With its “new year, new you” messaging, January is peak season for the wellness industry. Podcasting is naturally full to bursting with shows that claim to be able to improve your diet, banish your anxieties, reboot your career and get you in touch with your authentic self. Problem is, my authentic self finds the quest for self-improvement a massive turn-off.
Happily, I’m not alone. Last year’s opening season of The Dream, from Little Everything and Stitcher, took on the lure of multilevel marketing scams (MLMs), essentially modern-day pyramid schemes, and detailed how this shady business model reels people in, persuading them to sell products and recruit their friends through their social media. It was quite the eye-opener. Now the series presenter Jane Marie, formerly of the long-running podcast This American Life, is turning her attention to the multitrillion-dollar world of wellness, specifically the oils, crystals, juices and dietary supplements that claim to be able to make us healthier, happier humans.
In the opening episode, entitled What’s Your Frequency?, Marie talks to her aunt, Amy, and learns how she spent years battling with doctors to find the source of her ill health. After years of being dismissed by GPs and assorted specialists, she visited a gynaecologist who found she was suffering from a rare form of endometriosis. Amy’s years of not having her pain taken seriously has, it is suggested by her niece, made her susceptible to alternative therapies.
Amy is now a fervent devotee of essential oils, and their conversation prompts Marie to investigate their health benefits. She discovers woolly claims related to the body’s “frequency” levels — low levels allegedly mean you’re unhealthy, a problem that can be rectified by assorted higher-frequency oils. More disturbing are the claims that these oils can help deal with conditions from colds and flu to cancer, heart disease and HIV. Marie’s research unearths a warning letter from the US Food and Drug Administration sent out to one company disputing the claims on its website that included “Ebola cannot live in the presence of cinnamon bark.” The company is still operating.
While there is much to be alarmed about in The Dream’s discoveries, the news that the wellness industry isn’t scientifically rigorous isn’t exactly surprising. But Marie’s podcast is more than a cri de coeur against bogus health products as it looks at the human impulse to find comfort and solutions away from mainstream institutions. Furthermore, the ethical tests are not confined to wellness products. The latest episode starts out looking at the proliferation of wellness outlets opening in Marie’s Los Angeles neighbourhood. You expect the next half-hour to be spent debunking the supposedly calming benefits of crystals, but Marie turns the narrative on herself in order to find the source of her own scepticism. What follows is deeply moving, and shows how even the most apparently rational viewpoints can be shaped by extraordinary events.