Rethinking wellness: How the wellness industry is harming your health

Illustration of a woman holding up a pill with a dollar sign on it, with a bottle reading "Live Well!" behind her
Aarthi Muthukumar/Staff

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Have you ever purchased a probiotic because you learned they help maintain a healthy microbiota? Have you ever been compelled to try out essential oils or similar products that claim to balance your hormone levels? A lot of people, especially women in response to medical gender bias, have used these types of products in an attempt to live a healthier lifestyle. And over the past decade, social media has given a voice to the wellness industry. But the truth is that this goal of “health” the industry promotes is completely unattainable, because if it were, the wellness industry would crumble. 

The wellness industry pushes products that more resemble a scheme than anything that might really help people live healthy lives. The industry can be dangerous and even potentially damaging to public health. It convinces people to trust unstudied products and the people that sell them, rather than peer-reviewed science and its physicians.

The wellness industry is a conglomerate of companies and often well-meaning people that preach about how they became healthier by using this product or that product. The industry was worth $4.2 trillion as of February 2020 and is only growing. It includes many platforms, from nutrition and fitness programs to natural beauty products and immune-boosting gummies. But what the industry often doesn’t include is science. Most of the products it promotes, from probiotics, which are capsules of live bacteria and yeast, to essential oils, oftentimes are not supported by scientific studies. 

This industry creates a sense of doubt in people about their perceived health. It tells people that their normal human feelings — occasional aches, pains and sluggishness — are a sign that there is something wrong with their bodies or that they’re not operating at top efficiency. And when physicians tell their patients these concerns are baseless, it sews seeds of doubt in people’s trust in their doctors. Then these products and its salespeople run into the scene like heroes, validating people’s concerns and providing them with “solutions” based on pseudoscience.

One of the more dangerous and outrageous claims often made by people in the wellness industry is that antibiotics are harmful. This claim is dangerous because antibiotics are needed to save lives. For people with serious bacterial infections, antibiotics are key frontline treatments currently available and one of the only treatments for a majority of bacteria. It is true that antibiotics are overused and at the rate that we are using them — especially on livestock — we may run out of effective antibiotics. And it is also true that broad-spectrum antibiotics affect the microflora, which is the ecosystem of microbes that live in the gut, of the person ingesting them. But here is where the wellness industry took a scientific truth and turned it on its head. It is not true that all antibiotics are bad, and if you have to take them you will not completely wipe out your microbiota forever. But it is true that in order to kill the pathogen that is causing disease, broad-spectrum antibiotics will change a person’s microbiota. If people are afraid to use antibiotics or are convincing others that they do more harm than good, this misconception could prevent someone from receiving the necessary medical intervention they need to survive.

Another claim made by the wellness industry is that probiotics are necessary. This claim, however, has never been proven in a peer-reviewed study of healthy adults. Probiotics have shown to be effective in children with mild to severe diarrhea, or in an individual that actively needs help improving a damaged microbiota. They are not necessary for an average healthy individual that has not had them prescribed by a doctor. 

Most scientists that have studied probiotics actually argue that eating whole fruits and vegetables confers the same, if not more, benefit for an individual’s digestive system than over-the-counter probiotic capsules. The makeup of probiotic supplements usually includes a comparatively small number of microbes, not nearly enough to diversify an individual’s microflora effectively. This is why it is usually unnecessary to spend money on probiotic supplements when putting that money toward fresh produce is all-around healthier.

These are just two examples of how the pseudoscience of the wellness industry can be harmful to people’s health and is mainly used to sell products. There are numerous other examples including untested essential oils, heavy-metal detox sprays and other supplement concoctions. The industry can be especially dangerous because it places doubt on the medical field. It tells people to trust online testimonials rather than their physician. It is highly important to look critically at the science behind the products you are using to improve your health.  

While it’s important we all question the wellness campaigns that have proliferated social media, ultimately what we need most is better regulation on wellness products. Marketing tactics should be regulated so that these companies are not able to tell customers their products are effective when they have no scientific backing to prove this is true. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should also be required to regulate dietary supplements, as there is currently no consistent regulation on these products. 

Healthy lives are attainable, no matter what the wellness industry tells you. Even if the government won’t step up and regulate wellness products, we can stop supporting the trillion-dollar industry and find real, scientifically proven ways to improve our health.

Maddy Moulton is a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley studying molecular environmental biology.