Scams, shams, and people with fruit in their names.
1st May 2018
By Dr Rachel Sumner
As a psychoneuroimmunologist, I often find people looking very impressed when I say what I do. I’m sure some part of this is because it’s quite the mouthful, but another part is usually because it sounds complicated, like many interdisciplinary fields do. I didn’t choose this field because it’s an esoteric and impressive sounding area; in fact, I often tell people I am a health psychologist or something similar to avoid the inevitable embarrassing moment of feeling like I’m bragging (or feeling like they think I’m bragging, or any other neurotic imagining that I can conjure up). I sort of fell into PNI through the natural funnelling of my academic pathway (undergrad Psychology, postgrad Health Psychology, PhD PNI). Growing up with medical parents, I have always been medically minded, but unfortunately have been too squeamish to go down the medical route. Carrying out dissections, the thought of having to deal with things stuck in peoples’ eyes or having to drain festering wounds really just doesn’t do it for me (shocking, I know). So, I’ve ended up applying psychology to medicine and health, a far safer (and much less nauseating) strategy. I am principally interested in how whatever can change the way the brain works (psycho-), adapts the communication down to the body (neuro-) to then eventually impact health (immunology). I find it fascinating, although I have sent many people to sleep when talking about it.
I take pride in the fact that my particular corner of health psychology requires a lot of integrated understanding from various fields (I’m essentially a “jack of all trades, master of none”), and take pride further still in the fact that my discipline is easily applied and can provide tangible benefits to many people. I have always thought of the discipline as being rigorous, often requiring the drawing of knowledge from a variety of fields (endocrinology, neuroscience, sociobiology to name just a few), and so it has pained me to see that it has been jumped on so readily by those who peddle “wellness” remedies/techniques/diets etc. etc. I refer to these often in my lectures because I think it provides a fantastic example of two things: firstly, how science can become pseudoscience; and secondly, how important it is for us in these very niche fields to communicate our research effectively and accessibly to the public.
My main gripe is usually centred on the first point. Pop the words “inflammation and health” into YouTube to find an interesting video for your students, and you will be bombarded not by scientific talks, but usually by very tanned muscley people in tight clothes trying to convince you to try their diet, take these pills, buy their exercise DVD etc. The “wellness” industry has always been thriving but has done more so in recent years due (partly) to the rise of our ever-increasing addiction to screens.
Check Instagram and there will always be someone with a perfect figure doing yoga on a beach or by a waterfall (or sometimes somewhere they really shouldn’t be, but that’s another story…) with a gazillion hashtags below it usually spelling out a tirade of words that essentially are there to tell you how their lives are better than yours (#wellness #fitspiration #woke *vomit*). Go to YouTube and there will be someone there with a lurid green smoothie telling you that you’ve been eating avocadoes wrong your whole life (you fool!). Go to Facebook and you’ll find several of your friends sharing inspirational memes about how you need to balance your energy in order to send dopamine and positivity to your neural networks (how did you not know this already?!). It is EVERYWHERE.
Anyone who knows me (or has been in one of my classes) knows that I can be a cynic, and I guess this will all look like a grumbling rant from someone who is generally unimpressed with changing trends in popular culture (read: old fart). Whilst I don’t entirely disagree, this is based on a rather tedious disappointment that real, credible science from my field is being misappropriated on what is becoming an almost industrial scale by people who essentially either want you to give them your money, or your validation, or (more frequently) both. I could bang on for a long time about the motivations of the individuals that want you to try their latest cleanse, or that say you really MUST eat kale this way or you’re a dreadful human being, but that is perhaps for another day.
It is painfully easy to get people to worry about their physical being. Whether it’s in terms of your weight, skin tone, muscle density, or microbiota – it’s all wrong in every way and must be fixed. We all want to live long, healthy lives, and would preferably like to do so as attractive, socially acceptable/respectable individuals. This is more acutely the case now as our daily lives are continually being published online in some form or other for all to see. The need to be that serene, well-toned individual with the bone structure of a Greek god/dess doing a one-handed handstand on top of a waterfall in Kathmandu is increasingly pressing. If you don’t look like that, if you’re not doing that, then you’ve failed, you are not “woke”, you are sub-living.
All of our insecurities and burning desires to be thin/toned/beautiful are seized upon with thievish glee by those that want to sell you something; whether that be their product, or just their unending wisdom. They take snippets of science, possibly from abstracts, or maybe even just well-constructed article titles, and turn this into THE reason that you need to adhere to their prescribed “advice”. It is a well-oiled machine, fuelled by the increasing need to be perfect, and propelled by our insatiable appetite for quick-fixes.
We hear about how using this exercise regimen will lead us to have reduced inflammation, which will stave off a terrifying illness; or how following this particular diet will lead to better communication of your gut-brain axis; or that by using this “one weird technique” we can convert our white:brown fat ratio. They sound convincing because you’ve heard the term “brown fat” before somewhere, or you remember reading how “inflammation” might be linked to conditions like Parkinson’s Disease. And this is partly because it IS credible. We have discovered there are different types of fat, and one is “good”. We have learned that inflammation is associated with a broad swathe of illnesses. We have uncovered links between the microbiota and a catalogue of physical and mental health concerns. What we haven’t managed to do yet is sufficiently understand how this all works though, because if we had there would be public health messages galore telling you to take probiotics or follow this particular diet. When non-conventional medicine works it becomes mainstream medicine. That’s why we still prescribe compounds from willow leaves for headaches (aspirin), and mould for infections (penicillin).
Sometimes this well-oiled machine functions so well, and so efficiently, that new behaviours that could potentially be harmful spread like a contagion (or like the latest Trump meme). Recently, there have been increasing reports from scientists (yes, actual real ones with labcoats and everything) warning the public about the possible dangers of adopting a gluten-free diet if you are not a coeliac. But how do we know if this is “fake news” or not? We are told so many things all of the time about what we should or should not eat that most of us (if heeding said advice) would be munching away exclusively on grass (as long as it’s organic, and fair trade, and preferably from my garden). I wish there was a “fake news” button/reporting mechanism for fake science. I would probably never leave my laptop if there was.
All of this feeds nicely into my second gripe: that as scientists we need to take responsibility for allowing the snake-oil salesmen the opportunity to bewilder, beguile, and charm. What is the point of academic research if it is not for some conceptualisation of common good – whether that be through applied means, or by increasing knowledge? We have a responsibility to communicate our knowledge, not just to our communities, but to all. We need to provide a breakdown of what we have learned in an accessible and interesting way to allow everyone to learn what we have learned. We need to ensure that if someone claims their diet will improve your levels of inflammation it is because this is based on solid scientific research, not on the selling power of a few buzzwords. Yes, sometimes it is difficult to make some rather dry subjects interesting (trust me, I cover a lot of biology in my lectures), and sometimes it’s difficult to put something into layman’s terms when you’ve been so used to bandying around the word in the last few years that you take its understanding to be universal and implicit. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try though. Quite aside from preserving the reputation of our disciplines, we disempower those that prey on the insecure (which is just about all us these days), and – even more importantly – we potentially make the world a safer place.
If you want to learn more about this, you can buy my new book here.*
*Just kidding, but you will find a great kinetic typography vid from one of my favourite comedians of all time.