give an example of a typical day in an intermittent fasting protocol?

I think what works best for most people is to work around the fact that they’re not eating while they’re sleeping. For most people that’s about eight hours, so you try to combine that on either end. And then you can just skip breakfast, which we’re all told is the most important meal of the day but I think it’s one of the worst because the typical breakfast you’re exposed to tends to be not healthy foods that are loaded with carbohydrates. Waffles, pancakes, cereals, toast, all those types of foods. If you go to any typical restaurant those are your typical options. You stop eating three hours before you go to sleep and you essentially go as long as you can after waking up without eating food. And when you first started it might only be a half hour or so but you extend it to the point where you’ll have a 16 to an 18-hour window when you’re not eating. And during that time when you’re not eating you try to reduce the carbohydrates you’re consuming and try to replace them with healthy fats. Olive oil, coconut oil, butter, eggs, nuts, and my particular favorite is macadamia is because they are relatively low in protein and high in fats. The key is to focus on high-quality fats and really avoid low-quality or poor fats such as trans fats of course, but even omega-6 vegetable oil like corn oil and soy oil, which are loaded in process foods.

A lot of people might recognize your name as being from the realm of “alternative medicine.” Do you think this is a fair label for what you do and the advice you give?

I’m a board-certified family physician and have seen over 25,000 patients over 20 years and have a fair level of clinical experience, and the focus is really on using time-honored, natural strategies. I think the key is natural strategies that don’t rely on drugs or surgery to address the common health challenges that most people have. I’ve been trained in the conventional medical system and am convinced that it’s a miserable failure for the vast majority of health challenges that people have. They’re expensive and typically loaded with loads of side effects and largely responsible for increasing the death rate from these complications.

How important is it to your brand that you are a conventionally trained physician?

I think it’s an important element because people who read the material know that it’s framed in understanding of both sides, it’s not just coming from a prejudicial viewpoint.

It’s flu season, and there was recently an article on your site arguing some of the best ways to prevent the flu have nothing to do with a vaccine. Do you recommend the flu vaccine, and have you gotten one this year?

No, I’ve never gotten the flu vaccine ever. I just don’t think that there’s enough evidence to support its use. The studies that have looked at it will show that there really isn’t evidence to support that it’s beneficial. So I don’t feel that it’s wise to get that at all; I think it’s a move in the wrong direction.

Over the years you’ve endorsed and sold a variety of products on your site. What differentiates them from other products and supplements available online?

Selling products is something that I didn’t start off with. The site has been around for 17 years and for the first four years we didn’t sell anything. But then we realized that someone had to pay the bills because I couldn’t pay them through my medical practice anymore because it was getting very expensive. So we made the decision early on not to have advertisers that would be promoting products I didn’t agree with. That really only left me with the option to sell my own items, and I decided to only sell products I use or would use or that my family members would use. And that really provided a unique advantage that wasn’t really available then, focusing on the highest quality products that are available for a specific need. So we don’t really sell a lot of different supplements, just a few dozen that fill a specific niche that are really high quality and tend to offer a powerful tool that help people regain their health.

On your site, how do you balance accuracy with the potential for clicks when making headlines?

There’s five of us on the content team that has input to answer that very specific question. We have a team of four people who write headlines. As you know, it’s a really important element of having your material read because you could have the best material in the world, but if no one clicks on the article the effectiveness of that copy or content is diminished. So it is a fine balance. Our team regularly rejects up to 25 percent of submitted headlines because it doesn’t satisfy this requirement. But sometimes it’s similar to walking a fence, and you’re going to err on one side or the other, and we make the best effort we can to be as truthful and accurate as possible while still giving some compelling reason to click on the article. We recently modified our process. We used to put the headline in the day’s email that went out on the article, but we put a toned-down headline on the article that’s posted on the site.

What do you think is the next step for your website?

We’re really committed to liberty initiatives; there’s four that we’re looking at right now. One is of course the GMO labeling initiative that we were the main leader last year in the California ballot initiative and helping people have the right to know what’s in their food. One of the others is eliminating mercury from the dental field and also eliminating fluoride from the water supply. And then giving people the freedom to choose whether or not they want to vaccinate their children. So those are the four we’re working on and will continue to work on in the future.

How do you respond to criticism about your views on vaccines?

I would just encourage them to read the literature like we do. Every time we write an article it’s well-referenced with studies from the peer-reviewed literature. We work in conjunction with Barbara Loe Fisher who’s the founder of the National Vaccine Information Center, which is a well-recognized leader in this area that really is a strong proponent of giving people the information on both sides, that isn’t just the prejudicial one-sided view that the industry offers that has effectively been able to manipulate the vast majority of the media and public health officials to take that position, to promote vaccines as the solution for people’s health challenges.

There’s been some FDA criticism of claims made on your website regarding breast exams. How do you respond to those accusations?

We have many people oppose our positions for a variety of reasons. One of the big ones is that we’re a real threat to their economic success. So largely because of the information we’ve been able to share with people we’ve been able to subtract billions of dollars from their bottom line revenues. And there’s a response for that, and the typical response strategy they use is these federal regulatory agencies like the FDA and the FCC and the big licensing boards to come back at us, so there’s a small group of people who use these strategies and stimulate request[s] to these agencies to have actions against us because we’ve essentially hurt these institutions financially. So it’s to be expected, it’s part of the game, and more specifically with mammography we’ve been a strong advocate of informing people about the lack of effectiveness of this screening tool and the danger that can be associated with it. And also helping people understand that there are other useful technologies that essentially have no danger at all and no side effects that can be used as screening tools to identify cancers at a much earlier stage.

Has Dr. Mercola's work impacted your life? What do you think of his approach to mainstream medicine? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author @d_tao.

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