What is the science behind The Goop Lab's claims?

By Joshua Haigh
Health reporter

  • Published
Gwyneth Paltrow getting a 'vampire facial'Image source, Netflix
Image caption,
Gwyneth Paltrow's Netflix series has caused a stir

Gwyneth Paltrow has faced a wave of criticism over claims made in her controversial Netflix series, The Goop Lab.

The six-part show explores the effectiveness of alternative therapies for numerous physical and mental illnesses.

Many clips from the series have been derided on social media and NHS chief executive Simon Stevens has said it poses a "considerable health risk" to the public.

We have enlisted the help of experts and real-life case studies to take a closer look at whether the intense backlash over some of the show's biggest claims has been entirely justified.

'Energy healing'

Paltrow enlists the help of "body worker" and chiropractor John Amaral to showcase his "energy exorcism" treatment, which he suggests can release stress and trauma.

The practice of energy healing is based around the theory physical and mental ailments can be treated by manipulating the "energy field" around a person's body.

Currently, there is no scientific evidence proving such energy exists.

A video of dancer Julianne Hough, who also appears in the Goop Lab, contorting her body and making loud noises while experiencing a so-called "energy exorcism", went viral on social media shortly after the show hit Netflix in January.

Paltrow decides to undergo the practice herself. She claims afterwards it helped cure her of trauma related to the emergency Caesarean section she'd had when her daughter, Apple, was born.

Image source, Netflix

Mr Amaral's claims are widely criticised by the scientific community.

His suggestion, quantum physics' "double-slit" theory, which states the act of observing a particle has an effect on its behaviour, proves a person's "energy field" can be manipulated has angered many within the field.

And Philip Moriarty, a professor of physics at Nottingham University, told BBC News Mr Amaral's attempts to relate the theory to his practices were "pure and utter nonsense".

Variations of energy healing have existed for centuries in cultures across the world, although it rose to popularity in the West following the emergence of reiki in Japan in the late 1800s.

Reiki is based on an Eastern belief a person can release energy from themselves to facilitate healing in others.

NHS patients have previously been offered the treatment as part of a research scheme and it is regularly used to help promote relaxation in cancer patients.

However, controlled studies exploring its effects have been largely inconclusive.

Certified "reiki master" NEO 10Y says: "As we learn more about energy healing and the theory behind it, people are beginning to rediscover these ancient forms of therapy, with many saying they are helping to improve their quality of life."

Cold exposure therapy

In another episode of the series, Paltrow sends a group of her employees to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, to experience the Wim Hof method.

The practice is based on a combination of extreme-cold therapy and specialised breathing techniques.

Mr Wim Hof, a Dutch-born extreme athlete, claims his method has a range of health benefits that include, but are not limited to, hormone balancing, stress reduction and a boosted immune response.

After a day of learning specific breathing techniques, the Goop team are challenged to jump into the lake's ice-cold water.

"Cold water is a great way to learn to deal with stress," he tells them. "If you learn how to breathe deep, you can go into the cold water and adapt. You become the alchemist of life itself."

After emerging from the lake the group unanimously agree the breathing techniques helped them conquer the freezing temperatures and numerous studies appear to back up their conclusion.

There is some science behind Mr Hof's claims.

In 2014, researcher Dr Matthijs Kox and professor of experimental intensive care medicine Peter Pickkers tested Mr Hof's method, giving subjects an injection designed to induce flu-like symptoms.

Image source, Netflix

Those who had been trained in the Wim Hof method showed fewer symptoms and appeared to demonstrate an ability to control their nervous system's response.

A second study conducted by Wayne State University School of Medicine professors Otto Muzik and Vaibhav Diwadkar, in 2018, had a similar outcome.

"Through extensive practice of his suite of breathing and cold exposure techniques, he has modified how key areas of his brain respond to cold," Dr Diwadkar told BBC News.

"The ability to 'activate' such deep brain regions may have positive effects in areas relating to psychological imbalances relating to mood and anxiety and physiological processes related to autoimmune disease.

"Of course, techniques that do not fall within the domain of traditional medicine deserve the same degree of scientific evaluation and scrutiny as those that do."

Many studies had already suggested cold-water therapy could help patients with post-operative pain, as well as providing "instant" pain relief.

However, cold-water swimming can be very dangerous - and there is a significant risk of hypothermia when not done in a controlled setting.

There is also a risk from the body's acute cold shock response, which may affect the arm muscles while swimming and can lead to incapacitation and potential drowning within minutes if unsupervised.

Psychedelic drugs

Paltrow gives some of her team the chance to travel to Jamaica to take mushrooms in an effort to heal personal trauma and alleviate anxiety symptoms.

After drinking mushroom-infused tea, the group spent the next few hours experiencing a wave of emotional highs and lows in a controlled situation while surrounded by therapists.

Following the completion of the treatment, Paltrow's personal assistant, Kevin Keating, called his experience "life-changing".

Image source, Netflix

The use of psychedelics for therapeutic purposes has increased in recent years, with continuing studies in the US and the UK exploring their short-term and long-term impact on mental health disorders.

They have so far been linked to having potentially positive effects related to the treatment of addiction, anxiety related to terminal illness, chronic PTSD, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social anxiety.

At the beginning of 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the go-ahead for the US's first MDMA-assisted (ecstasy) psychotherapy trials.

"A push into new treatments to bring about the next breakthroughs in mental heath is long overdue," therapist Sally Baker told BBC Mews.

"It's frustrating to see mainstream NHS approaches to trauma relying on talking therapy or CBT [cognitive behaviour therapy] alone when other therapy modalities are more effective, in shorter time scales."

A woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told BBC News MDMA therapy had helped her piece her life back together following a traumatic divorce that saw her admitted to hospital three times in five years.

"I've really made huge progress from a therapeutic point of view and I've gained in confidence. I'm less depressed and much better equipped to cope with difficulties," she said.

"It's helped me identify deep, painful wounds and slowly start healing them."

Paltrow also explored the alleged advantages of "microdosing", which involves taking a minute dosage of drugs such as mushrooms or LSD in order to trigger their alleged therapeutic benefits without experiencing the disruptive effects associated with higher dosages.

Both LSD and magic mushrooms, the drugs most commonly used to microdose, are illegal Class-A drugs, with a maximum sentence of seven years in prison for possession.

One of the first studies of the phenomenon, in 2019, tracked 98 microdosers.

While it found little to no evidence of participants experiencing increased life satisfaction, researchers indicated there were lower levels of stress and depression reported.

The use of such powerful psychedelics outside of a controlled environment and without the proper medical expertise is not recommended by medical professionals.