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. 

4 thoughts

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve had first hand experience with Joe and his staff. When I questioned the lack of evidence and the lies, one staff member even indirectly confirmed my suspicions.

    Beyond that I also met a man who featured in one of his ‘testimonies’. He admitted that was said during the testimony, did not actually reflect his treatment. Sadly his illness got worse.

    Joe charges people around $1999+ VAT to attend his workshops which doesn’t include accommodation. I would say these workshops are more like a theatre where the audience has some participation. The audience consists of people that are very vulnerable, yearning to feel superior and loved. It doesn’t take long for them to be initiated into the cult of Joe Dispenza.

    For the price and time spent on such a delusion, one could better place their money and time in getting to bed on time, eating well, exercise, meaningful relationships and work, quality healthcare, and thinking for themselves.

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  2. Hi there, as a student of neuroscience myself and someone who has attended Dr Joe’s advanced retreat, I understand your point but it’s incredibly ignorant. Can you not see what he is doing? Although yes his science is not that complex he is trying to frame it in a way that is digestible to the spiritual community which often have very little science training. Additionally, I have seen miraculous healings and at the retreat, a group of participants were getting brain scans by a team of scientists. There is no doubt his teachings work. He tries to lure people in with scientific jargon, and then when they experience the divine, they will never see reality in the same way. This man is a beautiful human being and I have met him personally and I can assure you he has nothing but positive intentions. I am actually studying a PHD in neuroscience from The Univerity of Melbourne so I am no quack and it disturbs me the arrogance and narrow mindedness of the scientific community (and people in general). I understand I was there once, but then I turned 18…
    I am not saying to accept this on blind faith, but I hope it can show you that openness is a virtue (which is supported in the literature from a psychological perspective stemming from The Big 5) and I believe that your so-called ‘rationality’ can actually be a facade, because a truly rational being understands as Socrates said ‘a wise man knows one thing and that is that we know nothing’. Thus, to accept something readily is foolish but to dismiss something readily is equally as foolish. The fact is that your perception is limited (like everyone’s including science!) and we are limited by our sense perceptions, but what if there is a reality beyond the senses? Scientific instruments can only measure that which extends through the senses, therefore it is inherently and always will be to a degree limited. There is an inner science which has been known for millennia and Dr Joe is trying his best to integrate the intangible inner subjective landscape with the objective outer science. The science is merely an objective door in which he tempts people to enter into the realm which transcends rationality and comprehension, the realm of the beyond.
    I wish you the best on your journey and God Bless

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  3. While I do believe that our brains can assist with self-healing to varying degrees, these New Age pseudo-scientists are taking it to a level of fantasy that I find appalling. And because New Age grifters only count the hits and not the misses, their audiences don’t see the many people who don’t benefit — or who actually get worse — from their “treatments.” In fact, the implication is often that the people who don’t heal didn’t want to — how sick is that? Thank you for writing this; every ray of reason we cast on these money-grubbing crackpots helps illuminate the true nature of sham practitioners/treatments.

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