Experts fact-check health claims in Netflix’s ‘The Goop Lab’

Click to play video: 'Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘The Goop Lab’: Fact-checking the health claims'
Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘The Goop Lab’: Fact-checking the health claims
WATCH: Gwyneth Paltrow's 'The Goop Lab': A closer look at the claims – Jan 24, 2020

The Goop Lab, a new show from Gwyneth Paltrow‘s wellness brand Goop, explores a wide range of controversial health topics — from energy healing to communicating with the dead.

The six-part series — released on Netflix on Friday — worries some experts who say claims made by Goop employees and guests invited on the show appear to be misleading or even false.

Each episode begins with a disclaimer that says, “the following series is designed to entertain and inform — not provide medical advice,” but experts like Timothy Caulfield are still concerned about what he calls the “misinformation” shared in the show.

He’s a professor in the faculty of law and the school of public health at the University of Alberta, and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

READ MORE: ‘The Goop Lab’ — Why health experts are concerned about Gwyneth Paltrow’s new show

“It’s incredibly frustrating that she’s getting this platform to basically spread misinformation about health,” he told Global News.

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“We have to remember this is largely an infomercial for [Paltrow’s] brand.”

Global News reached out to Goop for comment, but the brand did not respond.

Each episode features researchers in different alternative health topics, like psychotherapists studying the use of psychedelic drugs to treat trauma or age scientists who claim they can lower your biological age with fasting.

Health experts admit the show did get some things right — namely, episode three, which explores female pleasure with the help of well-known sex educators Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross.

“Anytime Dodson and Ross were on the screen, it was fine,” said Dr. Jennifer Gunter, an obstetrician-gynecologist and outspoken critic of Paltrow and the Goop brand.

The pair have coached thousands of women on orgasms, and throughout the episode, multiple pictures of actual vulvas are shown in an effort to make women feel better about their own genitalia. Ross even has an on-camera orgasm using Dodson’s patented technique.

Dodson also teaches Paltrow the difference between “vagina” (the birth canal) and “vulva” (everything on the outside).

Gwyneth Paltrow (left) with Goop’s chief content officer, Elise Loehnen. Photo courtesy of Adam Rose/Netflix. Adam Rose/Netflix

But the Goop brand has a history of controversy.

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In September 2018, the company was forced to pay $145,000 in civil penalties to settle allegations that it made unscientific claims about the health benefits of three of its products: a jade egg designed to be inserted into women’s vaginas to supposedly improve their sex lives; the “heart-activating” Rose Quartz Egg; and the Inner Judge Flower Essence Blend, a tincture that Goop claims “assists in the clearing of guilt, shame, self-criticism and blame.”

Goop made health claims about the products “that were not supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence,” the Orange County District Attorney’s office said in a statement. The company was also required to offer full refunds to California consumers who bought the products in question between Jan. 12 and Aug. 31, 2017.

Below, we asked Caulfield and other experts to fact-check three claims made in The Goop Lab.

Claim #1: The Wim Hof breathing technique can help you manage stress and anxiety

In the first episode of the series, the Goop team explores the Wim Hof method — a combination of “cold therapy, breathing and commitment,” Hof said.

Hof claims that “heightened oxygen levels hold a treasure trove of benefits,” and that his technique unearths them, leading to “more energy, reduced stress levels and an augmented immune response.”

Hof instructs a group of Goop employees on how to do the technique, which is also referred to as controlled hyperventilation by some medical professionals.

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One member of the group said she felt the onset of panic attack symptoms when practicing the breathing, while another employee began to cry.

READ MORE: Goop-age wellness — why are people to desperate to feel good?

Not only are the supposed benefits of the Wim Hof method lacking in scientific evidence, said Caulfield, but the method could also be dangerous.

“[It’s a] powerful anecdote, [plus] a little bit of the exotic (because he draws on Tibetan meditation techniques) and a little bit of science to make it seem legit,” Caulfield said.

“All of those things are a formula for a convincing story, but not necessarily good science.”

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In this episode, Wim Hof also promotes cold water as a cure-all. “A cold shower a day keeps the doctor away,” Hof said, but Caulfield isn’t totally convinced.

“Is there any evidence to support the idea that [the Wim Hof method] has a significant measurable wellness impact on your health long-term? The answer there … is no.”
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Click to play video: 'Trailer: The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow'
Trailer: The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow

Olivier Bernard, a pharmacist in Montreal and creator of the Pharmafist blog, adds that Wim Hof is an anomaly — something not mentioned at all in The Goop Lab. 

His genetics are different from other people … they don’t mention any of that in the show. They just tell us, ‘Look at this tremendous guy. He can teach you this breathing technique, and if you do that, here are the benefits that can have on your health,'” he told Global News.

A study published in the journal NeuroImage found that Wim Hof is able to artificially induce a stress response in Hof’s body so he can resist the effects of the cold — but whether that is a teachable skill remains to be seen.

“Maybe some stuff he does is only possible for him. I’m not convinced he can actually teach people how to do this and have all these benefits on their health,” Bernard said.

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Claim #2: The fast-mimicking diet can reverse your biological age

In episode four, Paltrow and her team explore the concept of a biological age and popular anti-aging regimens.

Your biological age is calculated with an algorithm using a DNA sample, according to the episode’s guest Morgan Levine. She is also an assistant professor in the department of pathology at Yale.

At the beginning of the episode, Paltrow, Elise Loehnen, Goop’s chief content officer, and Wendy Lauria, Goop’s SVP of marketing, each take a blood test to establish their current biological ages. The three test different diets to see if any of them can lower their number.

Paltrow tests the “fast-mimicking diet,” which involves tricking your body into believing you’re fasting while you’re actually eating low-protein, low-carb and high-fat meals. At one point, Paltrow eats only 500 calories in a day, and in the end, reportedly shaves 1.7 years off her biological age.

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Bernard is skeptical about the concept of biological age.

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To me, it sounds like a made-up concept, and the thing is that in this show, they say that you can just take a blood test and then they’ll measure your biological age, which according to them is not the same as your chronological age,” Bernard said.

“I did a quick search and [found a] company that sells the blood test for about $500 … but to my knowledge, this kind of test is not approved by any medical institution.”

As for fasting, Caulfield is interested in the research about its benefits, but he says more work is needed.

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“Intermittent fasting is a very interesting area of inquiry, but we need to be careful not to over-interpret what the data says,” he said. “For example, there isn’t a lot of evidence that suggests that long-term fasting is a good way to lose weight.”

When it comes to fasting as it relates to aging, Caulfield is excited by the science that does exist, but again, he said more research needs to be done.

“[Aging science is] largely based on the whole idea of telomeres (a structure at the end of a chromosome). … Telomeres really are one biological marker of aging, but the story is much more complex. You just can’t measure someone’s telomeres and tell exactly how old they are.”

“I call this science-ploitation. You take a little bit of exciting, real science, and you twist it in order to make it sound like you’ve got the new cure-all.”

Claim #3: Energy healing can help treat mental health issues

In episode five, Goop employees participate in a “somatic energy healing practice” with chiropractor John Amaral.

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He calls it the “energy flow formula,” and claims it can “heal physical injuries, reduce stress, anxiety and depression and reach and sustain new levels of energy, clarity and fulfillment.”

Loehnen is one of the employees treated by Amaral.

In the episode, he is seen moving his hands around Loehnen’s body, rarely making physical contact. Loehnen reacts to these movements with a series of jolted movements — arching her back at points, accompanied by guttural groans, coughing and clenched fingers.

“I had an exorcism,” Loehnen told Paltrow afterward. “I could not get a Goop-ier.”

“It’s just ridiculous,” Gunter said of the practice.

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“We have no idea how those episodes were cut. … We don’t know what he was telling people — did he tell them to arch their back and clench their hands?”

Another claim made by Amaral in the show was that the human body is filled with fascia, which is connective tissue that can “bind up and store energy,” and the Energy Flow Formula can “return that energy to a free-flowing state.”

“That’s made up. I don’t know what that means,” Gunter said.

READ MORE: Health Canada removes sunscreens sold at Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop store

“Energy healing is one of the forms of alternative therapy that is clearly not science-based,” Caulfield said. “It’s almost like it’s a supernatural idea … that we have this life force energy that is in our body that can be manipulated. There’s no evidence to support it.”

He’s worried people will adopt these strategies instead of going to a medical doctor.

“What you want to do is you want to go see a health-care provider [or] a mental health professional — one that is going to provide you with an evidence based approach.

‘Wellness’ often blurs the line between science and pseudoscience

What started as a newsletter in 2008, Goop has come to dominate the wellness market, which has angered many experts, like Gunter and Caulfield.

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And yet, people are still buying healing crystals and going on juice cleanses. Why?

According to Caulfield, it’s a complex social phenomenon, but it ultimately comes down to a “breakdown of trust” between the general public and conventional sources of health information.

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“People are worried about conflicts of interest, they’re worried about the involvement of [other] industries,” Caulfield previously told Global News.

It’s also common for women to feel that their health has long been overlooked by the medical community and that their concerns aren’t heard. Research shows that women are more likely to suffer pain longer than men, and are often taken less seriously by their doctors.

“There’s a famous study … that suggests doctors stop listening to patients after 11 seconds. That’s not to say that they aren’t offering good health care, but people react to that,” Caulfield said.

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Members of the goop team working with medium Laura Lynne Jackson. Photo courtesy of Adam Rose/Netflix.

Brands are aware of this. Many companies do a good job at marketing products and services to women who often feel ignored, Caulfield said, which has helped turn wellness into a trillion-dollar global industry.

“We need to learn from this,” he said. “We need to learn that there’s issues in the conventional system that are making these other approaches seem more inviting, and take that seriously.”

— With files from Global News’ Aalia Adam, Meaghan Wray and Laura Hensley

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