It’s hard to get away from celebs – they’re on our TVs, the covers of magazines and all over the internet. We tend to value their opinions, so when they come out with bizarre health claims, many people believe them.
Timothy Caulfield, the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, a professor at the University of Alberta and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, believes that the intense pressure of fame encourages them to have unscientific beliefs.
He told RealClearScience, “Often their careers depend, to some degree, on appearance. This may make them more susceptible to pseudoscience suggestions in the realm of health and beauty. There may be a desire to try anything that might work. The same phenomenon plays out with professional athletes. Anything for an edge. [American football quarterback] Tom Brady is a great example of how this can play out. He seems to genuinely believe his science-free diet and exercise regimens work. He then becomes a powerful, attractive testimonial for pseudoscience. Look how he is playing at 40 years old! How can you argue with results? But it is just an anecdote, not real science.”
Here are six of the most unscientific health claims from celebs – and the science of why you should not believe what they say.
1. Vaginal steaming
The claim: Gywneth Paltrow claims that steaming your vagina has a multitude of benefits. She says, "You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al. It is an energetic release – not just a steam douche – that balances female hormone levels. If you're in LA, you have to do it."
The science: For years, experts have been telling us that the vagina is self-cleaning. In fact, experts advise against douching because it disturbs the natural flora of the reproductive system, which can cause urinary tract infections or yeast infections.
In 2015, Dr Jen Gunter, a certified obstetrician and gynaecologist, responded to Paltrow’s claim in an article on her blog, “Steam is probably not good for your vagina. Herbal steam is no better and quite possibly worse. It is most definitely more expensive. Steam isn’t going to get into your uterus from your vagina unless you are using an attachment with some kind of pressure and most definitely never ever do that. Mugwort or wormwood or whatever when steamed, either vaginally or on the vulva, can’t possibly balance any reproductive hormones, regulate your menstrual cycle, treat depression, or cure infertility Even steamed oestrogen couldn’t do that.”
Dr Mary Jane Minkin, clinical professor of ob-gyn at Yale School of Medicine, agrees. She told Women's Health, "The hormone factory is in the ovaries, and there's no reason why steam would affect the hormones produced there."
The claim: In 2016, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps shocked the world with bruises on his body caused by cupping. He believes that cupping helps with recovery time and painful muscles. Reuters reports him saying, “I have done it for a while but I haven’t had bad ones [marks] like this awhile though. That’s where I hurt the most [referring to the marks on his shoulder]. I have done it before pretty much every meet I go to. I just asked for a little cupping yesterday because I was sore.”
The science: Although athletes like Phelps are using cupping as a recovery tool, Dr Rachel Vreeman, director of research at the Indiana University Center for Global Health and co-author of a series of books on medical myths says there’s little research behind it.
She told Sports Illustrated, "There are no health benefits to cupping documented in the scientific literature. The only study I have seen... with any impact related to cupping is one that rigorously examined various therapies for back pain, and suggested that any impact from cupping was likely related to a placebo effect."
3. Psychiatry is quackery
The claim: Tom Cruise has publicised his disdain for psychiatry and the mental health profession in several interviews. He has even called psychiatrists drug dealers, “Here is the thing: you have to understand, with psychiatry, there is no science behind it. And to pretend that there is a science behind it is criminal.”
He also called actress Brooke Shields irresponsible for publishing a book, Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression, that highlights her battle with and treatment of postpartum depression. Cruise believes vitamins and exercise will treat depression.
The science: Ushma Neill responded to these claims in an article published on the Journal of Clinical Investigation, “I beg to differ and so does 50 years’ worth of literature. While indeed other theories have been proffered to explain depression, the idea that chemical or genetic imbalances may underlie depression has been widely accepted.”
According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Science has proven that mental illnesses are real medical conditions that affect millions of Americans. Over the past five years, the nation has more than doubled its investment in the study of the human brain and behaviour, leading to a vastly expanded understanding of postpartum depression, bipolar disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Much of this research has been conducted by the National Institutes of Health and the nation’s leading academic institutions. Safe and effective treatments are available and may include talk therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Rigorous, published, peer-reviewed research clearly demonstrates that treatment works.”
4. Increased oxygen intake
The claim: Simon Cowell claims he gets his “youthful glow” from taking regular shots of oxygen from a tank he carries around with him.
The science: According to researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas in a study published in the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism, when baby mice were resuscitated with pure oxygen they suffered more brain damage and cerebral palsy than mice that breathed air during resuscitation.
Steven Kernie, developmental biologist and lead author of the study, said, “Our results are counterintuitive. Many think oxygen doesn’t hurt and you can give as much as possible to make up for a deficiency. Our study shows this notion is wrong.”
Kay Mitchell, a scientist at the Centre for Altitude Space and Extreme Environment Medicine, says that high levels of oxygen can be toxic, especially in the lungs where oxygen levels are the highest.
5. Supplement your life
The claim: Katy Perry tweeted in 2013, “I’m all about that supplement and vitamin LYFE [sic]” along with a photograph of her holding up huge bags of pills.
The science: Timothy Caulfield, in his book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? reminds us that the supplement market is a billion-dollar industry. “It’s a huge part of the diet and fitness world.” However, there’s “very little evidence” supporting the notion that people who follow healthy diets should take daily supplements of any kind – never mind by the bagful like Perry claims to.
“No one [trustworthy] believes that taking mega doses of supplements is a good idea,” he says. “There is zero proof that mega doses improve health.”
The claim: A number of celebs have publicly stated that vaccinations put children at risk for autism – Jenny McCarthy, Mayim Bialik and Alicia Silverstone are all on that list.
The science: According to Caulfield, "There's a growing distrust because of all the traditional sources people are worried about big pharma and big food. There's some justification of that. I think that growing distrust creates a space for people like Gwyneth."
Autism Speaks, an organisation dedicated to advancing research into causes and better treatments for autism spectrum disorders, says researchers have conducted extensive studies over the last 20 years to find out if there is a link between childhood vaccinations and autism. And the results say no.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has compiled an article that lists studies (with links), which allows parents to read up on the evidence that shows there is no link between vaccinations and autism.
Image credits: Andrea Raffin [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons; iStock