Wellness. A global industry worth trillions of dollars. Does it bring health and healing? Or are falling victim to false promises? Are we really getting…well?
Review by Vivian Poon
After watching every episode of the Netflix Docuseries, (Un)Well, I wonder if I’ve fallen victim to false promises.
I originally found this series while looking for some anti-multi-level marketing videos on YouTube to watch. (Yeah, I know I have weird hobbies.) A YouTuber that I liked, Cruel World Happy Mind, reviewed the first episode of the series that discussed Essential Oils (FYI, that episode caused essential oil MLMs like DoTerra and Young Living to make statements against the Docuseries. Young Living even told their distributors not to watch it.)
From there, I watched a trailer for the entire show and it seemed like something I would really like.
From what I could tell, the show was meant to expose the alternative health industry and how it’s often used by scam artists to con desperate people and spread misinformation.
Each episode of the Docuseries explores a specific alternative medicine. Here are the episode titles in order:
- Essential Oils;
- Tantric Sex;
- Bulking up with Breast Milk;
- Ayahuasca; and
- Bee Sting Therapy.
However, after watching more and more episodes of the series, I slowly began to realize that it was not living up to my expectations. I’ll explain why in a minute — I hope you’re ready for my rant — but before I can do that, I need to talk about how each episode is structured first.
Every episode starts off with dramatic and ominous music along with voice-overs of different people talking about the featured alternative treatment.
For example, in episode one, a woman states that “People talk about aromatherapy as if it’s got some, sort of mystical property. It’s touted as an alternative to mainstream medicine.”
A man, who will be later introduced as Eric Zielinski, states “I’ve had people tell me, ‘Medicine has failed me.’ They had cancer, they used essential oils. Now they don’t have cancer.”
Another woman talks about how essential oils are a part of her identity and it’s a lifestyle for her.
“It’s like a cult,” says a different woman. “[MLMs] prey on housewives and mothers.”
The introductory section seems rather foreboding, as if the Docuseries intended to make harsh critiques against the Wellness Industry.
And it does (kind of) do that for the first forty to maybe forty-five minutes. Each episode of the show draws from a variety of experiences and opinions, both reputable and not so reputable. For example, episode one features professionals like Amy Quarberg (a holistic nurse and clinical aromatherapist from the St. John’s Hospital from Maplewood, Minnesota) and Dr. E. Joy Bowles (a researcher and author who’s written books such as The Chemistry of Aromatherapeutic Oils and Dr. Joy’s Aromatherapy.)
It also shows opinions from people like Eric Zielinski, an entrepreneur and licenced chiropractor, who runs a blog about essential oils and sells courses on how to use them. Usually, my favourite part of the show is when crackpots like Zielinski talk because they often say some pretty crazy things that make your jaw drop.
For example, when Zielinski explains how much the digital courses he sells are, he says, “We keep our prices so affordable. I mean, our most expensive master class is $77 for digital access. Like anyone can afford that, even if you’re on food stamps, government assistance. Hey, stop drinking Starbucks for two weeks in a row, and there’s $75, right? That’s our master class!”
This comment illustrates just how privileged Zielinski is and shows how out of touch he is with people who struggle financially. As well, he states outright that essential oils can cure cancer. Yikes.
Episode One isn’t the only one with ridiculous quotes, though. For instance, in Episode Four, Geoffrey Woo (CEO/Co-founder of HVMN, a keto supplement company), has a lot of interesting things to say about fasting.
When describing how he found out about fasting, he claims, “Looking at the research and the data, it seemed very compelling. And that got me thinking, who invented breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Did God tell us to eat three meals a day? I haven’t seen that in any holy book. My perspective is that the default state of humanity is not constantly consuming. The default state of humans is not eating.”
He then goes onto explain how intermittent fasting is a “thoughtful pause in the consumption of food.” This sounds fine at first until he says that he fasts for one a half to three days every week. He also goes on seven-day fasts in addition to the short ones. To me, Woo sounds like someone with an eating disorder. Not to mention that his beliefs about fasting are dangerous. He’s encouraging people not to eat for as long as possible.
In the same episode, Loren Lockman (Director of the Tanglewood Wellness Center), comments that “I truly believe that the body can heal itself from anything if they fast long enough”. Later in the episode, Lockman admits that the youngest client admitted to the Center was only two years old. Yeah, they made a two-year-old fast.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Elisabeth Anderson-Sienna (mother and breast milk donor in Beaverton, Oregon) in Episode Three says that “I personally have no problem selling breast milk to adults . . . breast milk is incredible. It is, in my opinion, like, the most organic, the most pure, naturally-made substance for humans.” Which, in my opinion, is a pretty unsubstantiated claim to say about breast milk. Common sense (you’d think) would dictate that yes, breast milk is a pure naturally-made substance for human BABIES, not adults.
Admittedly, there are some things that I like about the show. It’s great to see that (Un)Well doesn’t always show people like Zielinski, Woo, Lockman, and Anderson-Sienna in the best light. These people not only profit from selling their alternative health treatments, but they also make unsubstantiated health claims which can be dangerous and mislead people who are desperately seeking relief or a cure for a terminal illness.
I also liked how the docuseries is educational and teaches the audience to think twice about the information that they may find on the internet. It also lists the dangers that alternative health treatments can cause.
For example, direct sales distributors like Allison Huish tell their customers that ingesting essential oils is not only a safe thing to do but it’s also beneficial. There’s even a cringy close-up shot of Huish putting a few undiluted drops straight into her mouth. Later on in the episode, we meet a former essential oils distributor named Stacy Haluka. She discusses at length how ingesting these oils has caused painful rashes to form all over her body. And she’s not alone, the episode points out a database where hundreds of people report the side effects that they experienced from essential oils. One person even had a severe asthma attack that eventually led to pneumonitis and hospitalization.
However, the narrative of the show is surprisingly neutral, and I find this commitment to neutrality incredibly disappointing. During the last fifteen minutes, the show always takes an unfortunate turn and demonstrates some positive testimonials and benefits of an alternative treatment.
For instance, even with its warnings against essential oils, I can’t help but suspect that the show also raises the point that essential oils can be beneficial in smaller doses, with inhalation only, and used with the mindset of coping with rather than curing a health issue.
The majority of Episode One focuses on a woman named Julie Marshall and her autistic daughter, Sarah. Julie hopes to find some oils that will help Sarah sleep and calm down when she’s feeling overly energetic or overwhelmed. The experience that Julie has with essential oils is overall positive. She follows the advice of a registered clinical aromatherapist who argues that aromatherapy can help autistic children deal with overstimulation and lack of sleep.
Julie is one of those moms who advocate for natural and plant-based treatments when it comes to autistic children. While the show argues that essential oils in conjunction with medication can be beneficial, Julie doesn’t even let her daughter take melatonin, even though Sarah has difficulties sleeping and Julie acknowledges that sleep could help with her daughter’s physical and mental wellbeing. It makes me wonder if Julie will rely heavily on essential oils to help with Sarah’s insomnia and hyperactivity.
At the end of the episode, Julie happily reports that Sarah sleeps better now because of the oils and she’s a lot less fussy during the day. She’s also using “and” in sentences, which Julie attributes to good sleep.
I find that ending the episodes in such a positive way negates the warnings the episode had tried to provide beforehand. I think that the show does this to display neutrality or evenhandedness on a controversial subject.
In my opinion, the worst episode in terms of neutrality is the fourth one (‘Fasting’). The first three-quarters of the episode points out how fasting isn’t too different from an eating disorder. It also mentions the experience of a young man named Jonathon Chambers who died while doing an extended water fast at the Tanglewood Health Centre. It illustrated how medical and non-medical centers that offer supervised fasts can still be incredibly dangerous. And it feels like that’s the moral of the story, right? Extended fasts can cause a myriad of health problems, and even death.
However, in the last fifteen minutes, the episode shifts and focuses on the benefits of fasting, Suddenly, the non-diegetic music is soft, cheerful, and inspiring as Mike Maser (an entrepreneur and cancer survivor) explains how fasting for five days during every round of chemo helped him to overcome cancer. Maser only had to do two out of six rounds of chemo, which he attributes entirely to fasting. And to this day, he continues to do a five day fast every so often.
Afterwards, a researcher named Dr. Valter Longo, who does fasting experiments with lab mice, explained that his research showed that fasting cured mice with type two diabetes, type one diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. Fasting also helped mice with cancer survive through chemotherapy treatments.
Finally, the episode ends with a woman named Wanda who maintains that her twenty-eight-day water-only fast cleansed her system. She felt that a combination of healthy eating and fasting will prevent her breast cancer from coming back. “I just feel like I’ve done something for me to help take care of myself for the future,” Wanda says with a teary smile. And then the episode ends. It felt like the show was trying to encourage the viewer to try fasting. I can say this because I seriously considered trying intermittent fasting once the episode was over.
I take issue with the episode structure that spends forty minutes explaining the dangers of alternative treatments and the last fifteen minutes discussing the benefits. The last fifteen minutes of positivity is what is going to stick into the viewer’s mind the most.
I find that (Un)Well is too positive and too lenient towards alternative medicine. We don’t need that right now in our society where COVID-19 continues to kill people on a daily basis, where there are anti maskers, anti-vaxxers, and people who profit from these alternative treatments running rampant and spreading misleading information. What we need is for people to be on the same page and listen to doctors and medical health professionals.
Because let’s face it, the alternative health treatments mentioned in this docuseries are useless at their best – medication can work just as well if not even better. At their worst, they’re dangerous. These treatments could cause someone permanent damage, leave them financially destitute, mentally traumatized, or even kill them.
This series was so disappointing and I hated the journalistic evenhandedness it tried to keep throughout the series. Giving scientific research and anecdotes from crackpots equal weight is both dangerous and bad journalism. Also, I thought that the show’s neutrality gave too much legitimacy to people who make unsubstantiated claims. They shouldn’t have a platform anywhere, especially on Netflix. This is even more true with a world-wide pandemic happening.
I would also like to point out that only three of the six episodes have a director credit. It makes me wonder if the directors took their names off due to being unhappy with the end product or something sketchy is going on behind the scenes.
If you’re someone who is neutral on the topic of alternative health treatments or don’t really have much of an opinion on them, this show is for you. It’s well-produced and fascinating to watch. It’s best to watch this show in several sittings, though, as every episode is nearly an hour long.
However, if you’re someone like me who sees the wellness industry for what it is — a scam — then it might be best to sit this one out.
streaming on Netflix (six episodes)