Goop’s Pseudoscience Ministry Comes To Netflix


 
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By Jennifer Gunter, MD

Gwyneth Paltrow’s reaction to the description of the vulva in episode three of her new Netflix show, ironically titled “The Goop Lab,” suggests that she didn’t previously know that the vagina is inside the body and the vulva is outside, or that she didn’t know much about pelvic floor muscles.

While this knowledge gap is common among women, I expected more from Paltrow, whose lifestyle business is partially built on monetizing the vagina. Her comment makes me wonder what body part she is really referencing with her “This smells like my vagina” candle.

Those looking for a lot of Paltrow in the series, which airs next Friday, will be disappointed in the first three labisodes. She appears only briefly, offering largely forgettable commentary peppered with a swear word or two to remind us that Paltrow thinks of herself as the shock jock of natural health.

While the show and the adulation preceding it lead us to believe that Paltrow is forward thinking when it comes to health and wellness, she doesn’t personally take the risks she asks of others. She doesn’t take psychedelics, jump into cold water, have an orgasm on camera, or expose her fears or traumas.

The first three episodes — “Healing Trip” (psychedelics), “Cold Comfort” (cold therapy), and “The Pleasure Is Ours” (the vulva and orgasm) — are approximately 35 minutes long. Each one begins with a disclaimer that the show is for entertainment only.

If only.

They were so boring I couldn’t manage to watch beyond episode three.

“The Healing Trip” takes Goop employees to Jamaica to do mushrooms. I knew little about the medical use of psychedelics before watching this episode, and ended up knowing very little about it afterward. The episode is largely centered around the Goop troop revealing personal traumas, talking about using psychedelics, experiencing the effects of hallucinogens, and offering some revelations. It seemed to go on forever.

There are also testimonials: anecdotes from three people who tried psychedelics in the United States — two in clinical trials and one who did microdosing on her own.

The two experts are Mark Haden, executive director of the Multidiscipinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Canada, and Dr. Will Siu, a Los Angeles psychiatrist trained in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy (MDMA is a drug also known as ecstasy). The information from the experts barely grazed the surface on psychedelics, emphasizing the positives and largely ignoring the risks. While it’s impossible to know what was said and then ended up on the cutting room floor, I found it disheartening to hear only negative things about antidepressants — “We all know they have terrible side effects” — from a psychiatrist with no mention of what those side effects might be, their frequency or, more importantly, how antidepressants have helped many people.

This is classic Goop: stoke fear about conventional medical therapy and gloss over any risks of novel therapies while neglecting to mention that the lack of studies means we know far less about the risks. The risk-benefit ratio always favors the Goop message.

The experts specifically mentioned that taking psychedelics for mental health reasons should be done only in a controlled setting with a trained provider, but we hear this only after the episode has been largely devoted to the Goop gang doing the exact the opposite. At that point the medical disclaimer was a distant memory.

“The Cold Comfort” episode is largely about Wim Hof, a man who claims that the triad of exposure to cold, hyperventilating to the point of lowering the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, and meditation can beneficially alter the immune system and heal trauma. He implies that he can use his mind to fight off the negative effects of bacteria in his blood.

In 2003 I developed sepsis, a life-threatening condition caused by my body’s response to an infection of E. coli. So I took particular umbrage to this assertion. The evidence supporting Hof’s claims is slim but emphasized in a science-ish fashion.

Goop employees follow Hof’s method and, under his guidance, hyperventilate until they get tingling in their hands, muscle cramps, and euphoria. These changes are chalked up to be physical conditioning and some sort of mind-body revelation instead of what they really are: symptoms of respiratory alkalosis, a low level of carbon dioxide that increases the pH of the blood. This makes it harder for the body to deliver oxygen and reduces blood flow to the brain.

This hyperventilation is followed by snowga — you got it, yoga in the snow — that culminates with jumping into a cold lake.

This, apparently, is a lesson in how to treat a panic disorder, deal with stress, get in tune with your body, and heal trauma.

Could people watch this episode and think that they should abandon proven therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy to follow Hof’s method? Could someone trying this at home hallucinate? Or have a seizure? We don’t get that information.

The combination of training and genetic advantage can prompt people to push their bodies to extremes. That’s why the Guinness World Records exist. Hof holds several endurance records, although the last time I checked endurance was not synonymous with health or longevity. Despite his prowess for enduring the cold, if you left Hof outside in the winter in my home city of Winnipeg, Canada, he would eventually die of exposure, just like the rest of us mortals.

Hof’s skill set seems similar in many ways to those of magician David Blaine, except that Blaine makes no health or spiritual claims about holding his breath for unimaginably long times — and actually emphasizes the risks — while explaining that this is all for the purpose of pushing himself to his limits.

In this episode, Goop’s chief content officer Elise Loehnen muses about injecting toxins into Goop employees to see if Hof’s training can alter their immune systems, then bemoans the negative response from the Netflix lawyers. You worry about the lawyers over the safety of your employees?

And while I’m on the subject of workplace safety, I wondered what the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration might think about subjecting employees to hyperventilation to the point of reducing cerebral blood flow.

Hof’s method is offered as proof of the mind-body connection, something that those of us who practice medicine know exists. It is why many clinicians recommend biofeedback or talk about the impact of stress on the immune system. We also know that optimism and anxiety may influence antibody response to vaccination.

The mind-body connection is not some secret known only to men who sit on ice. But an old biofeedback machine in a medical office has no shock value and isn’t Instagram-worthy high-resolution video of gorgeous Goopsters doing snowga.

The episode on vulvas and sex, “The Pleasure Is Ours,” is the only one I can recommend. It was informative because Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross did most of the talking and education. Vulvar anatomy was discussed, and I’m always pleased when a model of the clitoris is on display. We get a guided tour of the vulva with a real model (Ms. Ross I presume) and photos of others to show variation. Ross also masturbated on screen, although little is shown. This is all useful, both the images of the vulva and the orgasm, especially the latter, as many women believe false scripts of female orgasm that involve vocalizations and contortions — orgasms that look like Sally Albright’s fakery in the movie “When Harry Met Sally.”

I laughed out loud at the look on Paltrow’s face when Dodson asked why she should care about wrinkles when she can orgasm. This would have been an amazing moment to explore. After all, Goop has loads of products geared towards the quest for the adaptogenic fountain of youth.

I initially thought that “The Goop Lab” would simply be an infomercial for a nutraceutical and lifestyle company paid for by Netflix subscribers. While Goop products weren’t mentioned in the episodes I watched, discussing medical conditions is a tried-and-true strategy of big pharma: generating interest in a disease or problem generates interest in a solution to that problem, which in turn generates business. If you see a vibrator on the orgasm episode and then head to goop.com, might you buy one of its vibrators? I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point we are invited to shop the Netflix stories on Goop.

But the series is more than an infomercial. Loehnen said she wanted to understand herself in the context of a bigger universe. The theme of seeking guidance and the need for quests runs through the episodes I watched. It is also a large part of the Goop experience.

It’s no wonder that Goop has embraced mediums and mysticism. With spirits and the divine on board, Goop finally has the missing ingredients to cement lifestyle as the new religion with Paltrow as high priestess. I see “The Goop Lab” as televangelism, bringing the ministry to a larger audience and possibly opening more wallets.

Whether the series gets them any new converts — and hurts anyone along the way — remains to be seen.



 
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