The Year in Review, Part 2: Celebrity Health & Wellness Fads

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Cupping and cleanses, detox diets and coconut water, kombucha tea and salvia were all associated with celebrities this year including Gwyneth Paltrow, Lindsay Lohan, Kim Kardashian, Demi Moore, Beyonce, Paris Hilton and Victoria Beckham. Only one of these substances or practices has any scientific research to back it up. Do you know which one?

1. Kombucha Tea

Kombucha tea is part of the dietary regimens of multiple Hollywood actresses and entertainers including Gwyneth Paltrow, Kirsten Dunst, Lindsay Lohan, Madonna, Halle Berry, Meg Ryan, Anna Paquin, Cher, Barbara Streisand, Alec Baldwin and Susan Sarandon.

Kombucha is a form of black tea and sugar that is fermented using a combination of bacterial and fungal cultures that form a “mushroom” on top of the fermentation vessel.  It originated in China thousands of years ago, eventually spreading to Europe, and is today becoming increasingly popular through celebrity use and endorsement in the U.S. and U.K. Many home brew recipes for making kombucha may be found on the Internet but it is also manufactured and sold by companies such as Synergy Drinks.

The claims for its medicinal value are as far-reaching as they are implausible and include uses for aging, anorexia, arthritis, atherosclerosis, cancer, constipation, diabetes, gallbladder disease, gout, hemorrhoids, hair growth and color restoration, headache, hypertension, HIV, immune boosting, indigestion, increased vitality, treatment of alcohol and coffee addictions and wrinkle reduction. There is little or no evidence to support any of these claims.

At one time Whole Foods removed kombucha drinks from its store shelves because they can contain a small amount of alcohol as a product of the fermentation process. This fact was used as a possible explanation for why actress Lindsay Lohan’s alcohol-monitoring (SCRAM) bracelet was activated even though she insisted that she had obeyed court orders not to drink alcoholic beverages. 

2. Coconut Water

This year’s summer drink for health-conscious celebrities was coconut water. Madonna, Demi Moore, Kim Kardashian, Molly Sims, Heidi Klum and Brooke Shields were all spotted sipping the beverage. Coconut water is the clear liquid inside young coconuts. As the fruit matures, the coconut water gradually is replaced by the coconut meat and air.

Companies that make and sell various brands of coconut have made all sorts of claims for it as a health elixir. These include: boosting the immune system, dissolving kidney stones and increasing sexual libido.  There is no scientific evidence to support any of these claims. One research study concluded that sodium-enriched, fresh, young coconut water is “as good as ingesting a commercial sports drink for whole body rehydration after exercise-induced dehydration but with better fluid tolerance.”

3. Salvia

A TMZ video of 18 year old Miley Cyrus taking bong hits of the Mexican sage, Salvia divinorum has has brought a new wave of publicity to this ancient folk remedy. Salvia means “to heal” and divinorum means “divination” reflecting its traditional uses by Mazatec healers or shamans in Oxaxaca, Mexico.

Smoking Salvia produces intense hallucinations, typically described as “separation from the body” or “experiencing another reality” within minutes of ingestion, and its effects can last up to an hour. Although legal in many states, some legislators would like to see it reclassified as a controlled substance. The naturally-occurring chemicals in the leaves are being scientifically studied as potential drugs for a variety of diseases including depression and diarrhea, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

4. Cupping

Cupping is the process of applying a a heated cup to the skin to create a slight suction. Cupping is a form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) which is based on the yin-yang concept and a vital energy or life force called qi (or chi) that is said to circulate in the body along meridians. The basic idea behind cupping therapy is that the suction relieves “stagnation” and improves the flow of qi.

Unlike most of the other health fads discussed here, cupping has been subjected to a considerable amount of scientific investigation. The conclusions so far are that while cupping has no serious side effects, neither does it have proven benefits for any medical or health condition.

Cupping therapy was popular among a number of celebs this year including Gwyneth Paltrow, Paris Hilton, Victoria Beckham and Jessica Simpson. Ms. Paltrow was photographed with the tell-tale rings on her back, pictured in the photo at the top of the page.  In June, Ms. Simpson tweeted: “Has anyone ever tried cupping? When u know you are doing something good for ur body the meditation creates intense visions. Love it!”

5. Detox Diets & Cleanses

Among the celebrities who used and/or promoted various cleansing or detox regimens were Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Beyonce, Blair Underwood and especially Gwyneth Paltrow. Health claims derive from the belief that many chronic medical conditions occur when the body becomes a victim to a build up of “toxins.”

As Dr. Alejandro Junger, designer of the Clean detox program, said: “When our systems are overtaxed, they begin to break down in a multitude of ways. Allergies, headaches, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, fatigue, weight gain and insomnia are just a few of the symptoms that can result. The majority of these common ailments are the direct result of toxin build-up in our systems that has accumulated during the course of our daily lives.” Most mainstream physicians, such as Complementary and Alternative Medicine expert, Dr. Edzard Ernst (pictured) say that this is nonsense and there’s only one substance reliably removed from people using detox/cleanses: “Money from their bank accounts.”

Additional reference: Most useless celebrity-inspired health therapies

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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