snake oil

The sickening business of wellness

Crystals, detoxes, and salt lamps are all scams meant to cure you of your money.
snake oil

The sickening business of wellness

Crystals, detoxes, and salt lamps are all scams meant to cure you of your money.

The term "wellness" — which seems to encompass everything from yoga to detox teas to crystals — is very hot right now. Earlier this year, New York magazine dedicated an entire, incredulous month to figuring out what wellness was, producing such articles as “How Algae Went From Horse Food to Wellness Trend” and “The Real Housewives Guide to Wellness” (Lisa Vanderpump regularly goes to the cryotherapy tank). Just last month, the Harvard Business Review declared in an article that employers need to recognize that “wellness” starts at work, although the piece stops short of defining what, exactly, wellness is. Wellness can be big business. Beyond “wellness programs” at work, “wellness centers” are popping up across the country — Russell Simmons just opened one in LA.

So what is wellness? Wellness technically means the opposite of illness. According to nationalwellness.org, wellness “is a conscious, self-directed, and evolving process of achieving full potential.” Okay.

The wellness phenomenon isn’t new, and its strength has never been specificity. In 1950, J.I. Rodale, one of the earliest advocates of organic farming, launched Prevention magazine, giving readers a continuous outlet for information that was a few degrees short of science. He was sure that rimless glasses and saltwater caused cancer and that electricity kept it at bay. “Isn’t there a better way of conquering polio than jabbing all the children in the country with a needle?” he pondered in 1955, long before the modern anti-vax movement metastasized. Rodale was not only dumb, he was also racist. In his book, Happy People Rarely Get Cancer, he asserted that “Negroes get less cancer than whites, for the Negro is a happy race.” It’s unclear if this was his call for segregation or not, but let the record stand — his claims had no basis in fact, only bias. In 1971, Rodale famously said on The Dick Cavett Show that he decided to live to be a hundred, right before dying of a heart attack live during that same episode.

Macallan Rare Cask

By then, two decades of Prevention’s circulation ensured that the concept of wellness had caught on with an interested public. Following in Rodale’s footsteps, the renowned chemist Linus Pauling was keen to tell people that mega-doses of vitamins could cure everything, including cancer. Well, Pauling later died of cancer, and the mega-dose myth was widely debunked, but the health-obsessed still load up on enough vitamins to make really expensive pee. And in our internet era, where presentation matters more than pedigree, we have about a million self-taught gurus who profit from preaching at events like the Longevity Now Conference that certain foods could let you live as long as you wanted (this would have been news to J.I. Rodale).

The wellness industry has exploded into superfoods, detoxes, and celebrity healers selling magic crystals, and the press and the public have gobbled it all up in a shitshow of capitalism and pseudoscience. So are any wellness products worth your money, and is any of the advice being shilled by its gurus going to make you healthier? Evidence says… no. Here’s why.

A Crystal-Clear Path to Wellness?

Wellness doesn’t limit itself by listening to science. When gurus and Instagram experts say routes to wellness are about your “energy,” they mean your psychic energy, and this energy is channeled with magic crystals, lamps made of pink salt, and “feel-good mineral” baths. For anywhere from just a few dollars for your weekly mineral salt soaks to hundreds and thousands for endless supplements and crystals, Wellness, Inc.™ has you… soaked.

One of the must-have items for wellness is a Himalayan salt lamp. You’ve probably seen one of these natural, glowing crystals of wellness housing a mass-produced light bulb at your locally sourced Walmart. The internet claims that these pink rocks contain 84 elements and can do myriad things, like reduce static electricity and electromagnetic radiation, ease asthma symptoms and coughing, and treat seasonal affective disorder. Testimonials on yoursaltlamps.com claim that the lamps have relieved snoring, reduced allergies, cleansed the air (with negative ions), and even created a magical ambiance. Who wouldn’t want that?

Well, the bullshit starts at the name. Himalayan salt comes from the Khewra Salt Mines, located in a region of Pakistan several hundred miles away from the Himalaya. As for the claim that there are 84 elements in Himalayan salt? There’s no reliable proof of that. One 15-year-old study from the Institute of Biophysical Research in Las Vegas is often touted as the source for the 84 elements claim, but it shows no signs of being reputable. I also can’t confirm that the institute ever existed. The study shows that a handful of elements are present in the lamps, but most of them are listed as less than 0.001 parts per million. Given that the study parameters are missing, the detection limits of the equipment used in testing are unknown, and there are no available results that replicated this, it’s no wonder that the study wasn’t published in a real scientific journal. Even if the data was replicated, this study is worth less than the paper it’s printed on.

A giant chunk of salt isn’t going to detox the air.

A newer chemical analysis of Himalayan salt from the Journal of the Chemical Society of Pakistan revealed the presence of iron (or rust), which is, not surprisingly, the component that’s responsible for the lovely pink glow. The other components in the salt include copper, zinc, chromium, and trace — but extraordinarily toxic — lead. The lead level in the lamps is far below what the EPA considers toxic, but it’s a good lesson that more elements aren’t necessarily better.

Even then, a giant chunk of salt with some iron in it isn’t going to detox the air any more than plain white rock salt will. Even if Himalayan salt somehow released negative ions into the air, it still wouldn’t detox you. It’s salt. As for why people might feel all those lovely effects from the lamps, I suggest you read up on placebos.

The money-sucking power of crystals doesn’t stop at Himalayan salt lamps. Devi Brown, founder of wellness lifestyle brand Karma Bliss, would recommend her healing crystals for almost everything, including finding love, money, success, stimulating your organs, and helping with “vitality.” After making a name for herself as a radio and television personality, Brown launched Karma Bliss to put the power of crystals into the hands of the rich and fabulous. Brown says, “Western medicine has only existed for a hundred years, if that. Why wouldn’t we think that the world already came equipped with things to help balance and complete us?” She went to a Deepak Chopra panchakarma detox retreat and decided to start selling pretty rocks to her fellow monetarily endowed Los Angelenos. Sorry, I mean placing magic crystals with your spirit to focus your intentions and energy into. She says they’re “gifts from the universe” and “pieces to your journey of enlightenment and wellness.”

Huh, well if they’re gifts from the universe, why does a bag of rocks from her website cost more than $50? She explained in an interview with New York magazine that it’s “Because we live in America. We like stuff to cost money.” American capitalism trumps the universe. Namaste.

As for the healing effects of an expensive bag of rocks, well, I have bad news. Dr. Christopher French of Goldsmiths University in London debunked the alleged wellness effects of crystals in 2001, showing they were no more than placebos. French is well-known for his work disproving the paranormal and telepathy; crystals that talk to your organs was all in a day’s work. With a double blind study handing volunteers either a genuine crystal or a cheap plastic fake, participants meditated over the objects and were asked if they felt any number of wellness effects, and there was no difference from the genuine article to the plastic.

If you’re actually mineral deficient, a good soak in some liquid rocks might be for you, according to certain wellness practitioners. Dr. Frank Lipman, functional medicine doctor to the stars and Gwyneth Paltrow, says that 80 percent of us are deficient in magnesium. How can we overcome that? Eating a balanced diet? Drinking electrolytes? No, those options are too reasonable. Lipman advises that we soak in magical magnesium oil or epsom salts to get magnesium through our skin in the bathtub. Or if you don’t have time, you can always supplement. Alternatively, the answer to everything (or more accurately, nothing) is a green juice.

And there’s no way that Lipman would be in it for the money, right? Gwyneth Paltrow’s doctor would never want anything other than our wellness! Lipman recommends magnesium supplementation with his own line of supplements ($24 for 120 magnesium capsules). He even sells his own instant green juice to help with that pesky magnesium deficiency ($69 for 28 single-serving packets). This might seem reasonable if we actually all had magnesium deficiencies, but it turns out they are incredibly rare, and there are signs of them, including low blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness, and slurred speech. Your doctor can — and should — monitor your electrolyte levels with your annual blood tests, and if you don’t have any underlying conditions and you eat a balanced diet, you should be just fine.

Cleanse Yourself... of Money

Cleanses and detoxes are all the wellness rage. Who doesn’t think they need to get rid of some nefarious crap in their systems? You’re overstressed, overworked, and binged on ice cream, red wine (still not a superfood), and tacos last weekend. You definitely need organic green juice filled with the purest parts of kale, fruits, coconuts, and unicorn teardrops to reset your system. Right?

Detoxes seem to be the simplest answer to getting a fresh start when it comes to your health. Anytime is a good time to detox, according to most women’s magazines. Vogue this year suggested that you begin your post-Thanksgiving detox before Thanksgiving. Thank you, Vogue.

But are detoxes necessary? Moreover, are they scientifically sound? Is there anything in your body that needs a detoxing cleanse? Are you… toxxed? Not a chance.

Pre-bottled juices, made by companies like Suja, BlueprintCleanse, Juice From the Raw, and JUS by Julie, have become extremely popular methods of “detoxing,” as they’re convenient and well-marketed. The juices themselves are not unhealthy products, but living on juice alone is not healthy. Suja, for one, doesn’t just want to be merely a part of your diet, they sell their line as a “Fresh Start Program.” This entails several days of living on only their juices to, as they phrase it, “give your body a break” and “bring balance and perspective back into your life and reposition yourself for a healthy lifestyle.”

Along with juices, Suja also bottles their own blend of the master cleanse, that odd mix of cayenne, lemons, and maple that’s supposed to supercharge your metabolism ($5.99 per bottle). At one point they sold a “Midnight Tonic,” a blend of purified water and activated charcoal, marketed as a “secret wellness drink” that traps toxins and chemicals. And of course, their products are “chemical free.” The bullshit starts there, because it’s hard to take a product seriously that markets itself as “chemical free” when its main ingredient, charcoal, is a hydrocarbon. (As for the effectiveness of charcoal, this is one of those instances in which a shred of truth sells a much bigger lie. Activated charcoal is used in the emergency room for certain types of overdoses. So it’s easy for manufacturers to sell the myth that some charcoal in their detox drink will suck poisons out of your system after a night of excess, but activated charcoal is used for drug overdoses, not everyday substances in the food supply. Poison.org even warns not to attempt to treat an overdose at home with activated charcoal.)

How, then, does a cleanse, even one made with organic fruits and vegetables, detox your system of chemicals? Simple. It doesn’t.

You’re detoxing just by being alive.

Juice cleanses are truly just wallet cleanses. Suja’s five-day, six-bottle-per-day “Fresh Start” program will run you $240 (plus shipping). None of these fancy juice systems have been proven to remove the oft-demonized chemicals like pesticides, heavy metals, or environmental pollutants from your system. In fact, a cleanse might have the opposite effect than intended. According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, “studies have shown that fasts and extremely low-calorie diets invariably lower the body's basal metabolic rate as it struggles to conserve energy.” So that cleanse might help you zip up your tight jeans, but short of a long-term intervention with your eating and exercise habits, they’ll be tight again soon — and keep getting tighter — because of that cleanse.

So what can you do to detox? You don't have to do anything. One "detoxes" just by being alive. Your liver, kidneys, and colon are piping all the shit right out of your system and into your plumbing on a daily basis. You have, in your body, one of the most incredibly intricate detoxing systems that exists: Your liver regulates glucose, protein, and fat levels, removes ammonia from the body, as well as alcohol and some drugs. The rest of the heavy lifting is done by your kidneys, processing drugs with an intricate system of enzymes, balancing your body’s water levels, salts, excreting waste right into your bladder (Ever had a kidney infection? They’re bladder infections that ventured north.), and again, excreting toxins. Your toilet paper use is proof enough of how much detoxing your organs are doing.

Want an extra-thorough cleansing for wellness? I suggest a bidet.

(Don’t) Be Your Own Healer

Doctors don’t know everything. How many times have you heard a horror story about going to the doctor, getting a wrong diagnosis, and then finding out what’s really wrong with you from a friend of yours who plays doctor on Facebook?

Being your own healer is very easy these days thanks to wellness. The internet has been a boon for anyone whose doctors just don’t understand them. With the wholesome, natural tools of wellness you can be your own doctor.

Take essential oils. Apparently they can be used for everything from relaxation to house cleaning. Check out any of an array of online stores and there are some wonderful-smelling products to improve your health and life. Many wellness-inclined folks swear by a product called “Thieves Oil,” a mix of oils and “natural” ingredients that can be used mainly as a cleanser for every surface in your home, just $44.41 for 15 milliliters.

After the essential oils industry figured out that tea tree oil was an effective treatment for acne, they seemed to think that they could cure everything with their mysterious potions. Things came to a head in 2014 when three of the largest essential oil companies on the market, DoTerra, Natural Solutions Foundation, and Young Living, were hit with letters from the FDA asking them to stop claiming they could treat ebola with their products. At a time when the treatment for ebola was generally “wait and hope,” the wellness vultures swept in to find desperate people and sell them the claim that their dire sickness could be treated naturally. But it wasn’t just ebola. The FDA warned:

Your consultants promote your above mentioned dōTERRA Essential Oil products for conditions including, but not limited to, viral infections (including ebola), bacterial infections, cancer, brain injury, autism, endometriosis, Grave’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, tumor reduction, ADD/ADHD, and other conditions that are not amenable to self-diagnosis and treatment by individuals who are not medical practitioners.

The FDA had long taken a hands-off approach to claims like these from wellness purveyors mainly as a result of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which said that supplements could be sold without evidence of efficacy. However, they’ve been forced to act in recent years in response to a spate of deaths and hospitalizations from those using alternative medicine to treat ailments that need actual medicine. The FDA now requires homeopathic medications to state on their label that there is no scientific evidence backing their claims.

Fear not the FDA, though. Some alleged tools of wellness are right in your spice cabinet. Turmeric is all the rage with the wellness curious. “Can Turmeric Cure Our National Inflammation?” asked New York earlier this year. Wellness practitioners say yes — and also that the herb can increase immunity and even cure cancer. What could possibly go wrong!

Sometimes there’s a thin line between science and bullshit, and turmeric manages to skate that knife’s edge oh-so-gracefully. True, there are currently some preliminary studies showing that turmeric has anti-cancer properties on cells… in a petri dish. And that’s the rub with turmeric; even the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that “Claims that curcuminoids found in turmeric help to reduce inflammation aren’t supported by strong studies.” They couple this with several statements saying that it’s been studied for other disorders without speaking to its efficacy, staying safely in legal territory with their medical claims and allowing the reader to make the association themselves that turmeric fixes everything. So let’s be clear: It’s not going to replace chemo or Advil or any of your medications anytime soon, or ever. A lot of things have anti-cancer properties in a petri dish. Dog shit. An anvil. A bullet. I don’t suggest eating any of them though.

Those who hail herbal remedies do a disservice to science.

If you’re really, really invested in the idea of making your own medicine, I suggest you head over to Modern Alternative Health, a website where you can find a make-your-own wellness kit. A sweet woman named Kate will share recipes with you, walk you through how to store herbs properly, and tell you what you need to have on hand to live life the wellness way. She carefully instructs you which herbs can heal which ailments, including ginger (nausea), calendula (repairs the stomach lining and also helps bruising), stinging nettle (“increases metabolic activity and strengthens and tones the entire system”), peppermint (nausea), yarrow (disinfects cuts and reduces fever), elderberry (increases immune function), and red clover (“used for easing chest complaints”). Unfortunately, none of these claims are backed by science.

She’ll also be happy to tell you about the dangers of vaccines, as they are not part of the wellness lifestyle she advocates to her 70,000 Facebook fans.

Kate, also known as Modern Alternative Mama, delights in giving unsound medical advice to her readers. She has suggested clay as a medical treatment for almost everything, including detoxing (both by ingesting clay and applying it topically), heartburn, and use in the case of an allergic reaction (never mind your overpriced EpiPen). She has written that women should squirt breast milk up their children’s noses to help heal a cold.

She also recommends against the vitamin K shots for newborns, which protect babies against a potentially deadly bleeding disorder. Vitamin K does not easily transfer to the baby through the placenta or breast milk. A potential complication of this is vitamin K deficiency bleeding, which most commonly leads to brain and intestinal hemorrhaging. This disorder can affect as many as 1.7 newborns out of 100 births. However, a shot of vitamin K soon after birth remedies this issue quickly. Without it, the bleeding disorder can strike from the first 24 hours of birth to six months of age. Doctors are starting to see clusters of bleeds due to vitamin K shot refusal from parents who believe it isn’t necessary or that the shot is possibly linked to leukemia. (It isn’t.)

Websites like Kate’s, which preach that she and her children are fine — even better off — with just clay, tinctures, and breast milk, do a disservice to parents. Her wellness kit of herbs might smell as nice, but there’s a reason that capsules of these products come equipped with a disclaimer from the FDA: because studies on them haven’t shown that they can really treat anything. Kate and her ilk of alternative health bloggers who prosthelytize taking medicine into your own hands (and kitchen) are not following sound science. They’re abandoning it and leading their followers to make dangerous decisions.

This is the dark side of wellness, beyond the crystals and juices that purge you of money. This is where the health advice is made up and the ramifications matter. Leave the doctoring to a doctor.

How do you stay healthy in the age of wellness?

Even if you’ve binged once (or twice) on deep-fried chocolate-covered bacon and a Krispy Kreme sandwich, you probably know the basics of being healthy. Eat a balanced diet to maintain a healthy weight. Visit your doctor annually. Don’t smoke. Do something that involves moving your ass on a regular basis, and slather on sunscreen when you move that ass outside. If you don’t go overboard on any vices like cupcakes, beer, condom-free sex with multiple partners, or licking food that you found on the sidewalk, you’ll probably be okay lest your genetics screw you.

Not that complicated, right?

Then somebody figured out that they could make a huge profit off selling bullshit, and the wellness industry was born.

Health is all the stuff that you know you should do. Wellness is all the peripheral shit that someone marketed to you because it sounded almost like health. It’s modern-day snake oil, and today it either comes from extremely well-off celebrities who look healthy under 18 layers of makeup, internet charlatans who probably know they’re full of shit, and people who might not know there’s no science to back them up, but they do see your open wallet and know when business is good.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Demand proof before parting with your money. Your health deserves it.

Yvette d'Entremont is a scientist and writer in Los Angeles.