Arthritis sufferers find relief in cortisol microdoses

At age 59, Oliver Sorenson thought he would have to spend the rest of his life in a nursing home. The Ada, Minn., farmer had developed such bad arthritis that he could barely lift his arms to comb his hair or dress himself without assistance.

Helen Foundation Clinic
Nurse practitioner Tracy Beecher tests Vern Baardson's upper-body muscle strength at the Helen Foundation Clinic in West Fargo. Forum photo by Carrie Snyder.

At age 59, Oliver Sorenson thought he would have to spend the rest of his life in a nursing home. The Ada, Minn., farmer had developed such bad arthritis that he could barely lift his arms to comb his hair or dress himself without assistance.

"I figured life was over," he says. The Sorensons were seriously considering an around-the-clock care facility for him when his wife suggested they check out one last option: microdose cortisol treatment.

The treatment, developed by retired UND professor Virgil Stenberg, teaches patients to take microdoses of the hormone cortisol only when the body needs it. Used this way, Stenberg claims symptoms in auto-immune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia can be relieved without harmful side effects.

Within weeks of taking prednisone, a synthetic form of cortisol, Sorenson says he felt significantly better.

That was 20 years ago. Today, Sorenson reports that he is pain-free "95 percent of the time" and only takes a prednisone tablet a couple of times a month. "I told Virgil today, thanks for the last 20 years," Sorenson says.


Now one of Stenberg's clinics has opened in Fargo. So far, nurse practitioner Tracy Beecher has treated 40-plus patients with microdose therapy at the new clinic in the LilyCare Building in West Fargo. The clinic can be reached by calling (701) 356-8880.

A former nurse practitioner in neurosurgery at Essentia Health in Fargo, Beecher says she got involved with microdose therapy as a favor to a friend. Soon, she found herself convinced by the treatment's results.

"The changes are just astronomical," she says.

A skeptic converted

The friend who introduced Beecher to microdose therapy is the Rev. Vern Baardson.

Baardson's arthritis was once so severe he had to give sermons while sitting down and took five minutes to climb out of bed in the morning.

The disease had been in remission for years but flared up again last year. Baardson noticed he could barely get around the tennis court on certain days and struggled to play his beloved guitar.

"The thing that really pushed me is when I started losing use of that hand," says Baardson, a pastor at Triumph West in West Fargo. "I've had it so bad that it really scared me."


Baardson discovered he was allergic to many of the powerful medications prescribed by doctors.

Then he heard about a Moorhead teen who found relief from arthritis with microdoses of cortisol. He attended an informational seminar, hanging around afterward to "ask some hard questions."

"I was born an incredible skeptic. This sounded like snake-oil stuff to me," he said.

But with few options in sight, Baardson asked his physician to work with him on a microdose regimen. The doctor refused. So he approached Beecher, a frequent tennis partner.

"He was at the end of his rope," Beecher says. She decided to help him out.

Baardson saw a quick and dramatic improvement. He could run again and play guitar without pain. As an added side benefit, his psoriasis began to clear up.

The cortisol riddle

The medical community has long known that cortisone effectively controls the pain and inflammation of arthritis.


The problem is that long-term, high-dose use of the hormone causes severe side effects: bone loss, weight gain, bleeding under the skin, cataracts and an unnatural rounding of the face called "moon face." Long-term, high-dose cortisone use also can cause the adrenal system to shut down and stop producing natural cortisol. Fearful of its many side effects, doctors long ago abandoned cortisone as an arthritis treatment, favoring instead high doses of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs.

But when Virgil Stenberg's own wife, Helen, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, he developed a special interest in how it was treated. His wife lived in constant pain, had to take massive amounts of medication and received 18 surgeries on her hand, knees, hip, wrist and toes.

Stenberg thought there had to be a better answer. Armed with a doctorate in biochemistry, he turned his attention to the long-shunned cortisol. He knew the human adrenal gland daily secretes a small, level, natural dose of cortisol and that it's essential to the body's healthy functioning.

"I thought, 'It's made by the body, it controls inflammation perfectly, so what mistake have we made in logic (in using it)?' " says Stenberg, now retired and living in Mesa, Ariz.

In 1983, while reading a book on hormones, Stenberg had an epiphany. He realized that when the body suffered injury or inflammation, the adrenal glands produced a massive spike of cortisone. That spike, or "pulse," would reduce the inflammation before dropping to normal levels within 10 hours.

Tests on laboratory rats confirmed his suspicions. Stenberg realized people with arthritis couldn't seem to produce that big pulse of cortisol anymore. As a result, their bodies could no longer control inflammation, resulting in severe, long-term inflammation and auto-immune disorders.

The answer, Stenberg deduced, was to amp up the weakened cortisol response by giving a booster dose of man-made cortisol or prednisone, only when it was most needed. The prescribed amount would fall within FDA-recommended levels and be stopped when the person's pain subsided. Used this way, cortisol's side effects would be minimal.

A double-blind study on human subjects confirmed his theories. In the trials, 86 percent of rheumatoid-arthritis patients treated with his therapy averaged a 75 percent reduction in pain.


In the past 20 years, Stenberg has taught 34 physicians around the country how to administer the therapy. They have treated more than 5,000 patients for rheumatoid arthritis as well as other types of arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, Crohn's disease, asthma and Parkinson's disease.

Treatment has critics

Microdose therapy requires plenty of vigilance on the patient's part. The patient must check in regularly with his doctor, plus keep a daily pain journal in which he rates, on a scale of 0 to 10, the pain level in all affected joints and tissues.

If the total pain score is high enough to indicate an imminent flare-up, patients take just enough cortisol over a five-day cycle to provide the booster pulse they need.

"We want them to be off the medication more than they're on it," Beecher says.

She likens the daily monitoring to how a diabetic learns to monitor blood sugar.

In efforts to control inflammation, patients also receive a blood test to screen for 90 different food allergies and may receive antibiotics to combat any existing infections.

The pain journals of every patient are entered into a software program for data analysis. Based on their data, Stenberg says fibromyalgia patients have reported an average of 77 percent symptom relief while rheumatoid arthritis sufferers report 80 percent relief.


The results make some wonder why more people haven't tried this therapy.

The biggest roadblock, Stenberg says, is that the medical profession has been trained to fear cortisone.

"The paradigm that cortisone has side effects is a paradigm that is incorrect," he says. "This paradigm has done more damage and caused more pain and suffering than any other state in the history of medicine."

He points to patients who have been on microdose therapy for 20 years yet have strong bones, good vision and normal body weights. That group includes his wife, Helen.

Stenberg, now 77, also says he doesn't have the resources or influence to convince Medicare or other insurance companies to pay for the treatment.

(A few patients have been able to get some costs reimbursed by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, Beecher says.) As a result, patients have to pay an upfront cost of $6,995, although Stenberg says he's willing to offer a money-back guarantee to anyone who doesn't find relief.

The treatment also has detractors, including a couple of the co-investigators on Stenberg's 1992 clinical trial. They criticized Stenberg for claiming his treatment could help all inflammation-related maladies when the research only involved people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Stenberg replies that cortisone has long been approved for all kinds of inflammation, and so it makes sense that micro-doses of it would also alleviate other inflammatory diseases. His detractors, he says, "are right as scientists, but I'm right in theory."


Stenberg says the mainstream medical community first viewed him with suspicion but now seem to see him as a harmless maverick. "The powerhouses in medicine are looking at us and saying, 'You're not killing anyone, and you're getting a lot of good reports, and we've got a lot of other concerns out there that are worse.' "

And for patients like Baardson, the proof is in the pain-free results.

"Skeptic that I was at one time, I can't see why anyone wouldn't want to do this," he says.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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