Do you have Forer’s Disease?

via Flickr, by SuperFantasticA hidden disorder may be making you ill. It’s quite common, but many people don’t know they have it and conventional doctors tend to ignore it. Medical tests fail often enough, turning up negative while patients continue to suffer a plethora of symptoms. Few people will have all of these symptoms, and most symptoms will be intermittent, and at least partially resolve when the patient is more active, so there will be great variability between patients. An estimated 80% of people experience Forer’s Disease at some point in their lives, yet it is frequently overlooked and misunderstood by the medical community. Forer’s Disease is becoming a popular topic in the medical community; as a result, it is important to recognize the symptoms of this particular condition. Sufferers typically experience a wide assortment of symptoms, and it’s important to learn how to recognize them.

Most sufferers of Forer’s Disease experience some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Backache
  • Mood swings
  • Digestive upset, such as nausea, indigestion, and gas pains
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Insomnia
  • Low energy/malaise
  • Joint pain
  • Decreased libido
  • Constipation
  • Skin irritation
  • Memory problems
  • Cravings, especially for sugar, salt, and fat

Sound familiar?  Of course it does, because the actual condition that leads to these symptoms is “being human.”  Pretty much every person (in an affluent nation at least) will experience many of these symptoms at some point in their lives.  And people are more likely to experience many of them during periods of high stress or, let’s face it, when we’re getting older.

I borrowed the name Forer from the Forer Effect, in which subjects assign a high level of accuracy to a list of vague and generally applicable descriptions, when the list is presented as a personalized profile of the subject.  It is most often used to discuss horoscopes and personality tests (“You are a caring person, but sometimes you fail to live up to your own ethical standards.  You enjoy being with other people, but sometimes feel shy and reticent”), but I think a similar effect occurs when someone suffering from obnoxious symptoms reads a list like the one above, paired with a proffered cure.  The list of symptoms seems to be so accurate, even tailored to the reader.  It’s easy to believe that the web site or book you’re reading is accurately diagnosing what’s wrong with you.

Deliberate quacks and misguided natural health gurus alike have a tendency to cobble together a similar list of “if you’re human you have them” symptoms and assign a disease to them.  If you have many of the above symptoms you qualify for Systemic Yeast, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Gluten Sensitivity (with negative Celiac test), Subluxations, Adrenal Fatigue, Electromagnetic Sensitivity, and Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome, and probably a dozen more fad diagnoses that have come and gone over the years. The problem is that aggregating a bunch of common symptoms and deducing a particular disease isn’t reliable.  As you can see, it casts far too wide a net.

It is true that there are established, scientifically supported disorders that create symptoms on the Forer’s list, and which don’t have a definitive test for diagnosis. But in such cases, emphasis is placed on ruling out other possible causes before diagnosing something like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Depression. On the other hand, quackish sources will actually recommend the opposite:

First, list every single symptom that nags you, whether sporadic or chronic. Don’t make assumptions, like my back problems are from sitting too much. Just list them without trying to explain them away.

(From the Gluten Sensitivity link, above.)

It can be particularly confusing because many of these suspect symptom-list descriptions promote disorders that play on the edges of well-established diseases, such as hypothyroidism or celiac disease.  And it is true that medical science doesn’t always get things right (to say the least!). So what do you do to try to feel better? Personally, I think there are two vital steps to take before you put yourself on a highly restricted diet or other regimen that may cost money or interfere with quality of life.

First, see a medical doctor who is trained in ferreting out actual, verified disorders.  And of course, if a doctor doesn’t take your symptoms seriously when you say they are causing you distress, find someone else.  A bad doctor may say, “Systemic Yeast isn’t real – it’s all in your head!”  A good doctor will say, “Systemic Yeast isn’t a recognized diagnosis, but we do need to get to the bottom of the recurrent vaginal infections, fatigue, and stomach pain that have been bothering you.” It’s also important to remember that more than one thing could be wrong.  Recurrent vaginal yeast infections might turn out to be a misdiagnosed bacterial infection, fatigue may be from low Vitamin D levels, and stomach pain could be from lactose intolerance.  If you assume at the outset that an entire list of disparate symptoms must spring from a single underlying disease, you could be missing some obvious answers.

Second, go ahead and follow the universal recommendations among healthcare professionals of every stripe: eat a plant-heavy diet full of fruits and vegetables and low in processed foods.  Get moderate exercise on a regular basis.  Drink water when you’re thirsty. Practice good sleep habits and give yourself enough rest time. Pretty much everyone agrees that these practices are the foundation of good health, and introduce little to no risk. Adopting these habits is likely to ameliorate most of the symptoms above, and it’s no coincidence that a lot of cures proposed for Forer’s-like diseases happen to introduce some or all of them. Unfortunately they also tend to be so restrictive that they detract from quality of life, and go hand in hand with alt-med supplements or treatments that likely do no good and at least cause the harm of extracting money from you needlessly.

(N.B.: I also borrowed all the scare-language in the first paragraph from the various malady web sites I linked to.)

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About Christine

I'm a full-time mother to two kids, an ex-lawyer, a breastfeeding counselor, a skeptic, and (to steal a phase from Penn & Teller) a "science cheerleader." You can e-mail me at skepticalmothering (at) gmail (dot) com.

Posted on January 16, 2013, in Health, Pseudoscience, Skepticism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Boy, you sure had me going, reading as fast as I could to get the cure for “Forer’s Desease”! ;-)

  2. You have every person reading this saying, “OMG I HAVE THAT! THAT’S IT!” and then the truth comes out. Great post!

  3. A systemic yeast infection is a real diagnosis, and hopefully a doctor would be sending someone to the hospital immediately if that’s what they suspected. It’s life threatening! For example : http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23131229
    Good post otherwise :)

    • Yup, as I understand it people who have serious immune suppression (such as AIDS patients and transplant recipients) may develop candida in the bloodstream. But as with so much woo, there’s also a totally illegitimate spin on systemic yeast where people check off a Forer’s style symptom list and are instructed to go to a naturopath for herbal supplements, or sign up for a hormone-balancing supplement installment package – just $50 a month! http://www.womentowomen.com/digestionandgihealth/candida.aspx

  4. Hello Christine.
    May I translate this into Hebrew?
    thanks in advance

  1. Pingback: Ko je Bog zalotil Adama in Evo

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