So Gwenyth Paltrow wrote 3 sentences on her blog about a procedure done at a spa in LA. For that, dozens of web blogs, thousands of commenters and even the Guardian of London has chimed in to criticize her for her audacity in mentioning such an unscientific procedure in a positive light. The words that brought thousands to criticize and lampoon her are these:
"[T]he real golden ticket here is the Mugworth V-Steam: You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al. It is an energetic release—not just a steam douche—that balances female hormone levels. If you’re in LA, you have to do it.
Worth the chorus of condemnation? Pu-leeeez. The first point is that there is, in fact, science that suggests the therapy might not be useless. The criticism of "no scientific evidence" is leveled by those who are either unfamiliar with doing scientific research, or who simply parrot the same statement made by others.
A second point is that, even if there were no beneficial effect at all for female health, the worst Gwenyth has done is advocate a benign process that likely has the benefit of relaxation. Relaxation itself has a wide range of scientifically documented health benefits, not the least of which is the hormone-balancing effect of lowering the stress hormone cortisol.
Let's look at some additional scientific support for Gwenyth's supposed heresy.
Exposure to infrared light of the type used at the spa she mentioned has documented health benefits (see here and here and here). In fact there is good reason to think that infrared light has a range of health benefits that scientists are only now beginning to understand. Based on the revolutionary work of Dr. Gerald Pollack at the University of Washington, it seems that far infrared light has a powerful organizing effect on water with our bodies. But that's for another blog.
Gwenyth's greatest sin was apparently in her final comment: the therapy balances hormones. That has been the focus of much criticism. Was she wrong? Note that the second linked study above found that women with PMS and symptoms around their menses (dysmenorrhea) significantly benefited from exposure to far-infrared light. In addition, relaxation dramatically improves hot flash symptoms in menopausal women. Perhaps the critics have a good explanation for how these improvements happened without positively impacting hormones.
Is mugwort (artemisia) an important addition to the therapy? Maybe, we don't know. The therapies of Chinese medicine are extensively studied in China and almost as extensively ridiculed in the West. Mugwort is known in both East and West for having a wide range of benefits. It is strongly antimicrobial, including significant inhibition of yeast growth.
Another study, conducted in Korea, found that artemisia significantly inhibited the growth of the pathogenic bacteria Staph aureus, but had no inhibition on the healthy Lactobacillus bacteria, a great combination with respect to vaginal health. Both bacteria in this study were isolated from women's vaginal canals. Another study, this time in mice, found that an artemisia extract reduced inflammation and got rid of bacterial vaginosis.
Are these findings relevant to this pelvic therapy for women? Certainly no one can say, with scientific backing, that they aren't.
And speaking of advocating therapies that have no evidence of benefit, doctors do that same thing millions of time each year. To take just one of many examples, prescriptions for antidepressants for people diagnosed with mild or moderate depression are widespread. Yet a comprehensive review of that therapy in 2010 stated it clearly:
"The magnitude of benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo ... may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms."
But of course those placebos are recommended by doctors, not health advocates, so it is a socially acceptable deception.
The guard dogs of "science" will pounce on anything that threatens dependence on orthodoxy, even on 3 sentences in a single paragraph reviewing services at a spa, sentences that actually stand with scientific support. It's too bad the same ire isn't aroused by the millions of useless prescriptions for antidepressants every year. That backlash would substantially improved many people's health.