The wellness movement has many facets, from the well-known to the truly bizarre. Take ear candling, for example. You could be forgiven for immediately thinking that this entails making candles from ear wax: that was my first reaction, too.
But in fact, ear candling is an alternative medicine practice which involves lighting one end of a candle and placing the other end in the ear canal. This is supposedly beneficial for general health and well-being, yet I have to imagine that it is just as uncomfortable as it sounds.
Other alternative therapies are less controversial. Yoga purportedly can help heal the mind, body, and soul. Many different threads of this movement are woven together in widely varying combinations to achieve the ultimate tapestry – a state of ‘wellness’. Technically speaking, this refers to the condition of being in good physical and mental health. But shouldn’t we all strive for that?
There are other questions to consider. Does this practice merely encourage bettering oneself to an attainable level, or is it a pointless pursuit of sheer perfection and therefore a path to obsession? Furthermore, what is the science behind the various claims of these health-based products? Is this just another example of the excesses of the privileged?
On the surface, there are many benefits of the wellness movement. From a dietary perspective, encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetables can only be a good thing. Certain diets champion foods such as lentils as a healthier source of protein. This would reduce excessive consumption of red meat, which is linked to heart disease and other health concerns.
Even products that some scientists argue have no real positive impact or even negative impacts on the body, such as purified water, could be viewed as healthy – if you bend far enough. You could argue that fancy water might make people more likely to drink their purified water instead of soft drinks, because they prefer it to tap water. The same could be said for ‘organic’ produce: despite conflicting thoughts on whether or not it is superior to regular produce, eating organic greens is surely better than eating no greens at all.
The health-based claims of these examples often have the effect of making people feel safer about their nutritional choices, in turn leading to increased happiness even if no physical changes have occurred. This phenomenon is otherwise known as the placebo effect.
The environment can benefit from aspects of the wellness movement, from factors including reduced use of pesticides, which increases biodiversity; reduced international transportation of food due to consumption of locally grown goods, which assuages climate change; and reduced packaging, which creates less waste.
Food and drink are not the sole areas of interest. Exercise can relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and improve cardiovascular fitness. Plant-based toiletries may be better for sensitive skin, decreasing the risk of infection. Bamboo clothing is advertised as antibacterial and as a form of UV protection.
Many of these wellness products, from organic kale to herbal deodorant, have a common factor: although they may initially be more expensive than their ordinary counterparts, they could save the consumers’ money in the long-term, because their use could improve overall health and therefore lessen the amount spent on medical requirements in countries without free healthcare. This could still hold true if the effect is just placebo: if one feels better, they are less likely to spend money on treatment.
The dark side
A central concern among those opposed to the wellness movement is the risk of obsession. The disorder known as orthorexia is characterized by an obsession with eating only ‘pure’ foods to the point of eventual starvation, as the categories of acceptable foods narrow and narrow. The result is a damaged mental and physical state, which is clearly counter to the wellness movement as a whole.
Obsessions lead to ever-moving goalposts, as people desperately look for a pure lifestyle which does not exist. Furthermore, even if one were to attempt to follow the wellness movement dutifully, this is difficult due to conflicting advice.
Some diets recommend quinoa, yet others villify carbohydrates altogether. Some stores promote organic toothpaste, whilst others deride the idea of putting any manufactured substances at all in one’s body. Contradictions are everywhere.
What we consider healthy may change, but obsession and confusion remain a steadfast, unfortunate byproduct of wellness trends and movements. Coupled with societal pressures around body type and composition, this create a very destructive cocktail.
Furthermore, these contradictions extend to the acceptance and rejection of relevant information. Those who advocate a gluten-free diet often recommend it partially on the basis that ‘the gluten-containing grains we consume today are not the same ones our grandparents or great-grandparents consumed,’ indicating that a return to the diets of recent ancestors is ideal. However, some also dismiss practices that are centuries old, which carry much greater consequences than eating a muffin.
Take vaccination, for example. Previously referred to as inoculation or variolation, deliberate exposure to the smallpox virus has been dated back to tenth century China. More recently, efforts to completely eradicate polio have certainly benefited our grandparents, who likely witnessed many cases of the disease during childhood.
Despite this, some worried parents insist that more research must be done into long-term effects of vaccines, ignoring research that has already been completed. Alternative medicine may then be cited as a solution, leading to thousands of deaths.
An element of privilege is inextricably linked to the wellness movement. Although some products could save the consumer money in the long run, by reducing risk of disease and healthcare related costs, objects such as healing crystals and jasmine incense are unquestionably luxuries.
Luxuries typically have another cost besides the obvious. One such example is distressingly evident in Peru and Bolivia, where many citizens can no longer afford quinoa – previously a staple food – due to rising prices as a result of increased worldwide demand.
Quinoa is praised as an excellent source of protein and therefore an alternative to meat. As People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals puts it, “eating quinoa may harm Bolivian farmers, but eating meat harms us all,” citing statistics about environmental damage caused by eating meat.
Would we take the same view if our own access to basic food was similarly affected? I doubt it.
Quinoa isn’t the only popular product with serious blowback. Soy equivalents to dairy products are readily available in many grocery stores and are hailed as an alternative to dairy. In theory, this means that fewer cows are necessary for production, which would lower methane product and greenhouse gas emissions as a whole. Additionally, soy is also touted as a cruelty-free option.
However, even organic soy cultivation is a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon basin.
Deforestation creates problems for local wildlife and can also contribute to climate change. This exemplifies why we must encourage- and where possible, participate in- nutritional and environmental research, enabling a genuinely the development of genuinely better choices.
Living your best life
Finally, many of the movement’s claims are nonsensical. One cannot subsist on a completely sugar-free diet, as the body requires glucose to respire and thus to function. If one returns to the aforementioned ear candling, one could find their eardrums damaged in a costly procedure, as it removes ear wax, a natural form of antibacterial protection. And some promises may be too good to be true.
Forgive my use of anecdotal, and somewhat unpleasant, evidence: regardless of the claim that antibacterial bamboo clothing limits odours, my bamboo socks smell just as much after a day’s use as my regular ones do. I do find them more comfortable, though.
This leads us to our ultimate question: is it worth it? Should one pay, for example, a bamboo manufacturer more for unsubstantiated claims if there are other benefits? In other cases, is the placebo effect really so terrible if it does ameliorate one’s overall state of wellness? Where is the line between selfishness and self-improvement? Can one really be considered ‘improved’ if there are such devastating consequences?
Perhaps a solution could be based on individual wellness movements, which are tailored to personal needs, wants, goals, and standards yet still contain an element of respect for others. One could select their own strand of the tapestry and remove it, rather than becoming tangled in a conflicting mess.
If people were free to follow a diet that they considered both healthy and environmentally friendly based upon their own research, rather than the opinions of different groups, obsession could be limited.
If people followed alternative medicine but still vaccinated their children, the results could still be dire, but there would still be an aspect of personal choice without the risk to the more vulnerable. If one wished to buy a luxury that might increase their happiness such as a yoga mat, with their own hard-earned money, why shouldn’t they?
The wellness movement might function better if it were concerned with making each person ‘better’ instead of the elusive ‘best.’