Yoga, meditation, green tea- to some this may sound like the perfect morning routine; to others, it is a list of different types of Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM). CAM includes a diverse range of therapies, practices, and products, like acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, and herbal medicine. What unites them and what defines CAM is simply that they are not currently considered conventional medicine. Because of this, the list changes as the therapies and products are proven safe and effective becoming mainstream.
CAM use is growing, especially among women and those with chronic or recurring conditions who have not found relief with traditional treatments. About half the general population in developed countries uses it, and the majority use it along with conventional medicine. But with more popularity comes more criticism. Skeptics of CAM point to the lack of research and proven efficacy of treatments in clinical trial settings as key problems. They also argue that placebo effects and people’s ability to self-administer some of these treatments may lead people away from scientifically-proven solutions doing more harm than good. For example, relying on garlic supplements rather than prescribed blood pressure drugs. Additionally, because there is little research on the benefits, the risks of treatments of certain treatments are also unknown.
Increased interest and use of CAM is a double-edged sword. As practices become more mainstream, prejudice against them may lessen. However, with influxes of users, practices can become diluted if the right teachers aren’t followed. Wellness culture, on the surface, promotes a balanced, holistic approach to health, incorporating mind, body, and spirit. This makes it the perfect proponent of CAM. But it is now associated with carefully curated, aesthetically pleasing brands, promising customers their products will help them live natural and holistic Instagram-worthy lives.
The wellness market is flooded with these celebrity-backed brands. While some may have a vested interest in the practices, there’s no denying money is part of the appeal. The global wellness economy is valued at $4.5 trillion, and CAM accounts for $360 billion of that. Looking at how they become popular through social media and celebrity endorsements, it’s no surprise that the big brands and not local practitioners take the lion’s share of the profits.
One company that’s earned a lot of attention is goop. Started in 2008 by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, the lifestyle and wellness brand is worth $250 million. It has articles on the benefits of herbal pairings, overcoming first-time acupuncture nerves, and a wellness gift guide complete with an $80 meditation pillow, a 30-day supply of goop brand immune-boosting elderberry extract chews for $55, and a $105 metal whistle that helps with breathing. While it may seem like the website endorses CAM practices, it actually promotes a specific, expensive version of wellness using CAM. When goop elderberry chews cost twice as much as other brands, CAM and wellness become associated with wealth. As an article on the darker side of wellness states, brands like goop are built around “commercialized gurus metamorphosing ancient medicines and practices into an aspirational and desirable lifestyle.”
This criticism points to bigger trends in the wellness industry. Although the use of CAM has increased, there is an expanding gap “in the rate of CAM use between non-Hispanic whites and African American and Hispanic populations. Whites are more than twice as likely to see a CAM provider than African Americans and Hispanics.” Asians use CAM slightly less than whites. Much of wellness culture is problematic because of who it says wellness is for. When the face of the company is a wealthy, white, Hollywood-elite, only so many people can see themselves stepping into the life portrayed. By making wellness exclusive and exclusionary, these brands give CAM a bad reputation by association. The practices face scrutiny, not from a medical or scientific standpoint, but because they are seen as elitist.
Another problem: “‘Sometimes Western people take what they think is something powerful used in the Indigenous world, say a plant, an herb, a tea,” says Margaret P. Moss Ph.D., R.N., director of First Nations House of Learning and an associate professor in the school of nursing at the University of British Columbia, ‘without taking the whole system that came with it, that made it work.’” In many cases, these celebrities and influencers simply appropriate practices. They do not take into account the full context and history of where they come from and potentially spread misinformation with little concern for how this could damage the reputation of such practices. The negative opinion people hold of these brands reflects badly on the practices they endorse.
CAM has real potential to help people. Those that want more autonomy or those with chronic conditions can find real relief. There are a variety of options tailored to meet individuals’ needs. Those with chronic conditions may find CAM treatments beneficial when other, conventional approaches have been exhausted. Furthermore, “as long as alternative treatments are used alongside conventional treatments, the majority of medical doctors find most forms of complementary medicine acceptable.” An article in the National Center for Biotechnology Information argues against the distinction between conventional and alternative medicine. Instead, they propose, “there is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not…Once a treatment has been tested rigorously, it no longer matters whether it was considered alternative at the outset. If it is found to be reasonably safe and effective, it will be accepted.” While this is a nice idea when taken too far, arguments like this perpetuate the problems outlined above. It is important to remember where practices come from, their histories and contexts because they don’t just add trivia; they are part of the practices.