It was once believed a wandering uterus, angry at being unfruitful, could cause a myriad of symptoms including breathlessness, anxiety, seizures and paralysis. This was cured with scent therapy, where pleasant smells were placed under the woman’s genitals to lure the uterus back.
If this seems ridiculous, that's because it is. Yet, only a few years ago vaginal steaming won endorsements from celebrities and "wellness professionals" alike (Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop among the more high profile advocates), claiming it cleanses the uterus and improves stress, infertility, fatigue and haemorrhoids.
You shouldn’t need to hand over your money to be ‘well’.Credit:Stocksy
Except, of course, your vagina is not dirty and does not need cleaning, and there is no evidence or scientific rationale that sitting over hot steam will do anything for your health (as Paltrow & co learnt when gynaecologists spoke out against the practice).
As a doctor, the whole saga prompted me to ask: why do so many people look for pathways to health outside the existing medical model?
Wellness is actually a beautiful concept. It was inspired by the World Health Organisation’s definition of health as total physical, mental and social wellbeing. It is an adjunct to medicine, which seeks to understand and treat disease, and instead looks at ways to create health. This is a strategy that we can all benefit from including in our lives.
The problem is that this concept has been co-opted as an advertising term and used to sell all manner of pseudoscience.
In Australia alone, AIHW figures show $9.3 billion is spent annually on vitamins, supplements, over-the-counter painkillers and other unsubsidised drugs, with their attractive packaging and heady claims.
Many people fall for the "more is better" fallacy, or think these products will replace a bad diet. But study after study has shown that they have no benefit, except in the case of a specific deficiency. The only thing most of these supplements are doing is making expensive urine.
No amount of detox tea is going to cancel out the effects of living on highly processed foods while never moving from the couch. All of these advertisements that make claims with little or no convincing evidence shift the conversation away from evidenced based strategies to improve wellbeing.
Packaging wellness in fancy activewear, costly supplements and energy balancing crystals implies that health is for the wealthy, who are already likely to be the healthiest people in our society.
But the hard truth is that spending a small fortune on unnecessary supplements will do nothing to improve your wellbeing: it takes meaningful life changes, which can sometimes take thought and effort.
One positive aspect of the wellness movement is that that people are becoming aware of the power we have to make changes to improve our health and wellbeing and the immediate benefit of lifestyle change. And we do all have these powers: the essentials of wellness are freely available to all of us.
Choosing to eat a diet that is high in plant-based and minimally processed foods, finding ways to incorporate movement in your day and taking steps to prioritise sleep are all achievable goals that don't require a big cash outlay.
We also need to recognise that mental and physical health are inextricably linked, so finding something that gives your life meaning and purpose, spending time with those you love and even taking time each day to think of three things you are grateful for are strategies to improve mental health and manage stress and may even protect against future chronic disease.
Because the best things in life, and the best things for making sure you live a healthy life, are almost always free.
Dr Kate Gregorevic is a specialist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
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