“Everyone thinks I’m a kook and a charlatan”: Tom Brady, Alex Guerrero and the Mormon Faith in Alternative Medicine

By February 25, 2019

Today’s post comes from Craig Yugawa. Craig is an MD candidate at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. His current research focuses on healthcare access, physician advocacy, and sports medicine. He holds a BA in American Studies from Brigham Young University, where his studies focused on the cultural impact of sports and religion. You can follow him on twitter at @BYU_craiggers.

This weekend I happened upon a post on LDS Living that led to post a few animated tweets. The article is innocuous enough, pointing out Tom Brady commenting “Love my Mormons” on a recent his current teammate and BYU football alum Kyle Van Noy Instagram post. Highlighting Brady’s prior Mormon-adjacent post in 2017 that “our bodies are temples,” Danielle Wagner, the author of the post, speculates that this phrasing may, in fact, come from the influence of Alex Guerrero, codeveloper of the “TB12 Method”  and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[i]

Image result for alex guerrero

A NYT Magazine feature from Jan 2015 described Guerrero at that time as:

[Brady’s] best friend and ever-­present guru for training and many other things. While Guerrero is known as Brady’s “body coach,” that label significantly understates his exhaustive reach into Brady’s life. Guerrero is his spiritual guide, counselor, pal, nutrition adviser, trainer, massage therapist and family member. He is the godfather of Brady’s younger son, Ben. He accompanies Brady to almost every Patriots game, home and away, and stands on the sidelines. He works with Brady’s personal chef to put together optimally healthful menus; he plans Brady’s training schedule months in advance. Above all, during the football season he works on Brady seven days a week, usually twice a day.[ii]

The article goes on to relate the compelling narrative of an athlete continually beating impossible odds by being “genially subversive” in his approach to training. Briefly mentioning Guerrero and Brady’s TB12 lifestyle business, Leibovich ties Brady’s unlikely success to his unique and unorthodox mindset. Written just prior to the Patriot’s unlikely victory against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, the article becomes another entry in the parade of little understood genius/prodigy/guru long form pieces increasingly common in the pages of many popular media options.

Guerrero, a mysterious character who has fallen in and out of favor with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, largely escapes greater scrutiny due to the very obvious success of his most important client. A piece written in the Boston Globe Dec 2017, mentions Guerrero’s degree in “traditional Chinese medicine from the now-defunct Samra University of Oriental Medicine in Los Angeles” and that he “espouses alternative medical treatments.” Though these current treatments are characterized as largely harmless and folksy, the Globe passingly mentions his “long history of financial troubles, bankruptcies, and legal entanglements” without elucidating on the extremely dangerous nature of his previous run ins with federal regulatory agencies.[iii] For more information on Guerrero’s checkered history peddling alternative cures for cancer and other serious medical conditions, check out this timely Sawbones podcast[iv] and this great USA Today article.[v]

Alex Guerrero is just the latest high-profile Mormon in a long history of alternative medicine providers, anchored by essential oils giants doTERRA and Young Living. But what is with the Mormon affinity for alternative medical practice when we send so many of our young people to medical schools throughout the country, 154 from BYU alone in 2016?[vi]  Anyone who attends an LDS congregation for young singles near medical schools can tell you of the icy détente existing between our sizeable populations of medical, PT, and OT students and chiropractic students. St. Louis, home to two excellent medical schools and where I attend medical school, is also home to one of the larger chiropractic institutions in the nation.[vii]

According to Seth Cannon, who presented on alternative medicine at MHA 2017, this greater culture of distrust can be traced to founding family of this dispensation and the prophet who started it all. Prior to the founding of the Church of Christ, the Smith family expressed on many occasions distrust for contemporary medical professionals. Despite the mythos constructed around Joseph’s leg-saving operation by one of the nation’s premier surgeon, the death of Alvin in 1823 “confirmed the Smiths’ wariness of the medical community.”[viii]

As Joseph and the church developed methods for the practice of faith healing, this general distrust of the “learned men” would continue to embed itself into the Mormon faith tradition. Cannon goes on to postulate that “the drift of herbal remedies toward sacralization continued in 1833 when Joseph revealed the church’s dietary code, which proclaimed that ‘all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man.’”[ix] This belief in the sacredness of physical remedies would further metastasize  as “Mormon theology’s melting of ‘the metaphysical barrier between matter and spirit’ facilitated oil’s ability to simultaneously act as a religious and a medical healing agent.”[x]

Cannon concludes that:

though explicit canonical support of secular medicinal practices was conspicuously lacking in early Mormonism, populist culture allowed alternative medicine to attain a pseudo-sacred status as the nineteenth century progressed. The distinction between faith healing and herbal healing became blurred as they were used in support of one another and produced seemingly miraculous results.[xi]

This Mormon itch for alternative medicine throughout the nineteenth century bleeds into the Latter-day Saints’ fraught history with the medical profession. As a world-renowned cardiac surgeon assumes the prophetic mantle once occupied by Joseph Smith, doTERRA continues to spread into new international markets and passed $1 billion in sales in 2015.[xii] Individual consumers continue to flood Facebook and Instagram boasting of the beneficial effects of essential oil, sometimes in lieu of traditional medical options.

As the world continues to struggle with the antivaxxer epidemic[xiii] and an American president who has boosted anti-vaccination viewpoints[xiv], it is important to view the contemporary Mormon affinity for alternative medicine practices as the manifestation of a lengthy cultural tradition. This culture that in the 1840’s would “apply [consecrated oil] both topically and internally,”[xv] has naturally bred businesses that peddle various essential oils as alternative cures to various routine and serious ailments. Alex Guerrero is merely the most recent embodiment of an almost 200-year tradition of expansive healing and “body as temple” theology.


[i] Wagner, Danielle. “Super Bowl Champ Tom Brady Posts ‘I Love My Mormons.’” LDS Living. 15 Feb 2019 accessed 15 Feb 2019 http://www.ldsliving.com/Super-Bowl-Champ-Tom-Brady-Posts-I-Love-My-Mormons/s/90288

[ii] Leibovich, Mark. “Tom Brady Cannot Stop.” NYT Magazine. 26 Jan 2015 accessed 19 Feb 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/magazine/tom-brady-cannot-stop.html?_r=0

[iii] Finucane, Martin and Hohler, Bob. “Who is Tom Brady’s fried Alex Guerrero?” Boston Globe. 20 Dec 2017 accessed 18 Feb 2019 https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/12/20/who-tom-brady-friend-alex-guerrero/x45YjTMVuEiiEdH3tsX7ZO/story.html

[iv] McElroy, Sydnee and McElroy, Justin. “Tom Brady’s Snake Oil.” Sawbones. 8 Feb 2019 accessed 20 Feb 2019 https://www.maximumfun.org/sawbones/sawbones-tom-bradys-snake-oil

[v] Mandell, Nina. “Who is Alex Guerrero and why is he so controversial?” USA Today. 27 Aug 2018 accessed 20 Feb 2019 https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ftw/2018/08/27/who-is-alex-guerrero-and-why-is-he-so-controversial/111265996/

[vi] BYU Pre-Professional Advisement Center. “BYU Medical School Applicant Statistics 2016.” BYU. 2016 accessed 22 Feb 2019 https://ppa.byu.edu/sites/default/files/pdf/2016MedicalStats.pdf

[vii] Chiropractors can be important members of any interdisciplinary medical team and should not be automatically dismissed as alternative medicine practitioners. There is evidence that chiropractic can be beneficial for treatment of lower back pain and other musculoskeletal pain. There is no evidence that chiropractic care is useful in the treatment of conditions such as asthma, hypertension, or other medical problems. See National Institutes of Health article “Chiropractic: In Depth” for more information.

[viii] Cannon, Seth. “Arsenic and God’s Grace.” Presentation at Mormon History Association 2017 Conference page 3.

[ix] Cannon, “Arsenic,” 5

[x] Cannon, “Arsenic,” 6

[xi] Cannon, “Arsenic,” 10

[xii] “Fact Sheet.” doTERRA International accessed 22 Feb 2019 https://www.doterra.com/US/en/about-fact-sheet

[xiii] Molina, Brett. “People choosing not to vaccinate is now a global health threat, say WHO.” USA Today. 17 Jan 2019 accessed 22 Feb 2019 https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2019/01/17/not-vaccinating-children-global-health-threat-says-who/2601140002/

[xiv] Buncombe, Andrew. “Trump claims vaccines and autism are linked but his own experts vehemently disagree.” The Independent 5 May 2018 accessed 22 Feb 2019 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/trump-vaccines-autism-links-anti-vaxxer-us-president-false-vaccine-a8331836.html

[xv] Cannon, “Arsenic,” 8

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Craig! Super interesting stuff that I knew very little about

    Comment by Jeff T — February 25, 2019 @ 10:29 am

  2. Oh man, I love this. There’s a great paper to write on Mormons of all stripes and alternative medicine. Thanks, Craig!

    Comment by J Stuart — February 25, 2019 @ 11:19 am

  3. I agree with the substance of the post. I would suggest that those defending mainstream medicine incorporate one nuance to avoid throwing Joseph Smith under the bus–namely that the Smith family’s distrust of the medical community of the 1830s was quite justified. Medicine in 2019 bears no resemblance to that in 1830 beyond addressing practitioners as “doctor”, so legitimate criticisms of the latter cannot fairly be directed at the former.

    Comment by Last Lemming — February 25, 2019 @ 12:44 pm

  4. This is a good example of treating a much broader American phenomenon as a distinctly Mormon trait. By which I mean a bad example. The post even manages to link Mormons to anti-vaxxers.

    You don’t have to attend a singles ward, or even be LDS at all, to note the tension between MDs and chiropractors. As LL noted, medicine in the 19th century actually was awful, and not just in Palmyra. Since folk remedies existed everywhere in the 1840s, there’s nothing particular to LDS history that predisposes us to using them today. I don’t see anything particularly Mormon about a “fraught history with the medical profession” or “affinity for alternative medicine.”

    It’s perfectly fine to study those phenomena as they exist in the LDS community, which they certainly do, or to see how they take distinctly Mormon forms within that community, but this post moves toward scapegoating Mormons for what is a national issue.

    Comment by D. Martin — February 25, 2019 @ 2:57 pm

  5. I’m not sure that I understand your comment, D. Martin. It seems to me that you’re reading the post as if it’s saying that Mormons are the *only* ones who have an affinity for alternative medicine. I don’t read the post that way at all, and I don’t see any language that indicates that the author implied that claim. Was there particular language that made you feel like the author was trying to say that Mormons are the only ones who lay claim to alternative medicine?

    Rather, the author seems to me to do exactly what you mentioned in your last sentence: to talk about these things as they exist in the LDS community and what’s distinctively Mormon about them.

    Comment by B. Strygil — February 25, 2019 @ 4:13 pm

  6. An essential part of any discussion on Mormonism, modern medicine, and vaccination in particular are the (prophetic?) statements made by leading church authorities in the late 1800s and early 1900s when effective vaccines were first becoming available. Nearly all of them were vehemently anti-vax… until Wilford Woodruff’s son, apostle Abraham O. Woodruff, died of a young age (20-something) of a wholly preventable disease if he’d been vaccinated.

    But those anti-vax statements are still used today by many to back up their position.

    Comment by The Other Clark — February 26, 2019 @ 1:02 pm

  7. This was really interesting. I’ve thought about (Utah/American) Mormonism’s relationship with essential oils through a gendered lens (MLMs prey on tight-knit communities and women without a lot of options, with a little bit of the history of women blessing thrown in), but hadn’t considered Mormonism’s relationship with alternative medicine. Thanks for sharing!

    Comment by Saskia — February 26, 2019 @ 2:49 pm

  8. It seems especially prevalent in Eastern Idaho, with Melaleuca, Kyani, and other large companies in Idaho Falls (with a large market in Asia), as well as smaller companies like those ran by Tara Westover’s parents. Tara Westover’s bestseller Educated is essential reading for understanding how some of the more extremist members of the church view medicine.

    Comment by Tim — February 28, 2019 @ 3:53 pm


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