health & science

Women, wellness and pseudo-science

Dr Jen Gunter doesn’t want you to put a jade egg in your vagina, steam it, or feel you need to wear white underwear if you have a vaginal infection.

The obstetrician and gynaecologist has made it her task to tackle misinformation in medicine and peddled by wellness industry players, such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website.

She's described as Twitter’s gynaecologist, has a television series planned and spoke this week at the University of Auckland.

Gunter said she often got in trouble at school challenging long-held beliefs.

“I remember when I was in medical school on my OB/GYN rotation, and there is this myth, if you have a vaginal infection that you should wear all white cotton underwear.”

She queried what effect the underwear’s colour had on infections.

“The dudes used to think that the uterus wandered the body causing mayhem"

Strange beliefs around women’s bodies have a long history. Menstruation has long been seen as dirty. In some countries, women are still confined to period huts while they are menstruating, and many religions forbid menstruating women to enter places of worship.

Excluding women from studying medicine until the 1900s has added to misconceptions said Gunter.

“The dudes used to think that the uterus wandered the body causing mayhem," said Gunter.

The idea of a wandering uterus goes back to ancient times. The uterus was described as an “animal within an animal” and “altogether erratic”. It was believed it would move about a woman’s body causing hysteria.

Smell was thought to be a cure to a wayward uterus.

A Greek physician wrote: “It delights also in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to fetid smells and flees from them.”

Scents were placed between women’s legs to attract a wandering uterus to return to the correct position.

These days the wellness industry promotes vaginal steaming to balance female hormone levels.

Gwyneth Paltrow describes it: “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.”

In her blog, Gunter strongly advises against vagina steaming, explaining that the effect of steam on the reproductive tract is unknown and could harm the lactobacilli which are needed for health.

The idea steam could reach the uterus is impossible, unless high pressure is used, which would be incredibly dangerous. She also points out “balancing female hormone levels” means nothing medically and mugwort is not a hormone.

Gunter is perhaps most famous for challenging claims made by Paltrow’s Goop website about jade vaginal eggs.

“The idea that you could put a hunk of rock in your vagina and harness your feminine energy. I'm like, well, I don't know, I've got to call this. This is offensive obviously on so many different levels.”

Goop claimed the NZD$98 jade eggs were traditionally used in China and could balance hormones, regulate menstrual cycles and increase bladder control.

There is no evidence to back any of the medical claims, and the assertion eggs were used by Chinese concubines and empresses is also false according to Gunter.

“I partnered with an archaeologist and we looked at the largest Chinese artefact buildings in four universities in the United States. And of course, we found no jade eggs.”

“You profiting off of selling a product is okay, but big pharma isn’t? I don't understand, a profit is a profit."

The eggs, which were meant to be left in the vagina for an extended period of time, also posed the risk of causing toxic shock syndrome.

Settling a consumer protection lawsuit regarding the eggs and misleading claims cost Goop over NZD$200,000.

Goop’s value is estimated to be almost NZD$370 million.

The wellness industry

Gunter sees a range of reasons why the wellness industry has grown so large.

Old ideas about a woman’s body being toxic help sell products like an activated charcoal vulva mask which promises to detoxify the vulva.

And although mainstream medicine has moved on from the idea a malevolent uterus with a finely tuned olfactory system roams a women’s body, it hasn’t always done a great job with women’s health.

“No woman has ever benefited from misinformation about her body ever. I’m certainly not going to stop fighting.”

She said industry players like Goop exist as a symptom of women wanting to control their own bodies, distrusting government, feeling “vaginal shame” and lacking information.

In her mind the feel-good wellness industry is worse than “big pharma”.

“It's fascinating to me that, we can hear a celebrity or anybody talk about big pharma and how horrible it is. I'm the first to admit there are issues, but then there's Gwyneth Paltrow telling the New York Times "I could monetise those eyeballs".

“You profiting off of selling a product is okay, but big pharma isn’t? I don't understand, a profit is a profit.

“At least pharmaceuticals have to submit some studies that are going through the FDA, they at least have to do something. I mean, you don't have to do anything. You can throw whatever you want to jar and call it moon dust and sell it.”

Goop sells a range of dusts, made by the brand Moon Juice.

Seven simple rules

Gunter shared seven simple “close the browser” rules for navigating the internet and avoiding pseudo-scientific wellness claims.

These included being sceptical of sites selling what they are promoting, celebrity endorsements, claims of miracle cures and sites which promote homeopathy or contain anti-vaccination information.

She also recommended not reading comments, and avoiding spreading misinformation, even if you a sharing a site and pointing out issues with it.

“No woman has ever benefited from misinformation about her body ever. I’m certainly not going to stop fighting.”

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