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Extreme wellness and placebo

Extreme wellness: how much is just placebo?


TextDouglas Greenwood

From the HumanCharger to sensory deprivation tanks, we examine the role of placebo in extreme wellness

Welcome to the Dazed Beauty Digital Spa. From the role of placebo in extreme wellness to the problem with our cannabis obsession, here we explore the complexities of the wellness industry and how it might evolve.

What happens when we’re forced to choose between accepting hard facts and the freedom to dream a little? For many, self-care and mindfulness have arrived at the perfect time for our generation: when the hard-to-decipher nature of modern living has forced us to escape into a quiet space, a place where everything is supposed to make sense. But what if, when we get there, it doesn’t?

Enter the new world of ‘Extreme Wellness’, where massages, long walks on the beach and getting a good night’s sleep are amped up to a thousand so that the logical nature of those tried and tested practises becomes skewed.

On paper, many of these techniques – like the ‘HumanCharger’ and ‘Cryotherapy’ (more on these later) – sound ludicrous and farfetched; others, at best, seem like roundabout, expensive ways of tackling problems that are easily solved by services provided by the NHS; or, even more conveniently, with a 16 pence pack of aspirin from Boots. The extent to which wellness has been amplified isn’t surprising, considering fad trends are part and parcel of how this generation, fucked up by the baby boomers who came before us, are navigating the world in an attempt to make some sort of sense of it.

Take that aforementioned HumanCharger as an example. A device that looks like a second generation iPod Nano, it claims to reduce fatigue, jetlag and seasonal depression by beaming light into your ears instead of, I don’t know, the Black Eyed Peas or one of Fergie’s solo efforts. Retailing at $220, it claims that these lights affect the neurotransmitters in your brain, thus affecting your levels of dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline.

On paper, devices like the HumanCharger look like Dragon’s Den rejects; the kind of thing Deborah Meaden scoffs and shakes her head at. But there are people out there – plenty of them – who attest to it having changed their lives. A regular sufferer of jet lag due to the transatlantic nature of her job, Cindy Bajema is a US expat living in Poland. “I heard about it on a writer’s podcast,” she tells Dazed Beauty. “Someone mentioned that they used it to give them a little brain boost in the morning and that it was supposed to be good for jet lag. My ears perked up at that because I travel long distances often, and was always looking for something to help.” Cindy was unphased by the idea of it potentially being just a case of clever marketing or a means of capitalising on false hope, and so shelled out the costly RRP. “I can’t explain it, but it works! I get a little burst of mental energy, or ‘awakeness’, if you will. It’s not like caffeine, and it doesn’t keep me awake when I want to sleep, but it helps me to get through that jet lag slump-fatigue-fog.”

"there’s nothing we want more than the numbing sensation of nothing at all"

The science behind it, according to a study by the University of Oulu in Finland, is that the human brain is receptive to light in the same way that our eyes are, and that it reaches our Substantia Nigra: the area of the brain where dopamine is produced. But what it doesn’t say is what kind of effect that has, positive or negative, purely that the brain recognises light. The simple consensus from the study, painted to be construed as proof, on the HumanCharger website reads: "The human brain, per se, is sensitive to light”. But there’s another layer to that. The scientific research conducted by the University of Oulu was always supervised or commissioned by Valkee, the parent company of the HumanCharger. Can you really trust the veracity of a scientific study when the product’s creator was one of the consultants on it? But then the HumanCharger did help Cindy. And it’s helped others.

What about something like sensory deprivation, known better as extreme relaxation? While most seem to believe that an act of doing is what makes us better people, what happens if you do the direct opposite, and enlighten yourself by doing absolutely fuck all? Pioneered by a Minnesota-born scientist John C. Lilly in 1951, these sensory deprivation tanks were initially used by Lilly to study the brainwave patterns of psychotherapy subjects rather than help people to switch off. Scientists would fill these tanks, called isolation tanks, with Epsom salts to allow the subject to float weightlessly in the water and plummet them into darkness.

Nowadays though, there’s nothing we want more than the numbing sensation of nothing at all, and so Flotation-REST (restricted environmental stimulation technique), as it’s now called, is seen as a surefire way to fully switch off from the world for just £50 per session. According to the companies who now sell these treatments as a bougie form of health therapy out of large cosmopolitan cities like New York and London, they’re believed to help release positive endorphins, treat bone and muscle diseases, and reduce levels of stress.

So does it work? According to this Swedish study, while Flotation REST sessions had the ability to reduce the levels of noradrenaline in our system (the chemical that triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response) for a short period, they didn’t do much to affect our endorphin levels. In short, they make us more relaxed, but not necessarily happier.

"Among miraculous methods like this, we have to ask if there’s also a possibility that their success is put down to a placebo effect"

The same could be said for cryotherapy too. Ironically, it’s a procedure made famous by age-old urban legends, like when Walt Disney was rumoured to have been frozen before his death so he could be resurrected centuries later. But cryogenic therapy is no longer a mystical subject of Snopes dissection, it’s become the latest in a line of techniques to help both athletes and everyday people (prices start at around £50 for a 15-minute session) feel rejuvenated. Supposedly stress-reducing and body-healing, the procedure involves standing pretty much starkers in a tank that rapidly reduces in temperature to –130℃. “It tricks the body into thinking it's going into hypothermia, but it’s not,” Maria Ensabella, the founder of LondonCryo, a cryotherapy centre in the capital told Dazed Beauty. “It’s so the brain can send a message to the bloodstream to rush to the internal organs to protect them. Once there, it gets reoxygenated, replenishes its nutrients and releases endorphins.” Clients undergo this process for three minutes before being brought back up to normal body temperature. In the site’s testimonials, everybody from Calum Best (who said that afterwards his “mind felt sharp”) to Team GB athlete Perri Shakes Drayton (who said it gave her the “feel good factor”) attest to the method’s brilliance.

On a scientific level, there is proof that cryotherapy does have a positive effect on our bodies. Studies in sports medicine show it’s useful as a pain reductor for injuries and reconstructive surgery. There’s also a rare study by Wrocław University in Poland that yielded positive results when a group of subjects suffering from depression underwent cryotherapy. The report states that “the worse the mental state of the patients is prior to the cryotherapy, the stronger its effect.”

But among miraculous methods like this, we have to ask if there’s also a possibility that their success is put down to a placebo effect: a sign that our minds will be altered by the mere idea of something helping us, rather than having a medical and measurable effect. When I ask Maria her thoughts on this, she says: “All I can tell you is after serving thousands of clients, everyone leaves feeling amazing.”

And she’s right to use that as a rebuttal. For HumanCharger user Cindy, she always acknowledged that the placebo effect was a possibility in her own success story: “I’ve tried enough other supposed jet lag cures that didn’t have an effect at all. Also, I tend to think that the placebo effect comes into play more when you are excited about having a ‘eureka!’ type solution - I just figured it was worth a shot.” So it wouldn’t matter if the jet lag’s expensive route to self-care was all a bit of BS, so long as it made Cindy feel better? “Exactly,” she says. “It helps. I’m happy.”

“In so far as the placebo effect has the power to heal the body and alleviate suffering, then I consider it medicine" -  Scott Carney

But Ben, a creative consultant from London, questions that. He too tried out the HumanCharger after seeing it listed as part of a wellness CEO’s ridiculous morning routine in an article that went viral earlier in the year, but found that its results were far from earth-shifting. “Hot ear,” he tells Dazed Beauty, reciting the results he noted down after trying it out to combat his mild seasonal affective disorder. “There was no discernible change [to my mood]. There are other things I do that I believe in, but part of the HumanCharger makes me think: is just an LED light on a string? Is that enough to affect neuroscience?” He approached with equal doses of cynicism and optimism, which perhaps explains why the placebo effect – if it applies in this case – didn’t kick into gear.

Writer and investigative journalist Scott Carney is someone who believes in the powers of extreme wellness methods. He learned almost everything he knows about it from Wim Hof, a Dutch athlete who mastered a breathing technique to survive in freezing waters. Wim holds the world record for completing a barefoot half marathon over ice and snow; he, like Scott, believes that these extreme exposures can help us deal with stress and anxiety in the real world.

But, Scott also believes that the placebo effect is such a worthy component in anybody’s journey towards a more content lifestyle. “In so far as the placebo effect has the power to heal the body and alleviate suffering, then I consider it medicine,” he told Dazed Beauty. “According to most medical studies, the power of placebos accounts for between 5% and 80% of the healing power of the medicines that doctors prescribe. If we spent as much clinical research trying to enhance the power of placebos then we might develop entirely new healing modalities.”

That’s an interesting question: if these extreme and expensive wellness techniques go from niche to the mainstream, could we develop a whole new world of healing based on the power of placebo (if indeed that is what they’re based on). Moreover, could we eradicate all of these expensive searches for satisfaction and inner happiness and just focus on something free instead? Well, probably not. When you’re forking out over £200 for treatments that resemble laser-beam AirPods and £50 for salty baths in darkness, we want them to work in order for us to not feel like we’ve been mercilessly ripped off. For as long as these wellness techniques – be they miracle cures or not – have the placebo effect to fall back on, it seems likely that our millennial, internet-bred savviness will consciously turn a blind eye to an industry built on the comforting beauty of what could be nothing more than bullshit.

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