We’ve talked a lot about subpar medical practices throughout history on this blog, and it seems like Ivan the Terrible’s notorious temper was caused by mercury ointments he used to soothe his joint pain. Mercury was the buzziest medical ingredient of the time, and while we aren’t rushing to apply known neurotoxins to our extremities today, we still often fall victim to pseudoscience.
Instead of witch doctors or slick salesmen, today’s snake oils come from more refined sources; the former Bachelor contestant slinging Sugar Bear Hair pills on your Instagram; your clean-eating coworker who swears that golden milk lattes keep her out of the doctor’s office; or the lifestyle blogger who claims their trip to an oxygen bar was life changing. Well-marketed, aesthetically pleasing, and associated with an aspirational lifestyle, “wellness” is renewing interest in natural remedies and new age medicine. While not a bad thing on its own, the lack of evidence to back up claims about the supposedly miraculous effects these wellness products have on the body, combined with their eyebrow-raising prices, raises red flags.
Before you start buying collagen peptide and charcoal powder for everyone on your holiday shopping list, let’s take a look at one of the most controversial wellness trends: crystals.
GOOP I Did it Again
To understand how crystals became so big, we have to look to the woman who put them on the mainstream map. Gwenyth Paltrow’s lifestyle blog and store, goop, popularized the use of crystals, favored in new age and alternative healing circles, for a whole new demographic; her base of well-off, health-conscious women. The online goop store features crystals in many forms under the “wellness category”; reusable straws, water bottles, jewelry and more, intermingled with a disturbing assortment of sex toys and herbal supplements.
In trying to understand what exactly the fuss is with these geological formations, I had to read a mind blowing amount of BS. According to supposedly science-focused shaman Colleen McCann, this is why crystals are so healing (I have to copy and paste because it just must be read in full):
“This is where science and mysticism intersect: Crystals are millions of years old and were forged during the earliest part of the earth’s formation. I think of crystals as a timeless database of knowledge, because they retain all the information they have ever been exposed to. Crystals absorb information—whether a severe weather pattern, or the experience of an ancient ceremony—and pass it to anyone that comes into contact with them.
Scientifically, crystals are the most orderly structure that exists in nature, meaning they have the lowest amount of entropy (a measurement of disorder). Crystals are structured in such a way that they respond to the inputs of all different energies around them, so they oscillate, emitting specific vibratory frequencies. The way they are balanced, the frequencies they emit, and their ability to store a tremendous amount of information makes crystals essential to modern technologies. This is why there are crystals in computers, TVs, cell phones, satellites, and so on.”
That was a lot, so let’s break it down. First, real crystals are old (many for sale are often fakes). And while weather certainly shapes the physical characteristics of crystals, the idea that these geodes are able to store information and then transfer that energy is purely mystical. Second, quartz crystals do have a highly ordered structure in which one silicon atom is connected to four oxygens, forming what’s called a tetrahedron. Each tetrahedron is then connected to four other tetrahedrons. And entropy is considered a measurement of thermodynamic order, in particular, the distribution of energy among the molecules making up a material. However, we shouldn’t think about entropy in anthropomorphized terms of order and chaos. In other words, contact with something with low entropy won’t make you less “disorganized”. Finally, crystals are a valuable component in modern electronics. When placed in a circuit, they are able to change shape and produce an electrical signal with a constant frequency. However, this is a specific property of crystals in electric circuits, not the decorative one that sits on your desk. And even if crystals did produce oscillations, their supposed health benefit would presume that your body is emitting waves of energy in accordance with your physiological state, which is another new age theory not backed by science.
Despite the dearth of evidence, goop, under the scientific direction of MIT PhD Gerda Endemann, has promoted the healing powers of crystals. Earlier this year, the website settled a lawsuit for $145,000 for making unfounded health claims. A particularly infamous assertion was that a $66 jade egg placed, bear with me, in one’s vagina, could be used to “balance hormones, regulate menstrual cycles, prevent uterine prolapse, and increase bladder control”. The FDA would beg to differ. So now when you go on goop’s website, you are frequently met with disclaimers that, “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” But critics have pointed out that the blog has continued to toe the line of misleading readers, and is especially problematic because it wedges pseudoscience between accurate articles, like those about the skin microbiome and intermittent fasting.
In response to these criticisms, Dr. Endemann said in an interview with MIT’s Undark, “I mean, I’m not saying that every single thing that would have been ever published at Goop that I’ve even seen — I think is perfect. But I think it’s fun.” I would argue that when it comes to people’s health, something better be more than fun before you throw your PhD behind it.
Last month, the craze over energies and rocks made it into mainstream science when a group of scientists from the University of Pittsburgh published a paper in Science of the Total Environment proposing that COVID could be caused by magnetic disturbances and therefore could be prevented by wearing jade amulets. Basically, some lab mice died unexpectedly, and when Dr. Moses Bility did an autopsy, he notced changes in these mice similar to those seen in people who vape . He hypothesized that metallic particles in the lungs (seen in people who vape) interact with magnetic fields, causing biochemical disturbances that damage organs. Then more of his mice died also unexpectedly in the spring at the same time that COVID cases spiked. So Bility made the huge leap that magnetic changes related to the spring equinox caused disturbances in the body, leading to disease that was attributed to the coronavirus (which he also claims just exists in our DNA but isn’t actually making us sick). And then made an even bigger leap that jade amulets, used in traditional Chinese medicine, could thus be used to prevent COVID by blocking the effects of magnetic fields on the body’s chemistry.
I think this just instinctively sounds wrong, but luckily, some very smart people have pointed out what’s actually wrong with this theory, like the fact that magnetic fields from the earth’s core wouldn’t be strong enough to have the proposed biological effects and jade isn’t strong enough to offset the magnetic fields that could cause these types of health problems. Johns Hopkins’ very own Dr. Kenneth Witwer was one of the first people to criticize the paper, and pointed out that the mice that got sick were restricted to a specific area of the animal facility. Had they really been killed by magnetic changes in the earth’s core, mice in every area of the facility should have been affected. It’s therefore much more likely that some sort of infection caused the restricted illness seen in Bility’s mice. The paper has been retracted and the first author plans to resubmit a heavily revised version, but I’m sure it’s already made the rounds on Facebook.
Lest we think we are smarter than the mercury acolytes of Ivan the Terrible’s age, we need only to log onto Pinterest to remember how often we cling to remedies without any supporting evidence. I’m not against homeopathic medicine or a healthy curiosity in alternative medicine (peppermint essential oil is a must for my migraines), but I am against pseudoscience. So I just urge you to do your homework into anything you do for your health and to keep jade out of all your orifices.
Lastly, ULTC is officially taking our holiday break! We wish you and yours a happy and healthy holiday. Subscribe and follow us so that you know as soon as we’re back. Can’t wait to see you in the new year!
A modern lifestyle brand. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://goop.com/
Keim, R. (n.d.). What Exactly Is a Quartz Crystal, Anyways? A Look at Quartz Crystal Oscillators – Technical Articles. Retrieved from https://www.allaboutcircuits.com/technical-articles/what-exactly-is-a-quartz-crystal-anyways/
Lawson Cockcroft, G. W. (2009, July 01). What is entropy? Retrieved from https://edu.rsc.org/feature/what-is-entropy/2020274.article
Mole, B. (2020, February 03). Goop accused of more deceptive health claims, violating court order. Retrieved from https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/02/goop-violating-court-order-with-yet-more-bogus-health-claims-watchdog-says/
Quartz. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://virtual-museum.soils.wisc.edu/display/quartz/
Schulson 03.09.2020, M., Lovett 08.06.2020, B., & Schulson 01.13.2020, M. (2020, March 09). Interview: Goop’s Chief Scientist On … Goop and Science. Retrieved from https://undark.org/2020/03/09/interview-goops-chief-scientist-on-goop-and-science/
Williams, S. (n.d.). Paper Proposing COVID-19, Magnetism Link to Be Retracted. Retrieved from https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/paper-proposing-covid-19-magnetism-link-to-be-retracted-68126