Eat, pray, lie: Holistic wellness scams in the age of social media

Taking a deeper look into the internet health gurus cashing in on alternative medicine and spiritual wellness trends.

Writer: Esmeralda Ypsilanti
Editor: Maddie Wigmore-Sykes
Artist: Cveta Gotovats

The rise of social media has exposed the general public to many trends and personas. Facebook groups have become echo chambers where people’s opinions and ideas are built upon and confirmed by others who think in the same way. However, for some, opinions have become facts, and years of study and research are no longer needed to back up substantial claims. This is more evident than ever in the holistic wellness industry. Crystals are sold at high prices to cure disease and bring health and happiness; sage is no longer a herb used for cooking;rather, it is burnt to help purify the air and generate wisdom. 

At first glance, these trends may seem harmless, but it is those who stand to capitalise from them, who push the envelope, leading to serious ethical issues; the downplaying of scientific research and the spread of misinformation.

Ten years ago, Gwyneth Paltrow was known for her roles in blockbuster films such as Shakespeare in Love and Iron Man. Today she owns and runs a multimillion dollar website, GOOP, selling “cosmic health” and spirituality wellness products. These include the infamous “jade egg” which was advertised as having the ability to balance hormones and strengthen the pelvic floor by being inserted into the vaginal cavity. This specific product was eventually removed from Paltrow’s GOOP website after a lawsuit claiming false advertising. However, Paltrow, who has had no formal (or informal) training in medicine or physiology continues to make more irresponsible assertions about her products, claiming that wearable stickers are able to “rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies”. 

Paltrow is not the only one who has sought to make money from people’s naivety and love of branded products.

Dr Joe Dispenza is a self-proclaimed researcher of epigenetics, quantum physics and neuroscience and has almost one million followers on Instagram. In reality, he earned the title of doctor from a chiropractic degree. He, along with Bruce Lipton, a biologist who believes cells are reprogrammable through the power of God, teaches an online course at The Quantum University, which is not accredited by any agency recognized in the United States. Dispenza and Lipton teach their students that DNA is controlled through the power of thought, and that each of us are able to alter our genetics through our mind. Bruce Lipton published a book on this in 2010. 

Dispenza regularly holds workshops where he claims to heal genetic disorders through the power of belief. At one convention he claims to have helped a woman named Petra regain her sight. “She could do surgery and drugs,” he says, “but it wouldn’t really change her gene expression”.  Instead, he believes that by believing her vision could return, this woman was able to change her genetic makeup in a way that would allow her to regain her sight. No research has been published on this, no clinical trials have been held, yet once again, all of Dispenza’s followers, both in person and online, cheer and clap as he presents how he has miraculously helped Petra see again. 

So why do their followers continue to vehemently believe everything these two men teach? Admittedly, listening to their televised lectures on Youtube, they speak concisely and in an understandable and engaging way. This is something that cannot be said for all lectures on medicine and science. For others, it might be the hope that a genetic disease could becured by belief, when conventional medicine has failed them.

The combination of online communities propagating misinformation and semi-qualified doctors providing supporting content creates a vicious cycle. This leads to more dramatic outcomes such as the anti-vaccine movement and a general distrust of the pharmaceutical industry. Unfortunately, it is not only the believers who are affected but their children, who need an adult’s consent to get vaccinated, and their families, who feel these opinions are forced on them.

The possible solutions to these differences in beliefs are multifaceted; there is a need to educate more people on the way scientific research in the medical and pharmaceutical industries is conducted and how it is used to develop drugs and cures. Scientific research is the reason why the child mortality rate has gone down by more than half in Burkina Faso since 1990, after health care centres started offering vaccinations and teaching basic sanitation practices. It is also why the number of deaths for young people infected with AIDS halved from 1.4 million deaths a year in 2007 to 670,000 in 2017 after countries like South Africa started promoting safe sex and HIV testing. These statistics strongly suggest that there is more to healing than the power of the mind or the divine. They show that real healing is not done by shunned chiropractors on a power trip, masking nonsense claims under the guise of neuroscience, genetics and quantum physics, but rather through decades of vigorous research and through belief in the scientific method. 

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