The Science Behind ‘The goop Lab’, Explained By A Doctor Of Integrative Medicine
Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle brand goop has made headlines for several years for its habit of promoting wellness trends that are at best harmlessly dippy, and at worst, expensive, ineffective, or even dangerous. The goop Lab, a new Netflix series that features goop staffers undergoing treatments as diverse as "energy healing" and psilocybin retreats, is the brand's newest entry into the fray. The six-episode series been described as "a soulful kind of sponcon" by The New Yorker and "HGTV for the wellness set" by Bon Appetit's Healthy-ish, but has also been criticized for promoting practices that may not be supported by scientific evidence. (Each episode begins with a disclaimer that the series is designed to "entertain and inform — not provide medical advice," and advises viewers to consult doctors before starting any kind of treatment.) If you're wondering about the science behind The goop Lab's episodes, the answers might surprise you.
In the past, integrative medicine — medical treatment that includes complementary or alternative practices like some of those explored by goop — has been thought of as impossibly woo woo, but that's a thorough misunderstanding of the practice. Dr. Samantha Sharp, M.D., a faculty member at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, tells Bustle that effective integrative medicine always needs to be based on scientific experimentation. "Evidence and research are an important part of integrative medicine, as well as being familiar with risks and benefits of different treatment therapies," she says. If scientists can't prove that therapies work and are safe, those therapies shouldn't be part of any physician's repertoire.
A representative for goop, in a statement sent to Bustle via email, wrote that over half of the experts interviewed for the show were "doctors and research scientists from leading medical institutions."
"We clearly state that some of the procedures we explore on The goop Lab are emerging practices and the show is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. A third party was retained to carefully vet each expert and fact check the statements made in the show. This process was handled by our Emmy-winning production company." The statement continues, "We advise that viewers should always consult their doctor when it comes to their personal health, or before starting any new treatments."
Still, the treatments seen on the show have varying degrees of research behind them. Episode four features Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP) or "vampire" facials, which, as Dr. Sharp explains, are supposed to use the growth factors in blood platelets to stimulate new collagen and plump skin tissue. "There is some data for this, though the studies are few and are all underpowered and small," she says. The real issues with vampire facials are price — Dr. Sharp estimates one costs around $1,000 — and potential risk. "I could see this potentially being dangerous if performed by someone who doesn't know what they are doing," she tells Bustle. "There is certainly a potential for an infection if equipment was not properly sterilized, and this is your face we're talking about." In 2018, two women reportedly contracted HIV after a blood facial at one now-closed New Mexico spa.
Cold therapy, or the Wim Hof method, is another example. In episode two, Goop staffers practice deep breathing in freezing temperatures while wearing bikinis, following the methods of Wim Hof, who claims his breathing exercises can help improve health, resist cold, and raise endurance. "Wim Hof breathing — or hyper-oxidative breathing — seems to have some data to support it," Dr. Sharp says. There's evidence that these breathing exercises, which consist of intense breathing in very cold environments, may help the nervous system and immune function in some people. "We know that with mindful breathing, heart rate variability stabilizes, and there are long-term benefits to breathing exercises that stimulate the vagus nerve," Dr. Sharp says. However, she tells Bustle that improperly conducted breath exercises carry risks, including asphyxiation, fainting, or even death, a risk that Hof acknowledges on the show.
Other segments of The goop Lab are backed by little evidence, like the segment on psychic intuition in episode six. "Intuition is an area of interest in medicine these days, but the research is focused on defining different kinds of intuition rather than actually testing intuition," Dr. Sharp says. “No one can actually study mediums because they wouldn't want to get laughed out of the Institutional Review Board meeting,” Dr. Jen Gunther, an OB/GYN, told Bustle when the trailer for the series first came out earlier in the month. Science definitely backs the existence of decision-making intuition, but extra-sensory perception is another story.
One episode has a bit more science behind it: the first, in which goop CCO Elise Loehnen, takes magic mushrooms. Studies do show that the active ingredient, psilocybin, can have positive mental health effects. "For patients with specific diagnoses — anxiety, certain addictions, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression — and with trained guides who help you during your trip in a safe spot, psilocybin has been shown to help," Dr. Sharp says.
However, all of the research on psilocybin and other psychedelics has happened in controlled conditions under scientific observation. It's not recommended — or, generally speaking, legal — to try it on your own for therapeutic reasons. "This could be incredibly dangerous, potentially precipitating psychotic breaks and dangerous behavior," Dr. Sharp says. She notes that anybody with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia should avoid psychedelic drugs, as researchers aren't sure if they can trigger symptoms.
It's also worth noting that The goop Lab's emphasis on personal anecdotes — where, for instance, one subject says that Wim Hof's method helped her stress and depression — should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt. Stories aren't scientific evidence, and just because somebody says a treatment works for them doesn't mean it will for anyone else.
Integrative medicine, Dr. Sharp tells Bustle, encourages people to focus on one story: their own. "You are the expert on your body, your life, and your experience," she says. "You know yourself better than anyone else."
Agin-Liebes, G. I., Malone, T., Yalch, M. M., Mennenga, S. E., Ponté, K. L., Guss, J., … Ross, S. (2020). Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for psychiatric and existential distress in patients with life-threatening cancer. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 34(2), 155–166.
Carhart-Harris, R. L., Bolstridge, M., Day, C., Rucker, J., Watts, R., Erritzoe, D. E., … Nutt, D. J. (2018). Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: six-month follow-up. Psychopharmacology, 235(2), 399–408. doi:10.1007/s00213-017-4771-x
Daniel, J., & Haberman, M. (2018). Clinical potential of psilocybin as a treatment for mental health conditions. The mental health clinician, 7(1), 24–28. doi:10.9740/mhc.2017.01.024
Johnson, M. W., Garcia-Romeu, A., Cosimano, M. P., & Griffiths, R. R. (2014). Pilot study of the 5-HT2AR agonist psilocybin in the treatment of tobacco addiction. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 28(11), 983–992. doi: 10.1177/0269881114548296
Johnson, M. W., & Griffiths, R. R. (2017). Potential Therapeutic Effects of Psilocybin. Neurotherapeutics, 14(3), 734–740. doi: 10.1007/s13311-017-0542-y
Kox, M., van Eijk, L. T., Zwaag, J., van den Wildenberg, J., Sweep, F. C., van der Hoeven, J. G., & Pickkers, P. (2014). Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(20), 7379–7384. doi:10.1073/pnas.1322174111
Muzik, O., Reilly, K. T., & Diwadkar, V. A. (2018). “Brain over body”–A study on the willful regulation of autonomic function during cold exposure. NeuroImage, 172, 632–641. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.01.067
Remmers, C., & Michalak, J. (2016). Losing Your Gut Feelings. Intuition in Depression. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1291. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01291