Can Wellness Be Scientific?

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The “wellness” label is slapped on pretty much everything these days from hotel experiences to office chairs. Much like the word natural, it’s a nebulous term.

Wellness used to primarily mean illness prevention: Think corporate wellness programs that offered smoking-cessation seminars in a poorly lit conference room. Now, wellness is more broadly associated with food (organic only, please!), fitness, supplements, and the mind-body connection. It’s often steeped in the assumption that chemicals are bad and experts — like doctors and researchers — are suspect. If wellness had a face, it would be Gwyneth Paltrow. L.A. is its Mecca. Hot water with lemon is its drink of choice.

It’s a word that drives some scientists crazy. Kevin Folta, Ph.D., is a professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences department at the University of Florida, Gainesville. He’s been in the “wellness vs. science” trenches for a long time, most notably tussling publicly with blogger Vani Hari, a.k.a. the controversial Food Babe, on issues like GMOs and food additives. (He once described her platform to the New York Times as a “corrupt message of bogus science and abject food terrorism,” so the man has strong feelings on the topic.)

“[Wellness] is a horribly imprecise term, and as a scientist I tend to stay away from such things because it’s important that we have precision in our language about health and fitness,” Folta says. “It means too many things to too many people.”

One of the big hallmarks of the modern wellness movement, which helps to explain how the concept got somewhat divorced from science, is a general disdain for traditional experts and western medicine. And no one idea exemplifies this growing chasm between science and wellness more than the ubiquitous concept of detoxing.

It doesn’t matter how many times doctors publicly debunk detoxing; it persists. Charles Mueller, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor of nutrition at New York University, made an indignant sound into the phone upon being asked about detoxing. “It’s very difficult for people like me to keep my head on when I hear about things like alkaline diets and detoxing. There’s no such thing as detoxing your body, absolutely no such thing,” he says.

But the concept is as prevalent as ever, because people keep talking about it and saying it works, which is another common practice in the wellness world, thanks to the ease of sharing information online. (Google “gluten free” for another example of this.)

“I don’t remember who said it first, but the plural of anecdote is not data,” says Folta. In other words, five people saying a juice cleanse cleared up their acne doesn’t mean that juice can help your skin. Folta calls this a “contagion of confirmation bias. People tend to cluster together around their perceived maladies and that’s a horrible problem with today’s online tribal nature of communication.”

There’s also overconfidence in our own intelligence. “Research shows that especially in the U.S., people who are more highly educated and more affluent are more likely to be, for example, against vaccines [which the medical establishment overwhelmingly supports],” says Kavin Senapathy, author of Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House and a Forbes columnist who busts food and health myths. “These people trust their own intelligence so much that they therefore must be able to evaluate the information just as well as an expert. There’s some ego, some fear, and some anti-establishment attitude that all comes together to contribute to the distrust.”

The mainstream media routinely reports on scientific findings, but take that information with a grain of (pink Himalayan, the best kind according to wellness gurus) salt. “When scientists and academic institutions come out with new research, they’ll send out a press release and it has to be made sexy somehow because they want to get coverage,” Senapathy explains. “Journalists sometimes aren’t aware of how to dissect it or actually how to read the paper. If one scientific paper says turmeric helps kill cancer cells in a petri dish and the headline says, ‘Turmeric kills cancer!,’ that’s a huge disconnect.”

Then there are wellness entities like Mercola, Natural News, the Environmental Working Group, and Deepak Chopra’s site, which publish information that seems well written and coherent. Senapathy warns that those sites take concepts from “real” science and distort it to meet an agenda. She cites Chopra’s recent interpretation that the microbiome, the bacteria living in our guts, doesn’t “like” GMO products. Even when someone gets discredited, like Dr. Oz for example, Senapathy says there is a “misinformation hydra” wherein another wellness extremist will pop up.

News in the alternative-health media often spreads to the mainstream, too.

“Within days or weeks after Goop posts something, there will be significant coverage about it,” says Senapathy. (Exhibit A: chanting to your beauty products.)

It’s also important to note, however, that science is not without its limitations, as noted by a survey of 270 scientists recently published by Vox. “Today, scientists’ success often isn’t measured by the quality of their questions or the rigor of their methods. It’s instead measured by how much grant money they win, the number of studies they publish, and how they spin their findings to appeal to the public,” the authors wrote. There’s not enough interest in certain topics or substances (this seems especially true in wellness and illness prevention), statistics can be manipulated, and there’s often not enough replication of studies to strengthen certain hypotheses.

There can also be a very real and valid placebo effect from treatments, even if there’s not data to support an outcome. A certain supplement or ritual may help ease the perception of symptoms even if it does nothing to treat the underlying cause. Folta acknowledges this and says, “Ethically it’s a tough one because I think if people are getting a presumed effect from the treatment, it’s good, but at the same time, as a scientist, I want to know what’s real, what’s reproducible, what’s factual, what’s efficacious.”

So how is a person who’s just trying to figure out whether or not Olivia Munn’s Japanese sweet potatoes are worth hunting down for anti-aging purposes supposed to do?

The good news, according to Mueller, is that science and wellness are not actually mutually exclusive. “Wellness and science can go hand-in-hand. There is legitimate research and methods to test hypotheses that have to do with wellness,” he says.

The experts here recommend looking for multiple sources of scientific agreement on a topic. “If there’s one scientist saying something, make sure there are other scientists saying the same thing,” says Senapathy.

Then search for other studies in PubMed or Google Scholar. Yes, the reading is dense and confusing, but at the bare minimum “it gives you a sense of at least what has been vetted by the peer-reviewed literature and what information exists in a validated space,” says Folta. “If you find nothing about a supplement or a product, then you should look at it very suspiciously.”

The government offers some clearinghouses for wellness information. The National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is one place to start. While this entity has drawn the ire of scientists who have accused it of supporting “pseudo-science,” the information and advice there is decidedly level-headed and not sensational. (Of turmeric, the current darling in wellness, the NIH says, “There is little reliable evidence to support the use of turmeric for any health condition because few clinical trials have been conducted.”) The National Cancer Institute also offers a complementary and alternative-medicine section, which address supplements and also mind-body treatments like yoga and hypnosis. The NIH also hosts the Office of Dietary Supplements , which is full of fact sheets on supplements not regulated by the FDA.

Pay attention to credentials of so-called experts, too. So much of wellness involves food, and Mueller notes that “anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.” Look for someone who is a registered dietician nutritionist; having a Ph.D. is a bonus. “That’s not a guarantee that you won’t talk to a wingnut,” says Mueller, but it provides a level of legitimacy.

“We live in an age where if you’re an expert, you’re an elitist, and therefore you shouldn’t be paid attention to,” Mueller says. “But the fact of the matter is, yeah, you should pay attention to the great centers of research. That should be the source of your information, not a blog from somebody in California or a movie star.”

Online resources for scientific health and wellness information:

Food Politics: Marion Nestle is a well-respected nutrition expert with degrees in molecular biology and public health nutrition, whose writing is smart and accessible.

David Katz, M.D.: This Yale-based doctor and nutrition expert weighs in on everything from food trends to diets.

Fitness Reloaded: A fitness and nutrition blog devoted to “fad-free, science based choices.”

Health.gov: Health and wellness news and studies directly from the U.S. government.

Science Based Medicine: The name says it all here.

MedLine Plus “Guide to Health Websurfing”: A helpful guide for reading health and wellness information with a critical eye. 

Can Wellness Be Scientific?