When my mother was being treated for breast cancer back in the 1990s, she developed a very common side effect from chemo: constipation. Her oncologist prescribed a medication, which proved explosively effective (ahem). So on top of the general misery of living in a body that’s processing chemo chemicals, she had excruciating stomach cramps. He took her off the medication, but the original issue wasn’t solved—until a nurse whispered to us that many patients found relief in a natural remedy: Smooth Move tea.
I checked with the doctor to make sure nothing in the tea would interact with the treatment she was already getting, and inadvertently (but severely) pissed him off. “The nurses shouldn’t be prescribing things. It’s just an old wives’ tale. But it’s harmless if you want to waste your money,” he said.
Since the tea was sold at Walmart for less than $5, we felt okay risking all those dollar bills. And it helped, in a gentle and effective way. But what stuck with me all these years later is how adding this traditional solution to my mom’s regimen really shouldn’t have been a big deal. There was absolutely no reason for the doctor to feel defensive about tea.
“Science vs. wellness” is a false choice. It was then, and it certainly is now, when wellness has become so mainstream that it’s a multibillion-dollar industry.
It felt like I had to pick sides, which was particularly surprising because I wasn’t nearly as wellness-y then as I am now (I definitely would’ve mocked the crystals-loving, probiotic-popping me of today)—so to feel like this doctor was lumping me in with unscientific weirdos, in so many words, was a shock to my skeptical, evidence-loving system.
But the thing is: “Science vs. wellness” is a false choice. It was then, and it certainly is now, when wellness has become so mainstream that it’s a multibillion-dollar industry.
So when a recent New York Times essay by Jen Gunter, MD, cited a study that showed that cancer patients who tried complementary therapies were more likely to refuse conventional treatment altogether—it was a lean-forward moment for me.
I’ve been immersed in the wellness world for the past few years, so I’m privy to lots of conversations in that sphere—at work, in yoga class, and over glasses of green juice on Sunday mornings—and I just don’t hear people advocating for ditching your doctor during a medical crisis—even in the most esoteric corners. (One of my reiki teachers fought breast cancer with surgery, chemo, and radiation, for instance.)
But that’s all anecdotal; Dr. Gunter was laying down some hard evidence, I thought. Is this finally the smoking gun showing that the type of fearmongering on display in her article is justified?
Then I read the study.
Of the nearly 2 million cancer patients who participated, exactly 258 refused treatment. As in, 0.01 percent of the group. Just for a real-life representation of that number: 0.01 percent of the US population of 325 million is about 45,000 people. To take the actions of that small group and paint all yoga-loving Americans (there are 36 million of ’em) or US vegetarians (there are 7.3 million in this camp) with the same brush is wildly off-base. It’s like looking at an Olympic-size pool and a 1-gallon bottle of water and saying, “Yep. Same.”
Because the reality is, most people who are introducing wellness into their lives are not quacks. Yes, there is a very vocal faction of anti-vaxxers (lookin’ at you, Jenny McCarthy) in this country, and Steve Jobs famously delayed chemo and surgery in favor of “alternative” treatments—so I’m not denying quacks exist. But most people who are “into wellness” are regular people who go to the gym, who are aware of (and trying to lower) their stress levels, who are trying to eat more veggies and meditate every morning. They’re doing these things to feel healthier, to feel good in their bodies—to feel more alive. It’s not that controversial, y’all.
So what’s wrong with an excess of caution on the part of some wellness-wary doctors, even if the fears are overblown? It’s the shade—the shade of it all. It makes patients feel like they have to take sides, even to their own detriment, just so they don’t get lumped in with the fringe.
It makes patients feel like they have to take sides, even to their own detriment, just so they don’t get lumped in with the fringe.
A growing body of science shows that a holistic approach, taken as a parallel path to medical treatments, can in fact lead to better outcomes: Countless studies have shown the health benefits of eating more fresh fruits and vegetables (yep, a healthy diet is “wellness”), and that exercise can improve everything from cardiovascular health to your sex life. Even esoteric practices like reiki have shown promise in supporting post-heart attack recovery. And, according to Wayne Jonas, MD, former director of the World Health Organization Center for Traditional Medicine and author of How Healing Works, there are even healing benefits to being in a space that doesn’t feel like a hospital. “We have good scientific evidence that for many chronic conditions, physical spaces influence healing,” he says.
Which is why, right now, some of the best medical centers in the country (including the famed Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic) are treating patients using a functional or integrative medical approach. At Duke University Medical Center, acupuncture and massage are offered along with conventional treatments, and at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, you can get aromatherapy and touch therapy and also chemo and radiation. This influential group of doctors and administrators are rejecting the us-vs.-them false binary and investigating new ways to fight disease and improve the health of their patients—which makes worn-out, throwback arguments like the one in the New York Times seem all the more out of touch.
Don’t forget, many of these alternative therapies are time-tested in other medical traditions: Like Traditional Chinese Medicine, which has been used for thousands of years in China, or Ayurveda, the ancient science of India (of which yoga is just one branch). Being curious about how these traditions can help you, especially in treating systemic conditions that can improve with lifestyle changes (like GI and autoimmune disorders, which are the rise among young women), could be crucial to developing the breakthrough innovations of the future. And to look down your nose at them is more than a little ethnocentric.
So let me say it loud and proud: Just because you spend your self-care Sunday with a green tea mask doesn’t mean you’ve thrown all science and reason out the window. Just because you’re willing to try eating more salmon (or walnuts, or chia seeds), in an effort to improve your brain health and support your anxiety and depression treatment, doesn’t mean you’re trying to dismantle the AMA. And just because you call yoga “your therapy” doesn’t mean you’d suggest an ashram for someone suffering from a psychotic break or clinical depression.
Basically, every minute we’re rehashing this same easy-target argument in favor of following medical advice is a minute we’re not talking about the gender gap in medical research, which can make treatments less effective for women. Or, as Dr. Gunter rightly points out, the fact that most vitamins and supplements are not as effective as advertised. Or, another fact: They’re almost completely unregulated, as is the beauty industry. There are issues in the wellness industry—I’m not blind to that—so let’s work on fixing them, rather than introducing straw men.
It’s more important than ever that the medical community be strategic with conversations, to toe the line in favor of evidence-based rigor and to maintain the authority needed to confront the public health emergencies of the future. How, exactly, does clutching your pearls about the vague, undefined “wellness” bogeymen help your credibility?
Wellness-curious Americans need the discernment of the medical and scientific communities, not their scorn. Rejecting “wellness” out of hand because it wasn’t born in the USA (or isn’t AMA-approved—yet) is not the answer. And that’s the real T(ea).
A new book by a best-selling author also makes a case against wellness—here’s how her argument comes up short. And here’s what Drew Ramsey, MD, has to say about medication within the medical community.
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