Before we go further, I’d like to clear something up: Wellness is not the same as medicine.
Medicine is the science of reducing death and disease, and increasing long and healthy lives.
Wellness used to mean a blend of health and happiness. Something that made you feel good or brought joy and was not medically harmful — perhaps a massage or a walk along the beach. But it has become a false antidote to the fear of modern life and death.
The wellness industry takes medical terminology, such as “inflammation” or “free radicals,” and levigates it to the point of incomprehension. The resulting product is a D.I.Y. medicine for longevity that comes with a confidence that science can only aspire to achieve.
Let’s take the trend of adding a pinch of activated charcoal to your food or drink. While the black color is strikingly unexpected and alluring, it’s sold as a supposed “detox.”
Guess what? It has the same efficacy as a spell from the local witch.
Maybe it’s a matter of aesthetics. Wellness potions in beautiful jars with untested ingredients of unknown purity are practically packaged for Instagram.
I also want to clear up what toxins actually are: harmful substances produced by some plants, animals and bacteria (and, for them, charcoal is no cure).
“Toxins,” as defined by the peddlers of these dubious cures, are the harmful effluvia of modern life that supposedly roam our bodies, causing belly bloat and brain fog, like a microscopic Emmanuel Goldstein from George Orwell’s “1984.”
For without these toxins there can be no search for purity — “clean” tampons, “clean” food, “clean” makeup. There are also sacred acts and rituals to follow, and if you have unlocked the right achievement level you will release your inner goddess.
Medicine and religion have long been deeply intertwined, and it’s only relatively recently that they have separated. The wellness-industrial complex seeks to resurrect that connection. It’s like a medical throwback, as if the halcyon days of health were 5,000 years ago. Ancient cleansing rituals with a modern twist — supplements, useless products and scientifically unsupported tests.
The dietary supplements that are the backbone of wellness make up a $30 billion a year business despite studies showing they have no value for longevity (only a few vitamins have proven medical benefits, like folic acid before and during pregnancy and vitamin D for older people at risk of falling). Modern medicine wants you to get your micronutrients from your diet, which is inarguably the most natural source.
Yet the wellness-industrial complex has managed to pervert that narrative and make supplements a necessary tool for nonsensical practices, such as boosting the immune system or fighting the war on inflammation.
The resulting fluorescent yellow urine from multivitamins may provide a false sense of efficacy, but it’s a fool’s gold (and the consequence of excessive B2 that couldn’t possibly be absorbed).
So what’s the harm of spending money on charcoal for nonexistent toxins or vitamins for expensive urine or grounding bedsheets to better connect you with the earth’s electrons?
Here’s what: the placebo effect or “trying something natural” can lead people with serious illnesses to postpone effective medical care. Every doctor I know has more than one story about a patient who died because they chose to try to alkalinize their blood or gambled on intravenous vitamins instead of getting cancer care. Data is emerging that cancer patients who opt for alternative medical practices, many promoted by companies that sell products of questionable value, are more likely to die.
Moving the kind of product that churns the wheels of the wellness-industrial complex requires a constant stream of fear and misinformation. Look closer at most wellness sites and at many of their physician partners, and you’ll find a plethora of medical conspiracy theories: Vaccines and autism. The dangers of water fluoridation. Bras and breast cancer. Cellphones and brain cancer. Heavy metal poisoning. AIDS as a construct of Big Pharma.
Most people think they will be immune to these fringe ideas, but science says otherwise. We all mistake repetition for accuracy, a phenomenon called the illusory truth effect, and knowledge about the subject matter doesn’t necessarily protect you. Even a single exposure to information that sounds like it could be quasi-plausible can increase the perception of accuracy.
Belief in medical conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the pharmaceutical industry is suppressing “natural” cures, increases the likelihood that a person will take dietary supplements. So to keep selling supplements and earthing mats and coffee enema kits and the other revenue generating merchandise, you can’t just spark fear. You must constantly stoke its flames.
There can be no modern wellness industry without medical conspiracy theories.
Even if you completely eschew these sites for the chicanery they are, people who come to believe this misinformation can affect public health by both their failure to vaccinate and by voting against evidence-based health policies.
Also, as a doctor I take it to heart when I hear about the latest measles outbreak or when a friend spends money on a therapy that can’t possibly help. When patients ask for an unsupported test — such as urine chelation or salivary hormone levels, often promoted on wellness sites — I have to explain that I can’t in good faith order a useless test.
I also don’t want people to die.
So why do people turn to wellness?
There are symptoms that I believe have been with us since the beginning of time, so common that they are likely part of the human experience: fatigue, bloat, low libido, episodic pain, loss of vigor. When medicine can only offer a therapy, not a cure, or when doctors give undesired answers — suggesting attention to sleep hygiene, for instance — it isn’t hard to see how the intoxicating confidence and theater of wellness could beckon.
Medical illness is also scary. Who wouldn’t want to take IV vitamins instead of chemotherapy?
I admit that doctors can learn something from wellness. It’s clear that some people are looking for healers, so we must find ways to serve that need that are medically ethical.
We doctors can do more to provide factual information about hazardous substances, such as carcinogens and endocrine disrupting chemicals, in products and the environment from medically vetted sites with no products to sell, such as the National Cancer Institute and the Endocrine Society.
Many people — women especially — have long been marginalized and dismissed by medicine, but the answer does not lie in predatory conspiracy theories, a faux religion or expensive magic.
In its current form, wellness isn’t filling in the gaps left by medicine. It’s exploiting them.
Dr. Jen Gunter is an obstetrician and gynecologist practicing in California. The Cycle, a column on women’s reproductive health, appears regularly in Styles.
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a medical organization. It is the Endocrine Society, not the National Endocrine Society.
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