Gwyneth Paltrow speaks onstage at the In goop Health Summit at 3Labs on June 9, 2018 in Culver City, California. Courtesy of Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Goop

by Timothy Caulfield | Vancouver Sun

April 15, 2019

Timothy Caulfield: Are we enabling harmful wellness woo?

Should you inject fruit juice directly into your veins? Fruits are healthy and “natural,” after all. And alternative practitioners — including those recognized and legitimized by provincial governments — routinely recommend injecting massive quantities of vitamins via an intravenous drip. So, infusing your body with nutrient-filled produce could only be a good thing. Right? Bring on the IV fruit juice!

The answer, of course, is no.

You should not mainline fruit juice. One would think this obvious, but there is so much confusing, science-free misinformation circulating in popular culture that it has become increasingly difficult to separate sensible health advice from what should be consider, well, insane.

Recently, a woman nearly died as a result of using a homemade IV drip to inject fruit juice. My initial reaction to this horrifying story? I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner.

We live in an era where the wellness industrial complex — a $4-trillion-a-year industry — recommends regular colonics (don’t do this), the steaming of vaginas (don’t do this), the consumption of activated charcoal (don’t do this), extreme and unsustainable diets and detoxes (don’t do either), the ingestion of massive amounts of supplements (don’t do this), the boosting of your immune system (not really possible and, again, don’t do this), and, yes, the use of  IV vitamin therapy.

There is growing recognition that this kind of health misinformation is having a tangible impact on the public’s health. For example, the World Health Organization recently declared the vaccine hesitancy caused by vaccination myths to be one of the top threats to global health. And there is increasing pressure on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to take active steps to curtail the spread of misleading health advice and conspiracy theories.

These are all positive and much-needed developments. But there is still far too much tolerance of pseudoscience in both popular culture and our health system. And this tolerance leads to confused messaging and, worse, facilitates the erosion of critical thinking.

The wellness industry is built on the embrace of magical ideas, including the acceptance of the existence of things like a life-force energy that can be manipulated by the waving of hands, the sticking of needles and the deployment of magnets. The wellness industry also depends on a belief in super foods, mega supplements and scientifically implausible therapies like homeopathy.

Many of these science-free ideas and products are not only tolerated by regulators (why are naturopaths, a provincially regulated health profession, allowed to offer homeopathy, detoxification services and IV vitamin therapy?), but are also often celebrated in the popular press and, worse, “integrated” into our healthcare system.

Confusing messaging is everywhere. Respected news outlets like the New York Times and CNN have recently profiled the Queen of all things bunk, Gwyneth Paltrow. The takeaway from these stories is not that Paltrow is a menace to critical thinking, but that she is an enlightened CEO for growing her pseudoscience-spreading wellness brand, Goop.

Earlier this year, it was reported that the Canadian government supported the sending of homeopathy to Honduras. Health Canada legitimizes bunk therapies like homeopathy through their natural health products licensing scheme. And if you walk into almost any pharmacy in Canada — again, a regulated health profession — you will find it stocked with shelves of science-free “remedies.” I could go on and on.

Keeping an open mind about new and unique approaches to health is a good idea. I also recognize that conventional, science-based healthcare practices are often utilized in a less-than-ideal manner. And too often there isn’t a science-based solution, causing patients and families to understandably search for relief and comfort from alternate sources. But while the problems and limitations of the conventional system may help to explain the growing interest in wellness woo, they do not stand as defensible justifications for the toleration of pseudoscience.

In this age of misinformation, fake news and twisted science, we need a stronger and less equivocal response to misinformation and unproven healthcare practices. Can we blame people for believing science-free nonsense when there are government-funded homeopathy programs and un-ironic media stories about the healing powers of crystals? If respected, publicly funded universities and healthcare institutions integrate life-force energy modalities into their programs, perhaps there are “natural” replacements to vaccines and alternative cures to cancer? (To be clear, there aren’t.)

What can be done? The government needs to take a stronger stand against the marketing and use of science-free therapies. This could include more truth-in-advertising actions, more aggressive oversight by the regulators of health professionals, and more enforcement from federal agencies like Health Canada. Trusted institutions such as universities and healthcare systems should take more care in how they represent unproven and magic-based healthcare practices.

We also need to support and encourage creative science communication strategies. While we probably can’t expect the news media to stop writing glowing stories about Paltrow and her ilk (but we can try: please stop!), the science community can strive to become a bigger part of the public conversation.

When we see bunk, let’s call it bunk.

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta and host of A User’s Guide to Cheating Death on Netflix. This op-ed series is a supporting part of SFU Public Square’s 2019 Community Summit: Confronting the Disinformation Age, running April 10 to 18.

This article was published by Vancouver Sun  on April 15, 2019.