- The new Netflix docuseries “(Un)well,” which premieres August 12, reveals criticisms and personal anecdotes from the alternative wellness industry.
- Each of the six episodes focuses on a different product or element of the industry, from essential oils and bee sting therapy to tantric sex and extreme fasting.
- The show highlights stories of people who believe in the healing powers of these alternatives medicines, as well as cautionary tales.
- The show is based on first-person narratives with little scientific evidence, and leaves it up to viewers to decide for themselves what to believe.
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“Are we falling victim to false promises or are we really getting well?”
This simple question forms the premise of the new Netflix docuseries “(Un)Well,” which delves into personal stories and cautionary tales from the hugely profitable alternative wellness industry.
Each episode focuses on a specific treatment, from extreme fasting adherents surviving for weeks on water alone to military veterans taking a mind-altering drug for PTSD.
The series is driven by personal narratives, including glowing testimonies from advocates who believe they have found life-changing healing outside the medical establishment.
Critics of the show say this offers a platform for quackery and false hope. But (Un)Well also offers cautionary tales of people who have been injured or sickened by experimental therapies, or who have fallen victim to scams based on the promise of a miracle cure.
The show looks at essential oils as a treatment for the mind and body, and the MLM industry surrounding them
Essential oils, the highly-concentrated aromatic compounds distilled from plants, have been touted for treating everything from anxiety to obesity to autism.
Netflix kicks off the series with a deep dive into the stories of people who promote essential oils, looking at why some people believe them to be beneficial for easing stress, relieving pain and other ailments.
This episode focuses heavily how the wellness industry is fraught with multi-level marketing schemes.
Tantric sex offers to heal trauma, but can be misused to exploit vulnerable people looking for help
Next, the show explores the world of tantric sex – a practice of enlightened, deliberate intimate relations that aim to forge not just physical but also spiritual bonds. It focuses on slow movements, eye contact, and synchronised breathing with your partner, emphasising that the end goal is not orgasm but the experience itself.
Proponents of tantric sex claim the practice is empowering and can even help devotees recover from traumatic experiences.
Sceptics warn, however, that spiritual sex can itself be fraught with risk, since the power dynamics between gurus and their disciples can complicate consent and lead to systemic sexual abuse and violation of vulnerable people.
Experts interviewed in the show note that many tantric sex practitioners and teachers are really selling Western, new age version of the ancient tradition, taking the practices outside their original context of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.
The show explores how breast milk is used by body builders and cancer patients
Breast milk is one of the most nutritious substances on the planet, according to proponents. Experts say that’s true -for human infants.
But some advocates think breast milk’s rich vitamin and mineral content makes it ideal for body builders looking to fuel peak muscle gain, and boost health in people with other health conditions, such as cancer survivors.
The show looks at people who buy and sell breast milk for adult consumption, and why they swear by it.
But this, too, is not without risks – experts note that breast milk, when improperly stored and shipped, can harbour life-threatening bacteria like salmonella and e.coli.
It also raises ethical issues about whether adults are buying up scarce supplies of breast milk that might be needed by babies.
Extreme fasting can potentially heal chronic illness, but also lead to weakness or death
Fasting, or abstaining from food for periods of time, is one of the hottest new trends in nutrition, with promising evidence to suggest it can boost fat loss, control chronic illnesses like diabetes, and even extend lifespan.
In extreme cases, however, practitioners will attempt to go 28 or more days without ingesting anything but water. Advocates claim this allows the body to tap into its natural healing powers to fight disease.
But without medical supervision, people fasting for weeks at a time can suffer serious side effects, like dangerously low blood pressure and loss of consciousness, which can lead to fatal accidents. And it’s not clear the benefits are worth the risks.
Ayahuasca is touted as a treatment for addiction and PTSD, but side effects can include seizures and psychosis
Ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogen brewed from a vine native to South America, is part of indigenous traditions. When consumed, it causes mind-altering effects and strong visual and auditory sensations.
The plant has attracted interested for its potentially therapeutic benefits, particularly for people with addiction or post-traumatic stress. Many people experience a profound sense of spiritual awakening or connection while under its influence.
But like any drug, it has the potential to also evoke upsetting experiences, and can worse mental health conditions like anxiety, psychosis, and paranoia.
Proponents of the sacred plant have brought it in recent years into the United States for weekend retreats people pay hundreds of dollars to attend.
Critics interviewed in the show question the harmfulness of this type of cultural appropriation both for participants but also for the native communities dealing the misuse and commercialization of their traditional practices.
Bee sting therapy claims to treat wrinkles, arthritis, and Lyme disease, but can cause dangerous allergic reactions
The show also features the practice of allowing oneself to be stung by bees to reap the alleged anti-inflammatory effects of the insects’ venom.
The treatment is not only painful but also potentially dangerous, since bees can provoke a life-threatening allergic reaction and even cause people to become more sensitive to the toxin after repeat exposure. That’s because the venom isn’t designed to be a cure or treatment for human illnesses, but a deterrent, according to one expert.
“Nature doesn’t care about people,” said Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale.
But according to another medical perspective featured in the series, bee stings do seem to help for conditions like Lyme disease and arthritis, though we don’t understand how.
“I see things that I can’t always explain but they work,” Dr. David Goodman, a primary care physician, said of the treatment.
These two views, not necessarily opposed but certainly in tension, sum up the show’s philosophy: the natural world promises solutions beyond mainstream medicine, but these can both heal and harm us. Often, we don’t fully understand which is which.
Ultimately, Netflix leaves it up to the viewers to decide what they believe.
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