Online wellness is an unregulated Wild West and it's time to duck for cover
Taking a quick browse through the wellness corner of Instagram, I’m told that coconut oil will ‘support the body’s natural antioxidant defenses’, that ashwagandha supplements can ‘treat cancer’, and that drinking celery juice on an empty stomach will detoxify my liver.
This is all nonsense. But when someone who looks super healthy and has thousands of followers is saying it, a claim can start to feel convincing.
This is the state of wellness – a wild, wild west where there’s no proper regulation and the person who can draw their gun the quickest will win.
Across the internet you’ll find all manner of misinformation around the theme of feeling and looking better, all preying on the knowledge that most of us feel bloody awful and will jump on anything that promises to soothe our woes.
The internet has democratised and opened up the world of health, which in some ways is a wonderful thing.
You can find support groups for your mental illness, Google your symptoms and discover a diagnosis you might not have been aware of, and find methods of self-care that your doctor simply doesn’t have the time or resources to prescribe.
There are some non-traditional treatments that can help but that professionals aren’t able to research, and the internet can draw our attention to something that’s genuinely beneficial for a chronic condition – especially those that are often dismissed or ignored by the medical profession.
But that democratisation also means that absolutely anyone can publicly declare that something is a magical remedy.
Anyone can create a Twitter or Instagram account, make an infographic, and then extol the benefits of whatever supplement they’re selling or DIY fix they’ve stumbled upon.
There are verified ‘ticks’, but these are no indicator of any medical expertise.
You can report a tweet for abusive content or copyright infringement, but not for simply being untrue. There’s no quick button to let Twitter know that if someone follows the advice of this tweet with over 20,000 retweets, they’ll likely end up in hospital.
Misinformation spreads fast and those who start it do so with impunity.
New claims can pop up at every second, with only a few renegades trying to quell wellness tips from spreading like a virus. We have to rely on publications to debunk products and trends, or Dr Jen Gunter to call out vagina-related myths, and accounts like Estee Laundry for tearing apart bullsh*t beauty promises.
But it’s like a game of high speed whack a mole. There’s no way every bit of nonsense can be debunked. Most will slip through the cracks and make their way in front of the eyes of vulnerable people desperately looking for a fix.
Even those that are disproven with medical evidence won’t be dismissed. Detractors will be accused of promoting big pharma, promoters will double down on their claimed benefits, and people will jump up to say that actually, they tried celery juice/vagina detox balls/jade eggs and it really did make them feel incredible.
There’s no official body making sure everyone’s following the rules. Wellness is a lawless state in which experts, influencers, customers, and brands are left to fight it out.
It’s no longer as simple as declaring ‘well, this is true, and here’s evidence, and this is false’. Individuals have to choose who they believe – the professional doctor who perhaps hasn’t listened to their complaints or the glowing influencer with 60,000 followers, who follows all the advice she gives and looks absolutely incredible. Seeing is believing, and all too often it’s whoever looks the best who’ll get our trust – we want to look more like them, so we’ll do as they say.
A wellness influencer’s perfect skin and toned body are rarely down to the easy fixes they promote, of course.
They’re blessed with good genes, and more often than not have the time and money to put a lot of work into their appearance – none of which makes it to their social media channels.
They sell us quick, easy magic bullets because they know that’s what the average person is so in need of.
The average person doesn’t have time to grow their own organic fruit and veg, make deliciously balanced food from scratch, exercise the perfect amount, socialise, meditate, sleep, and do all the other stuff we know we’re supposed to do to live a longer life.
We prioritise one thing and another slips. Work is the top, then we know exercise is crucial, then suddenly we’re wandering around like zombies on six hours of rest.
There’s an uncomfortable reality few of us want to face: it’s impossible to live the dream of total wellness unless you’re extremely wealthy, and can thus justify shifting around your work schedule, paying someone else to cook your food, and having an expert personal trainer around to create the optimal workout plan.
It’s just not achievable for the average person. We can’t do it.
But the wellness industry makes us feel like we should, and that’s where the trouble begins.
The second we’re pressured to reach an unattainable goal, we’ll try to cut corners to somehow make it all work. When someone presents us with a juice or a pill or a breathing technique that will solve everything in one go, we’ll snatch it up eagerly.
Okay, so we can’t stick to clean eating 100 per cent of the time, but we can do a seven day juice cleanse.
We’re constantly nauseous, the doctor says it’s down to stress and poor diet, but that’s trickier to solve. So we guzzle kombucha and take gut health supplements.
The stuff we know works – exercise, eating healthily, resting enough, looking after our mental state – takes a long time to deliver results. If someone on the internet promises something instant and minimal effort, of course we’re going to buy into it.
Wellness influencers know this and they exploit this. There’s no official regulatory body to make them stop, no sheriff to make the wellness cowboys and snake oil salesmen follow the rules. The onus is entirely on us to sift through the nonsense and dodge those wellness bullets coming left right and centre, and it’s getting harder and harder to know who the good guys are, what will hurt and what will heal.
So what can we do?
The key is knowing what we’re up against, and knowing when something is a nice thing to try or one that will cause you serious harm.
That’s difficult to do alone. Who has the time to look through pages of peer-reviewed research, and how can you be certain what’s reputable expertise and what’s glossily packaged fake news?
That’s why it’s crucial for the higher powers of the internet to step in and stop the shoot-outs. It’s time for sites to stop allowing the sale of dangerous ‘wellness’ products with no evidence to their claims, for Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter to create a way to report and remove untrue and dangerous health recommendations, and for the internet at large to stop giving equal weight to what one self-appointed expert claims and what years of research from medical professionals has discovered.
The wide majority of wellness nonsense online isn’t harmful. You’ll do a few lime shots, discover no radical changes, and move on with your life.
You might even find that some bizarre wellness tip does actually help you feel better, and that’s wonderful.
But we can’t keep allowing people to declare these tricks miracle cures. We can’t allow ourselves to be scammed into wasting our time and money, and putting our health at risk, because someone online is sufficiently convincing.
You know what works: a balanced diet (a Mediterranean diet has been found to be the healthiest by multiple studies), moderate exercise, getting enough sleep, looking after your stress levels, and steering clear from downing booze and puffing cigarettes.
If something isn’t feeling great, talk to a doctor. And yes, the medical industry also needs to step in to sort out this mess, promising to actually listen to patients’ concerns rather than dismissing pain and discomfort and refusing to take certain issues seriously. It would also be great if they had more funding to research non-traditional methods of wellness so we can get a clue about what’s actually reliable.
Drink your celery juice if you want to, but take everything with a pinch of salt (not literally). Drink it because you like it, not because you really believe in its ‘magical healing properties’ or because you think it’ll make up for working too hard, not eating well, and skipping exercise.
Oh, and last thing: Anything that claims to ‘detox’ is generally trash. Your kidneys and liver do that all for you. If anyone suggests you need their overpriced product to get rid of all your toxins, tell them to f*** right off.
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