You’re at your friend Gina’s house. It quickly turned from a nice, afternoon brunch into a full-blown Tupperware party only it’s not Tupperware — it’s essential oils. And she’s not just telling you how nice they smell in lotions, but she’s telling you they cure cancer and rheumatoid arthritis and lupus and stuff. And she’s not just trying to sell them to you, but she’s trying to get you onboard to sell them, too. So you politely break the news to Gina that she’s been wooed by some kind of essential oil pyramid scheme.
Everyone has one friend who went there. Into the strange world of multi-level marketing that also taps into the human being’s most sensitive spot — their health. Netflix’s new series, Unwell, touches on this dark side of the wellness industry. Netflix’s Goop, released earlier in the year (with Gwenyth Paltrow) explored the same kind of topic but from more of a curious perspective. Unwell, on the other hand, is more about what happens when things don’t go as the wellness company told you they would.
The first episode of Unwell is all about essential oils. Without going into too much detail, Netflix covers it from a lot of different angles. In one story, a woman has great success getting her autistic daughter to sleep better after seeing an aromatherapist and choosing some essential oils for smelling and inhalation. In another story, a young family becomes very wealthy selling courses on essential oils and incorporating them into everyday life. And in another story, a woman uses essential oils as they were advertised to her, develops a horrible rash all over her body, and actually ends up becoming allergic to them from excessive use.
If anything, in Unwell, Netflix errs on the side of caution. We’re not going to blabber on too much about essential oils, but on the underlying message of the show. What in the wellness industry keeps us well, and what makes us unwell? We all know there’s good research on the therapeutic uses of essential oils, but how can there be people out there advocating their use in a way that would be harmful? As consumers, who do we trust and how do we keep ourselves from getting swept up in the world of wellness marketing?
The wellness industry is an industry.
Before we throw our hands up in the air and beg to know, how could they do this to us, we have to remember something. Industry is industry. We can talk about the difference between life saving drugs and the pharmaceutical industry. We can talk about the difference between oil and the oil industry. And just the same, we can talk about the difference between wellness products and the wellness industry.
For example, essential oils have been used therapeutically for millennia, long before DoTerra and Young Living were around. The aromatic properties of plants have been captured and used as sleep inducers, to calm anxiety, to manage pain, and even to deal with psychological disorders or bad juju.
As Netflix points out in Unwell, there’s a lot of discrepancies between what Young Living and their representatives tell you to do with essential oils and what an aromatherapist might tell you to do with the exact same product. The aromatherapist who appears on the first episode of Unwell says she never recommends the internal consumption of essential oils.
Those who represent Young Living and other essential oil brands are not typically qualified to give medical advice about how to use essential oils. And because of the structure of a multilevel marketing company like Young Living, it’s not really in their best interest to disclose some of the potential safety concerns of using essential oils. On the other hand, medical professionals like aromatherapists don’t represent the essential oil companies themselves, but represent their own medical practise. It’s almost always in their best interest to disclose safety information to their patients.
In unregulated industries, the onus is on the consumer.
Like we just pointed out, there’s nothing wrong with essential oils. When used correctly, they are safe and can improve and enhance health. But if you use essential oils the wrong way, you confront toxicity issues. Every single therapeutic in the world has side effects, even plant therapy. So it’s important to know those before you use any wellness product. It’s equally as important to know what you’re using it for.
Essential oils are not regulated by any specific world or national authority. Health Canada doesn’t regulate the sale of essential oils, and this is typically because they’re not considered to be therapeutic. Essential oils are usually only regulated when used in food or pharmaceutical products. But outside of that, anybody can buy essential oils off the shelf.
Without this kind of oversight, the onus is entirely on the consumer to make safe decisions about what they consume. This is a good thing too, because the government shouldn’t regulate every single aspect of our lives. But where does that leave consumers? How should consumers know how and when to consume a wellness product?
Cannabis and CBD — knowing how to navigate the cannabis industry
Surprise surprise, it happens in cannabis too. It’s because wherever there’s an inch and a human, the human will magically transform that inch into a mile. If you’re reading this, it’s highly likely that you advocate CBD and cannabis use. We obviously advocate it, too. But the way some individuals or companies leverage off the spread of misinformation about cannabis actually undermines the breakthrough scientific research going in about cannabis in the world.
Does cannabis have the potential to dramatically alter someone’s quality of life or treat a range of medical conditions? Absolutely! At the same time, touting cannabis as a way to cure everything is just another way to capitalise on a portion of the population that is insecure about their health.
In taking it to the next level, there are even cannabis product manufacturers that manufacture a sub-par or contaminated product and sell it as the real deal. These low-quality products are sold with the same premise of therapy that other high-quality products are sold.
You absolutely should be skeptical when shopping for cannabis products. There are a lot of questions you should ask a product manufacturer or stockist to know the quality of your product. This includes asking about ingredients, the source of the cannabis, and any analytical documents that show cannabinoid content and the presence of contaminants.
Discrediting alternative wellness practices is part of the problem
Part of the problem of ongoing misinformation in the wellness industry is that many wellness practices are discredited entirely as being ineffective. Take essential oils, for example, which by the medical industry in general, are discredited as not having much therapeutic potential. This attitude also leans people into the idea that they are also not powerful. Which couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to essential oils.
The same is also true of herbal medicine. There are many stories of botched self-medicating with herbs. They come as a result of some general consensus that because they are herbs, they are all safe and have minimal impact on the body. It’s simply not true.
If alternative wellness practices were treated with the same integrity and respect as modern medicine, we likely wouldn’t be in this dilemma with the wellness industry. We often don’t recognise simple herbal extracts like essential oils as having extremely powerful pharmacological actions because they are never presented to us that way. They are presented as gentle gifts from nature — take as much as you want! In fact, they are potently antimicrobial, and can even disrupt the microbial balance of skin if used excessively or undiluted.
But pharmaceutical drugs are treated just the opposite. They are considered so powerful, you have to qualify with certain pathophysiology to take it. That’s not to say essential oils should be regulated the same way, but some credit given to their power, and therefore, their potential to do harm if not used correctly. This can be extended to any product that can be used with the intention of producing a therapeutic or pharmacological effect in the body.
Learn about what you’re taking and consult the appropriate professional
Maybe you’re sitting on the couch scrolling through channels and you see an ad for a multivitamin. The way they’re talking about, it looks like something you should take. Before pouring your trust into a television commercial, you can do a little research yourself about the active ingredients and whether they are useful for you. You can also easily find safety information about many wellness products and how to use them without danger.
You might even consider seeing a nutritionist to see if you really need to take any vitamins. You can consult an aromatherapist before consuming essential oils, or ask for more guidance on how you can use them in your life. Go see a cannabis-friendly doctor if you want a professional opinion on how cannabis might be able to help you with your affliction.
Yes, the onus is on you, which is not something humans are used to when it comes to their health. Humans are accustomed to being told what to do about their health by a doctor, which in most circumstances, is okay, because the medical industry is heavily regulated. But in the world of herbal medicine and aromatherapy, there is no such regulation. Which means doing your own research and consulting a professional you trust are imperative to you getting the best experience out of your wellness products — and without getting ripped off.
The moral of the story is: treat herbs and essential oils and other wellness products like they are powerful medical agents. Treat them as if they will have a dramatic impact on your body. Wouldn’t you do a bit of research and enquiry about anything that would have a dramatic impact on your body?