Not all “wellness” is bullshit

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Image: Reuters/Ilya Naymushin
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Nearly every female lifestyle journalist worth their Himalayan pink salt descended on the first-ever Goop conference earlier this month. The result was a litany of take-downs ranging from the snarky to the overtly political.

The wellness industrial complex certainly deserves close scrutiny—as does the rise of a celebrity vanity project that’s turned pseudoscience into an aspirational lifestyle choice. However, as fun as it is to write about the “radioactive swan-like” qualities of Gwyneth Paltrow, there’s a downside to sneering at wellness wholesale: We may wind up inadvertently dismissing science-backed forms of alternative and non-Western healing in the process.

Just ask Moroccan researcher and pharmacologist professor Adnane Remmal. Remmal was recently awarded a European Inventor Award for developing a new form of antibiotic that he created to fight multidrug-resistant (MDR) superbugs. According to a February report from the World Health Organization, if we rely on market forces to develop suitable treatment options to address such bugs, a new drug is unlikely to arrive in time. So what is the magic ingredient that Remmal has proved to be effective at boosting the efficacy of antibiotics? Cineole—a molecule found in the essential oil derived from the eucalyptus plant.

The drug is currently under clinical trials in the country, and is slated to enter the market there in late 2017 or early 2018. A preliminary study, albeit with a very small sample size, found that 100% of 25 subjects who were treated for a MDR urinary tract infection were cured when they took a course of antibiotics boosted with this molecule. (While these results have yet to be published, there are several other studies that show the efficacy of this “synergistic” effect.)

Botanicals have long been known to have antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, and have been responsible for success stories such as the naturally-derived cancer drug Taxol. (Other naturally-found molecules and compounds have also made their way into mainstream medicine—the active ingredient in aspirin is a synthetic version of a compound found in willow bark and other plants, and artemisinin, used to fight malaria, is derived from sweet wormwood.) Still, when Remmal began experimenting with cineole, he was unsure if the mainstream medical establishment would accept it.

“In the beginning I had a resistance to the idea myself, but at the same time, in Morocco using plants to cure some diseases is not new—so I was quite sure there was some active agent in botanicals,” Remmal said. “However in the field of infectious disease, it was difficult to convince the scientists that we can obtain better efficacy with this drug than with antibiotics. This is why I combined them together.”

Indeed, Remmal believes that the molecule alone could prove as effective at battling infections as it is when paired with antibiotics, but more clinical trials on humans are needed to confirm. He has already developed an animal feed additive in Morocco that has allowed some farmers to ditch their antibiotic-laden feed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that the misuse of antibiotics in animal feed contributes to “the development, persistence, and spread of resistant bacteria.”

Remmal’s discovery serves as a good illustration of the nuance that is often lost in the wellness vortex. On one hand, a bias against complementary and alternative medicine may lead both doctors and patients to write off treatments that actually have proven benefits. On the other, the fact that a molecule found in eucalyptus oil may be useful in stopping superbugs doesn’t mean that we should all give up penicillin and start munching on the plant’s leaves like koalas. As Remmal notes, cineole is just one molecule of about 40 that make up eucalyptus essential oil, and the quantity one would have to ingest to benefit from its antibacterial properties would likely come with severe side effects, too. In other words: details matter.

“With essential oils, I’d never say you can’t inhale it, or put it on your skin, or put it in olive oil and make a balm for your scalp, for example,” he says. “The quantity which would traverse the skin in those cases will be acceptable. But to take it orally is not good. Not just useless, but dangerous.”

Remmal’s guidance points to the need to stick to good old-fashioned science when considering the efficacy of the latest Instagram trend. If you don’t, you end up putting all your faith in coconut oil or turmeric, only to find they don’t live up to the hype.

But it’s equally important not to dismiss all alternative forms of healing as guff. Aside from botanicals, there are numerous forms of alternative or non-Western treatments shown to have real results. In the US, reputable medical colleges are increasingly offering courses in CAM topics to their students. Even Britain’s National Health Service—which, as a single-payer system, tends to be risk-averse when it comes to experimental treatments—endorses treatments such as osteopathy, chiropractic treatments, and acupuncture. Furthermore, a growing number of studies show the measurable results of meditation and mindfulness practice to reduce problems like stress, anxiety, and high blood pressure.

To separate the wellness wheat from the chaff, it’s useful to train yourself about what evidence to look for when you’re evaluating alternative medicine. The National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health provides guidance for the kind of information that’s often missing from media write-ups of these alternative treatments, including how well one treatment approach works compared with another, potential side effects, whether study results are statistically significant, and whether the study was done in animals or in people.

Innovations like Remmal’s that integrate alternative healing traditions and go against the mainstream medical establishment have the potential to bring vital gains to health care. So let’s not be too quick to roll our eyes at wellness as a whole. When it comes to jade eggs for your vagina, however? Laugh away.

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