Alternative & Arguable Therapies

24 / 08 / 2015

The new age, cialis health and wellness industries are an ever-expanding retail universe, no rx offering up healing, spirit guides, Paleo diets and empowerment. With questionable and downright fraudulent solutions being sold to the masses, there is still a lot of good in these offerings – the key is discernment, writes Amal Awad.  

At some point you have most likely come across health and wellbeing “solutions” in some shape or form.

You’re confronted by miracle offerings on Facebook.

You only buy organic.

You’ve clicked on Upworthy-style headlines that chide you for not realising the “20 ways coconut oil will change your life!”, or you self-consciously attend a mind/body/spirit-type festival, pretending you’re just there to mock, not get a psychic reading or a free healing.

You might have even liked a Tony Robbins talk or two, or subscribed to various diets that will see your friendships tested.

All of these things fall under the ever-expansive umbrella of health and wellbeing, an increasingly profitable marketplace that last year saw projected sales of approximately $774 billion, according to Euromonitor International.

You’re either a proud card-carrying rationalist skeptic or a believer. Or maybe you fall somewhere in between. Whatever your inclination, for as many advocates of health and wellbeing solutions (and it’s a broad marketplace), there are as many observers ready to pillory you for suggesting supplements can improve your wellbeing.

This is because, increasingly, the health and wellness industries are as helpful as they are dangerous, and like Medusa’s head, full of snakes.

The call of empowerment

Herein lies part of the problem: there is, increasingly, a lot to mock. When I received a press release for a book called Light is the New Black, I rolled my eyes and sighed to the heavens. Danielle LaPorte self-deprecatingly talking empowerment and passion is one thing, Rebecca Campbell invoking His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama – “The world will be saved by the western woman” – is entirely another.

“Rise, sister, rise,” Campbell proclaims, as the press release trots out the stock-standard spiel about guiding women back to who they really are in order to be modern-day visionaries.

This is but one issue with the empowerment industry – it targets the vulnerable by pointing to a problem we didn’t even realise we had, and most often, it’s women. I have no problem with seeking out divinity. But do we need more privileged western women writing about how we’re all going wrong?

I get it…

I should say that I speak from a place of experience. I’m critical because I see so much benefit in what the health and wellbeing marketplace can offer. I myself have been subjected to raised eyebrows and the mockery because I’ve tried lots of interesting things, if not purely for curiosity, because I benefit from them.

I also feel very privileged to have encountered and worked with some amazing, strong and clever women who teach what they have experienced, not what they think will sell. I count amongst my friends witches, yogis and healers. I don’t discount the value of anything they have to offer.

But then…

People like shamed wellness advocate Belle Gibson come along and muddy the filtered waters. She may seem like old news now, but Gibson remains an important lesson to us all. You may recall that Gibson claimed she’d suffered from terminal illnesses but survived due to changes in her lifestyle and diet. You may also remember that she profited off her lies, going so far as to raise money for charities that never saw a dime. She had a best-selling app, a book called The Whole Pantry, and a huge, hopeful Instagram following.

No one in the media queried her outlandish claims of recovering from terminal illness without medical intervention. She got away with it because even amid war, natural disaster and other global maladies, we want to believe that life can be restorative and kind – and in a Humans of New York era, we want to extend warmth to people who are suffering. We are also easily fooled it seems by an industry that is churning out miracle solutions every day.

(Hint: if the words ‘miracle’ or ‘miraculous’ appear anywhere on or near a product or person, run.)

On the other side of this betrayal is so-called Wellness Warrior Jess Ainscough, who actually did have cancer, and advocated the controversial Gerson Therapy, a healthy lifestyle, and a positive attitude to cure cancer. She wrote a book, hit the speakers’ circuit and blogged about her recovery, no doubt giving hope to many cancer sufferers that there are solutions outside of traditional medicine.

Arguably, Ainscough came from a place of genuine experience, though many cancer survivors have criticised her for potentially leading people astray by convincing them that eating legumes and taking a coffee enema can save your life. Ainscough’s own mother tragically died from cancer; Gerson didn’t work for her.

I have more than one friend who has been dealt the cancer card and were told numerous solutions that would not only cure them, but wouldn’t require chemotherapy or other medical attention. Thankfully, they had the common sense to consider supplemental remedies rather than reject modern medicine entirely.

It’s understandable that many cancer patients, doctors and observers get frustrated by this; it’s shameful to offer false hope that shark cartilage is the answer, or that crystal therapy will realign your auras and cleanse you of the negativity that gave you a tumor.

Yet the fact is, the search for natural remedies is as old as time. It’s not that it’s entirely impossible to benefit from alternative therapies. Where the danger lies is when it is sold as the solution to an illness to a person desperate for a healing. By all means, drink the herbal teas and take the tinctures if you must, but give modern medicine a chance.

It’s not in your head

Where things truly get murky is when your state of mind or personal experience are named the culprits for your physical suffering. Anyone familiar with the wellness industry will most likely know that many devotees subscribe to a particular belief system that your illness is linked to your emotional wellbeing.

The famous Louise L Hay, who delivered a restorative tome in How To Heal Your Life (it has its moments), also aligns any illness you may suffer from – what she terms a ‘dis-ease’ – to something occurring in your life. You’re broken, you see. You’ve been the victim of [insert horrible life event] and now you [insert horrible bodily effect].

One blogger I follow documents her daily joys amid a life ravaged by Lyme disease. She’s a psychic and went on to explain how much criticism she receives from readers who advise her that her Lyme disease is due to some defect in her approach to life. It’s beyond silly, and also quite cruel. Not the least because it tells scared, potentially helpless-feeling people that the solution is not a trip to the local GP, but an affirmation to free yourself of shame.

It’s OK to believe it, but see your doctor anyway. They can be really useful with the science. Your meditative healer can take care of your feels.

All in the mind

It’s an issue that isn’t limited to physical health. Our personal wellbeing index isn’t boosted purely by a fit and healthy body. I would argue that for many, yoga, meditation, tai chi and other similar activities that help restore our balance do not meet much resistance. People swear by the effect Pilates has on your body. There’s even science to back the positive effect of meditation.

In the same way a physical workout will change your body, taking care of your head will do wonders for your state of mind. Meditation gets a big tick for that. But then you have positive affirmation proponents, now collectively hated by all Facebook users subjected to misappropriated quotes by Marilyn Monroe about loving yourself.

As I mentioned, for many there is value in affirmative thinking, even if the scientific credentials of hypnosis, neuro-lingistic programming and its ilk are frequently challenged. Not having scientific proof of the benefit of something doesn’t make it falsifiable.

The problem is when people sell it as the answer to all pain. It’s really not. It’s a method of thinking and being that can change your attitude and your sense of self-empowerment. Which is only good, if you’re open to talking to yourself in the mirror and smiling through the confusion.

Common sense must prevail

The problem with the wellness industry is that around every corner is an insidious marketing opportunity, a freshly minted ‘healer’ or new-age guru ready to become the next Tony Robbins or Doreen Virtue.

But if I’ve learned anything through my journeys through the health and wellness marketplace, it’s that there is room for everybody. You can choose one thing and reject another. There are even distinct camps: the pseudo-scientists; the health advocates who cling to science; the spiritually-inclined who cling to science; the spiritually-devoted who, figuratively speaking, stick their heads in the clouds and don’t come down.

I wholeheartedly advocate people doing whatever it takes (legally, obviously) to feel better. But none should be considered the solution to life’s problems. Like coconut oil, consider them a sometimes-helpful ingredient.

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