As a society we're obsessed with celebrities. We just can't get enough of their drama, bad fashion decisions and scandalous affairs. But recently it seems the public isn't just turning to movie stars for entertainment -- we're listening to their health advice.
With unsolicited tips from stars, many people are adopting "life-changing" extreme diets, undergoing wacky alternative medical treatments, even eschewing essential vaccines when mountains of evidence-based science proves these recommendations are misguided and in some cases actually dangerous. So why is the public clinging to all of this celebrity pseudoscience?
"It's not just about health, it's how you want to the world to see you," Tim Caulfield, a professor at the Faculty of Law & School of Public Health at the University of Alberta in Canada and author of "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash," told CBS News.
Last week this trend reached a new level of hilarity. On Paltrow's lifestyle blog, "Goop," the Academy Award-winning actress disclosed to her fans yet another secret to her youthful health and vitality: A steam treatment for women's nether region that's offered at a West Coast spa. She wrote on her blog:
"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 L.A., you have to do it."
Most women will probably tell you they barely have time to iron their pants, much less steam their vagina. Gynecologists, in reaction, said the treatment -- evidently used by Chinese empresses some 1,500 years ago -- would likely have zero benefits, and in some cases could serious health problems.
"I would never tell anybody to do this because the potential risks are much higher than the potential benefits," Dr. Amos Grunebaum, an obstetrician and gynecologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital, told the Daily News. Douching was long ago found to be one of the worst things a woman could do for her health since it disturbs the natural flora of the female reproductive system, which can lead to a host of nasty problems including urinary tract infections and yeast overgrowth.
But that's probably not enough to convince every Paltrow fan that her advice is a bunch of hoo-ha. In the past, on her blog and during interviews, Paltrow has doled out plenty of other tips, including rolfing (or massaging) one's legs to make them longer, and adopting a special elimination diet when she experiences periods of "adrenal fatigue," a hormonal condition that is not scientifically proven to exist.
"She seems to be accelerating down kook highway," said Caulfield. "Like so many people she's susceptible to this pseudoscience that's permeating our society right now. I think part of it is people are becoming more disconnected from science, which is ironic because science has never been a bigger part of lives."
It's true that some of the advice dished out by celebrities is fairly harmless; actress Shailene Woodley, for example, recommends women eat clay to remove heavy metals from the body and get a little sun on your vagina for some extra vitamin D.
But then there have been instances where celebrities' unproven assertions about health can have serious repercussions.
The current measles outbreak has been largely fueled by people opting out of a vaccine that decades of scientific research has proven safe and effective. A growing anti-vaccine movement has sprung from concerns that the childhood shots increase risk for autism -- even though the one study that purported to show a connection turned out to be falsified and was withdrawn. Yet despite the lack of any scientific basis, the movement has continued to pick up steam as celebrities -- including Jenny McCarthy, Mayim Bialik and Alicia Silverstone -- join the crusade.
"There's a growing distrust because of all the traditional sources people are worried about big pharma and big food," said Caulfield. "There's some justification of that. I think that growing distrust creates a space for people like Gwyneth."
Pseudoscience fueled by a distrust in mainstream medicine has also opened the door to scams. Last year, celebrity physician and talk show host Dr. Oz came under fire for offering a broad range of unfounded health advice. In the fall, the results of a study he touted on his show claiming green coffee bean extract helps weight loss were found to be bogus.
Caulfield says that while celebrities have always offered outrageous lifestyle advice, the Internet and social media has allowed it to spread more easily. Yet he also notes some of their misguided pronouncements have resulted in plenty of ridicule. "I get a sense that there's a pushback starting," he said.
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