Something for the Weekend: “(Un)well” on Netflix


Even prior to the pandemic, Western societies were obsessed with the idea of health and wellness.  Netflix’s new series (Un)well claims it’s a market worth over a trillion dollars.  Our pursuit of wellbeing has branched out into new directions: it encompasses everything from essential oils, Tantra, even the use of bee venom as a skin cream. 

But is any of this scientifically valid?  Or are we merely throwing money away on modern variants of snake oil? 

To its credit, Netflix tries to present a balanced view, showing both purveyors and detractors.  It focuses on 6 main trends: the use of essential oils, tantric sex, the consumption of breast milk by adults, fasting, using the hallucinogenic drug Ayahuasca, and bee sting therapy. 

I approach all of these trends with scepticism.  For example, the idea of bee stings as a form of therapy made me recall a joke that my grandfather used to tell about the man who walked around with a rubber band around his head despite it hurting because it would feel good once it was taken off. If you focus on the pain of a bee sting, naturally, your attention is diverted from sore joints.  Furthermore, given that bee stings often swell up, naturally, bee venom, used as an anti-ageing cream, would cause one’s face to swell and fill in wrinkles. 

Nothing I saw in this documentary series made my doubts disappear.  Much of the series was filmed in the United States, and there was an element of thinking that those buying into these trends were Americans who, to use a Yorkshire expression, “have more brass than sense”. 

The most disturbing episode concerned the consumption of the hallucinogenic drug Ayahuasca.  Ayahuasca originates from South America: it was originally supposed to give visions to shamans.  Westerners go to Peru to consume it; there is a “church” in Florida which utilises the religious protections enshrined in the Constitution in order to consume it in a ritual.  It is a faith of the desperate: a war veteran who wants to escape post-traumatic stress, a woman who has lost her family, put their faith in this substance to process their experiences.  However, as a scientist points out, it’s enormously risky: the documentary does not shy away from showing someone struck with a seizure, nor does it hold back on saying someone died after consuming this drug.  Worse, a Canadian tourist in Peru murdered someone after taking Ayahuasca. 

Perhaps the strangest episode concerned the consumption of breast milk.  This episode was most interesting because the filmmakers went all the way to Mongolia, which is rarely filmed, to find out how breast milk consumption is ingrained in the local culture.  However, it is a bit odd to see an American bodybuilder purchase frozen breast milk, turn it into a milkshake with a generous dollop of honey, and claim it’s key to his success. 

Some products were shown to be outright scams.  The essential oils were being purveyed in the United States by what appears to be a multi-level marketing company, i.e. a pyramid scheme.  One woman who sold these consumed so many that she developed a painful allergic rash; indeed, she is now allergic to all the oils she once sold.  There was something disturbing about seeing a father spray his children with essential oils, claiming it was “happiness in a bottle”. Really?   

I was left with the impression that genuine health and wellness come from things which are far less exotic: making simple changes in terms of diet and exercise and building up solid relationships with family and friends.  So long, however, as people seek a magic cure, no doubt there will be someone willing to sell it to them.  Let the buyer beware.

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