A Response to “Worshiping the False Idols of Wellness”

The New York Times published an article on the first of August which struck quite the cord with me, in both a positive and a negative way. Dr. Jen Gunter, an obstetrician and gynecologist in California, was the author of the piece, which can be read here. She has very obviously had some negative experiences with those in the “wellness” community, as is evidenced by her comments about them and some of the practices with which she associates them. I was honestly torn reading this piece. I acknowledge that Dr. Gunter has some good points about people who take advantage of the uneducated looking for simple health and wellness solutions in their lives. However, she also clearly misunderstands the very meaning of wellness itself as well as the intentions of the vast majority of people in the wellness community.

To start off with, she attempts to make a distinction between medicine and wellness, saying that they are not the same thing. This is both true and false. She defines medicine as “the science of reducing death and disease, and increasing long and healthy lives.” It is true that often, wellness is not “scientific” in nature, being a much more intuitive process. However, she is incorrect about the rest of the definition. Wellness is also the practice – if we remove science from the wording – of reducing death and disease, and increasing long and healthy lives. Medicine and wellness simply come at the problem from different directions, neither of which are necessarily incorrect. While medicine tends to treat health from the post-disease side of things and attempts to put the patient back into a state of health, wellness is more focused on preventing the disease in the first place. Doctors nowadays are doing better at also addressing preventive healthcare and urging their clients to practice it, but they still have a lot of work to do in that area.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines wellness as “the quality or state of being in good health especially as an actively sought goal.” This is far different from Dr. Gunter’s passive definition of wellness as nothing more than a blend of health and happiness! You could even say that a blend of health and happiness is the true goal of wellness, rather than simply an attribute of it. Whereas medicine tends to look only at the health of a person, wellness tries to marry the important aspect of happiness to a person’s health, thereby achieving the optimal state of things.

Dr. Gunter also attacks what she perceives to be the various “fads” of the wellness community, ranging from dietary supplements to grounding bedsheets. She claims that these things are the result of an environment of fear that is constantly stoked by those in what she calls the “wellness-industrial complex.” Without the fear of illness kept ever-present in the minds of the consumers, she claims, the proponents of these trends would have no way to sell their products. This, I would argue, is a statement that only covers a small percentage of those in the wellness community. This small number includes two main groups. The first group consists of those who honestly believe that Western medicine is bad and that the alternatives they offer instead are legitimate and effective. They will often make those alternatives a part of their own daily lives because they believe in the efficacy of what they offer, no matter how far-fetched their remedies may sound. There are also, sadly, those who do try to take advantage of the gullible consumer and sell them products that are liable to make little to no effective difference in their lives. Both of these groups tend to malign Western medicine as being somehow evil or only focused on treating the symptoms rather than the disease itself; and since this small minority tends to be very vocal, they make it appear that the majority of the wellness community also thinks and acts similarly.

In fact, the majority of those in the wellness community offer solutions that are backed by some sort of evidence – whether strictly scientific, simply anecdotal, or a mix of the two – and offer our services and products from a place of honesty and openness. It is not our goal to strike the fear of illness into the hearts of our clients. The simple fact of the matter is that that fear is already there and is part of the human condition. People always look for ways to avoid illness, and many are willing to try whatever solutions are offered to them, especially if those offerings are non-invasive and holistic. You cannot blame those in the wellness community for attempting to fulfill the wishes of our clients from a place of honesty and goodwill. After all, if an individual would rather die than obtain chemotherapy treatments for their cancer, then there is little that anyone in the medical or wellness communities can do to alter that resolution. However, those in the wellness community may be better equipped to provide supportive or palliative care which lines up with that individual’s desires. And, if in the process, we provide something that ends up being curative for the person’s illness, then doctors should be investigating and rejoicing over the fact that there are potentially additional means of treating that illness, rather than shunning or deriding anyone who suggests that the new treatment may be effective.

Dr. Gunter does make excellent points about some people, especially those who have gained fame on the internet or otherwise, advertising or promoting things which are of questionable value. (Again, many of these people fall into one of the two categories of the minority mentioned above.) She cites the latest trend of activated charcoal in food and drinks being touted as a “detox” as a primary example of this, saying that, “[i]t has the same efficacy as a spell from the local witch.” I just wrote a post two weeks ago addressing a part of this very same issue and agree with her that “detoxing” with charcoal or other substances is probably unnecessary, though not absolutely unsafe if done in moderation.

Despite her aversion to its everyday use, Dr. Gunter mentions nothing of activated charcoal’s critical role in emergency rooms for acute poisonings because it will bind whatever is in the stomach of the victim. While there is little or no scientific evidence to support ingesting activated charcoal for everyday “detoxes,” it does have a long and respected history of being used for various medical ailments, as far back as the Egyptians and Greeks (with Hippocrates and Pliny being two key figures who used it extensively). While the evidence for its efficacy may be strictly anecdotal in nature, does that mean that everyone should ignore it entirely? Perhaps if research were conducted on the effects of activated charcoal, scientists would find that some of the anecdotal evidence was supported. Such things have happened before, and even today, doctors are having to amend some of the recommendations that they once made now that new research has come out. After all, doctors and scientists don’t know everything. That’s why continued experimentation is so important.

However, this hits another point on which she would probably say that I was incorrect or merely deluded. This is what she refers to as the “illusory truth effect.” While this phenomenon is real, or at least studies suggest it is so, I would say that some people are not necessarily affected by it. Rather, perhaps I should say that some people have more open minds and acknowledge that we don’t absolutely know the truth about everything, especially in the medical and health world, and so should not be too quick to judge things that some people say are working for them. Maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not, for example, that several people reportedly have been able to cure their cancer with frankincense essential oil. But it is our duty as individuals in the wellness and healthcare worlds to listen and discern for ourselves, especially when scientific research is lacking.

Dr. Gunter begins the conclusion of her argument by citing that there are ailments that she believes have been a part of our human experience “since the beginning of time.” Uncomfortable issues such as “fatigue, bloat, low libido, episodic pain, loss of vigor,” etc. Whether she’s correct about that or not is up for debate, as there are plenty of people out there who seem to have found solutions to these problems in their own lives by practicing what she eschews as “wellness.” Perhaps such conditions are more a symptom of our modern lifestyles rather than baggage brought along from the dawn of time, but without enough history and research to back either claim, it is difficult to tell for certain.

She also notes that, clearly, doctors in Western medicine could learn something from those who practice wellness, since people are obviously looking for healers, and doctors need to find safe and effective ways to fill that need. I agree. Most of us in the wellness community actually seek for a balance and harmony between alternative and Western medicine, for we recognize the value of both. Forming partnerships with those in alternative medicine and wellness who are responsible and will work with Western medicine to fully address a person’s needs and medical issues is a powerful solution to this conundrum. The first steps are already being taken by many in both the Western and alternative medicine communities. Doctors are recommending that their patients receive regular massage for their stress, high blood pressure, back pain, or other similar physical issues rather than just writing them prescriptions for those problems. Hospitals are beginning to use essential oils to brighten the environment, calm and comfort patients, and help keep deadly pathogens at bay. Studies are being performed, little by little, that show the efficacy of alternative treatments such as acupuncture for pain relief, digestive issues, and other ailments.

It is not impossible for the two approaches to health and wellness to work together and achieve amazing results in the lives of our patients. All that such a partnership really requires is open minds, open hearts, open communication, a willingness to work together to put the patient and their needs and desires first, and an ability to admit that we don’t know everything.