Wellness: science fiction vs. science fact

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Wellness is a term that has lost its way. While well-intentioned, wellness has come to symbolize just a broad-brush definition of health. The term is now so widely used that it has clouded our ability to learn the truth about what is really beneficial to our health and well-being.

Improvements in your lifestyle and personal wellness won’t come about by magic. They come from a true inner desire to better your life—to meet your full potential, whatever your age. You have to want it. What are you looking to accomplish? How’s your current lifestyle working for you?

The adjustments you make to your lifestyle need to be the right adjustments; otherwise, you are wasting your precious time and resources. To make those right adjustments, you must follow principles based on real, validated science. Not an exaggeration or distortion of science; not a fad, a fiction, or hearsay. You must be able to trust the source of your information. As simple as that sounds, it’s not always easy. For starters, our cultural expectation and understanding of wellness has been corrupted. Wellness has become a highly lucrative business. A business needs to make a profit, and a profit requires sales. More and bigger sales require more new products and services and more new ways to sell them. This endless demand for bigger profits has caused a huge disconnect in the wellness industry. Many wellness products and programs are useful, but the drive for profit has created countless shams and scams. Distorted or outright false information, and faulty, disconnected “science” full of half-truths and misconceptions have come to dominate the wellness industry. The American public is bombarded with products that promise fast, easy answers, such as killer abs in three minutes a day or quick weight loss through one weird trick. When profit is the primary motivation, then genuine wellness is left behind as people spend vast amounts of money on products that provide short-lived hope but little else.

What most people don’t realize is that the vast majority of these products are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Claims that say maintain, support, or promote don’t need to have any proof whatsoever. This is true whether you buy them on the internet or at a major national retailer. Nonetheless, a recent consumer survey revealed that more than half of the respondents believed that these product claims were regulated by the FDA. Even worse, more than 60 percent falsely believed these types of products or supplements had been tested and found to be safe and effective.

I was recently at a health exposition that features hundreds of products related to fitness. I observed a man talking to a sales rep about a particular product. As a doctor, I could tell the product claims didn’t really fit with what it could realistically do. Nevertheless, the rep made a sale. After the customer walked away with his bag, the sales rep said to another rep, “I love America. You can sell anything!”

The claims for the efficacy of many supplements and other products are often based on “scientific” studies that supposedly support the product. In advertisements, you’ll often see images of scientists in pristine white lab coats or other images meant to convey an authoritative and trustworthy impression. The reality is that many of these “scientific” studies wouldn’t be accepted at my kid’s junior high science fair. The product studies are generally done for marketing purposes, not science. If you look at the annual reports of the many unregulated companies in this “profit over substance” sector, you will often see that two-thirds of their budget is spent on marketing. Only about 5 percent of their budget is spent on actual research and development. Contrast that to the regulated pharmaceutical and device companies that must meet very high standards of evidence for the efficacy and safety of their products. These companies spend 20 to 30 percent of their budget on research and development. Doesn’t this show where the emphasis really is?

When wellness is a business, it’s very difficult to separate fact from fiction. Consider the use of the word “natural” in advertising. Most people assume natural is also good, and I agree natural is usually a desirable characteristic. But simply because something is natural doesn’t mean it is effective or even safe. We still want to see some evidence that shows it is safe and actually does something positive for your health

Among consumers, and even among health professionals who should know better, there’s a pervasive belief that a natural substance is safe even when it’s taken in concentrated form or in large doses. I had a patient call me one night with what sounded like a significant allergic reaction. We went through her exposures that day to figure out what the reaction could be from. She mentioned she had received an injection from another provider. When I asked her if she had talked to him about her reaction, she said she had. He told her it couldn’t be a reaction to the injection, because what he injected was natural. That’s like saying you couldn’t have a reaction to a bee sting because, of course, that’s natural.

If health providers are willing to say things like that to promote their practice, it’s no wonder that marketers will, too. You’ve probably seen ads that claim because the product, whatever it is, is all natural, it doesn’t have any side effects. In reality, if the product really has any effect, then by definition it has the potential for a side effect. You can’t have one without the chance for the other. The only way to truly claim it doesn’t have potential for a side effect is if it doesn’t have any effect at all. And if it has no effect at all, then why would you take it?

A natural product isn’t necessarily a safe one. Hemlock is natural—but that won’t stop it from killing you! Tobacco is natural—and it will kill you too, though more slowly than hemlock. Taking too much all-natural vitamin C will upset your digestion just as much as taking too much of the synthetic version.

Another favorite trick of the wellness industry is to exaggerate a claim that stems from a basic scientific truth. When a particular substance is known to have a function in the body, supplement manufacturers use that to claim taking more of it must promote more of that function. If an enzyme you naturally make in your cells is involved in the pathways that produce energy in the body, for example, supplement manufacturers claim that taking it in their pills will surely improve your energy even further. Saying A is good so more of A will be better is a mental leap that rarely has any merit. It’s like saying that if two aspirin are good for a headache, then twenty must be great! Another pitfall of these product claims is that the product you swallow may not end up in your body in the same form. When something is actually made in the body, it goes straight into your bloodstream—it doesn’t go through the digestive process. A supplement does. Your body digests the supplement and may break it down into smaller parts. If the supposed effect comes only when the product is still in the whole form, and not in digested fragments, it will do nothing. Even if it is absorbed whole through the small intestine, it must then pass through the liver, where it may well be broken down before entering the main blood supply. Many products don’t survive this process and end up being less effective than claimed, or not effective at all.

Many of the “scientific” studies used for product claims and promotion are sponsored by the company itself. Others are sponsored by an “institute” or some other organization that is affiliated with the company. How reliable is it when a nutritional company researches itself? In a recent article about sports nutrition and weight loss products, the National Business Journal lists “in-house publishing” as the first approach under the heading, “Strategies of Sports Nutrition and Weight Loss Marketers.” Many wellness promoters lure people to websites designed to look like independent new sources that indirectly recommend the promoters’ supplements or other products. This is not very comforting.

Separating Fact from Fiction

My patients often ask me how they can tell the difference between a study done for marketing purposes and one that was done using valid, verifiable science. One way is to see if the study was controlled. A controlled study compares groups of people who are similar in important characteristics, such as gender, age, smoking history, exercise history, or the presence of a particular medical problem. Comparing the effects of a supplement on a group of nursing home residents to a group of twenty-five-year-old fitness enthusiasts isn’t controlled—the results wouldn’t be valid. Likewise, it’s not valid to compare overweight swimmers who smoke to underweight non-smokers who don’t exercise. The examples I’ve given are obvious, but it’s easy to manipulate even subtle differences in groups to increase the chances of getting the result you want.

The sizes of the groups compared can also lead to skewed results. The larger the group, the less likely something will occur by chance. If you flip a coin four times and get heads three times, you could say your method of coin flipping resulted in heads 75 percent of the time. Technically, that’s true, but does it reflect reality? If you flip a coin a hundred times, it is much harder to defy the 50-50 odds.  It’s the same principle casinos use. The casino has only a slight edge in the odds, but over large volumes of activity they invariably come out ahead. They don’t build those lavish properties in Las Vegas by losing!

The same principle applies to small study groups. If you compare two groups of ten people and in one group four get a particular result and in the other group five get a particular result, you could claim the second group had a 25 percent greater response to whatever is being tested. If you were a supplement marketer, you would then plaster this all over your promotional material, claiming it was proven in a “scientific study.” Was it? No. With such small numbers, the difference in the result could easily have been simply due to chance, just like getting three heads in four coin flips. Marketers have a strong incentive to create, select, and promote trials that give them the greatest amount of profit. Is that the way you should make choices on something as important as your health? Sadly many do, but you don’t need to.

All the research and scientific studies cited in Reprogram your Life: Bioscience for a Healthier You, in the YOU%2B app, and on the You%2B website, are valid, verifiable, and controlled. The research is published in respected, peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals. The results aren’t manipulated to fit a hypothesis or fulfill a marketing brief. Whether you’re reading this because it was recommended to you by your forward-thinking doctor or because you came across it on your own, what you will learn will help you finally achieve true fitness and wellness.

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