Holistic wellness is part of a broad spectrum of approaches to health, and pairing crystals with ibuprofen for your headaches isn't going to hurt anyone. But it's no secret that the wellness space is teeming with cures and therapies that are not just ineffective, but potentially harmful. Netflix's new docuseries (Un)Well dives deep into this phenomenon, looking at six wellness practices that aim to treat things like diabetes and chronic Lyme disease from diverse perspectives.
The show looks at several trendy treatments, including Ayahuasca ceremonies, breast milk therapy, and essential oils, and depicts patients and practitioners alongside doctors and scientists explaining why caution is recommended when you're moving away from conventional medicine. (The show also specifically states that it's "designed to entertain and inform — not provide medical advice” at the beginning of each episode.) Two episodes, though, focus on what experts say are particularly dangerous ideas: apitherapy, which uses bee venom to treat a range of illnesses from arthritis to Lyme disease, and extreme fasting. Unlike, say, adaptogens, both approaches are known to carry serious health risks.
As (Un)Well shows, sometimes people with chronic illnesses don't find the help they need in conventional medicine, and look elsewhere for cures. Without proper research or precautions, that can be dangerous. "I caution patients against using unproven therapies, which offer risk without likelihood of benefit," Dr. Michael Kornberg, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells Bustle.
Why Experts Say Bee Venom Therapy Is Dangerous
The (Un)Well apitherapy episode looks at therapies that use bee venom, from face masks to treatments for chronic Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis.
Apitherapy is not for the faint-hearted. People give themselves bee stings over months or years to attempt to alleviate pain. They include Kerri Ciullo, 24, who had undiagnosed Lyme for a decade. "I'm ready to put my faith in the bees," she says on the show.
In (Un)Well, the head of apitherapy center Heal Hive, Brooke Geahan, explains that apitherapy is meant to "burst" cells containing B. burgdorferi, the bacteria behind Lyme, and stimulate the body's immune response. Neurologist Dr. Steven Novella M.D. says on camera that while the body does produce painkillers to deal with the discomfort of a sting, venom isn't helpful for chronic conditions like Ciullo's. "Bee venom is kind of a witch's brew of toxins and chemicals. They're all there to cause you pain and harm," Novella says on the show.
"There is absolutely no evidence that bee venom is of any value for treating chronic Lyme disease," Phillip J. Baker, Ph.D., executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation, tells Bustle. The research that shows bee venom might be helpful against B. burgdorferi has happened in small studies in Petri dishes, which is different from human studies — and it hasn't been replicated.
Bee venom therapy also targets multiple sclerosis, but it doesn't show much promise. "The scientific basis for using bee venom therapy in multiple sclerosis is weak, and there is no evidence that is has any benefits for MS patients," Dr. Kornberg tells Bustle. "The only clinical trial of bee venom therapy in MS patients found no benefit, and there is a risk of severe allergic reactions like anaphylaxis."
That's not to say that melittin, the main component in bee venom, doesn't have promise as a healing agent. When it's isolated from the many other toxic compounds in venom, it's shown possibilities as an anti-tumor therapy, but studies show that a lot more work needs to be done to figure out how to apply it in humans — without the risk of causing an allergic reaction.
Why Experts Caution Against Extreme Fasting
(Un)Well looks at extreme fasts, including 28-day water fasts and "body hackers" who attempt to limit their food intake to lengthen their life spans. All of them, experts say, are dangerous. "There is absolutely no evidence that supports extreme fasting," nutritionist Abby Langer RD tells Bustle. "It doesn't make you healthier or stronger or 'hack' anything to say no to food."
Fasting is trendy right now because of the popularity of intermittent fasting, where people restrict their daily eating schedule, but intense fasts are risky. "There is some evidence to suggest that short periods of fasting may have health benefits for certain people, but there are also well known risks," Lorna Richards MBChB, a consultant psychiatrist at eating disorder and addiction treatment facility Life Works, tells Bustle. Physically, she says, extreme fasting can lead to dehydration, low blood pressure, kidney problems, fainting and digestive problems. Re-feeding after a fast can also be very dangerous, as it puts huge strain on the digestive system. One man whose story was featured in (Un)Well died during refeeding after a 28-day water fast.
Studies of extreme fasting and its health effects are hard to find. One published in BMC complementary and alternative medicine in 2018 found that water-only fasts often only have mild or moderate side effects, including thirst, but it only looked at short-term fasting, for two days. Another published in PLoS One in 2019 found that patients who fasted for between four and 21 days rated their physical health as "better" while fasting, but didn't look at how their bodies reacted long-term.
Christy Harrison RD CDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, was one of the experts consulted by (Un)Well. "I decided to participate in (Un)Well because I wanted to help warn viewers about the dangers of fasting, and I knew that the fasting proponents featured in the series likely wouldn’t be discussing these risks," she says. "I’ve seen far too many people have their lives and their well-being deeply damaged by fasting and other disordered behaviors." Long-term extreme fasting, she says, can increase peoples' risk of osteoporosis, as well reproductive, thyroid and heart problems.
Extreme fasting can also lead to disordered eating. "Dieting significantly increases the risk of developing an eating disorder," Richards says. "Perversely, the more punishing the diet, the greater the sense of achievement." Langer says that treating food "like it's off-limits" can do lasting long-term psychological damage. A journalist in Un(Well) found that his focus on "hacking" his body meant he'd developed eating disorder symptoms.
Managing health conditions that don't respond to conventional medicine can be enormously frustrating, but as (Un)Well notes, unproven therapies can be dangerous.
Phillip J. Baker Ph.D.
Christy Harrison RD CDN
Michael Kornberg, M.D., Ph.D
Abby Langer RD
Lorna Richards MBChB
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