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The brain and body are intrinsically connected. Neural pathways composed of chemicals, hormones and neurotransmitters engage in a delicate dance to ensure that the body functions efficiently. The extent to which the brain and body are separate has been hotly debated by philosophers for centuries. Yet, it is widely accepted that whether or not they are considered distinct entities, the brain exists as a processing center to facilitate optimal bodily performance.

What if, however, a fact so universally accepted as the brain exists to help the body was disputed? What if advertising executives rebranded the brain as unreliable, inefficient and an adversary to the body? If the brain were marketed as split from the body it is designed to protect, consumers would have to look towards extrinsic sources to assist in their everyday human functions.

This phenomenon is precisely the foundation of the modern-day wellness industry. By selling products to optimize bodily activities like digestion, circulation and immune health with expensive products, retailers have created a body hierarchy with a direct correlation between money spent on personal care products and the “optimal body.” For large corporations, it’s the perfect formula to convince the public that their brain cannot effectively regulate their body. With Amazon selling antigenic reishi mushroom extract for $20 a pound and “wellness” in general having grown to a $4.5 trillion global industry, millions of people have already succumbed to the corporate narrative by buying products to maximize bodily efficiency in a futile effort to achieve the “optimal body.”

It is impossible to pinpoint which philosopher or company first nailed down the recipe for selling body optimization. Perhaps it was physician Halbert L. Dunn, who in 1961 coined the term “wellness” to describe external efforts for healthy living. At its genesis, the concept of bodily wellness was an oral tradition cited as early as 3000 B.C.E. in the Hindu sacred texts, the Vedas. Wellness also has origins in ancient Chinese medicinal systems. However, wellness, as it is practiced through Ayurveda on the Indian subcontinent and Taoist holistic medicine in China, is a far cry from the highly commercialized wellness economy that exists in America today.

While Ayurveda and Taoist holistic medicine emphasize harmony between the body and spirit, the wellness industry capitalizes on the premise that the human body is something to be optimized, purified and hacked. Currently valued at $702 billion, the “healthy eating, nutrition and weight loss” sector of the global wellness economy cherry-picks aspects of traditional wellness while disregarding the original science of human nutrition, often with dangerous effects.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has an actively updated archive of recalled products labeled “Health Fraud Scams.” Many of these documents reveal the impact of companies repackaging elements of traditional wellness without consulting a licensed Ayurvedic or traditional Chinese medicine professional.

In July 2022, the FDA issued a public notification warning consumers of the undeclared drug ingredients in 17 honey-based wellness products. While honey has been used for centuries and proven clinically effective in traditional Chinese medicine, illegal ingredients in the recalled products could “lower blood pressure to dangerous levels.”

In Southeast Asia, a naturally growing plant known as kratom has been traditionally used to enhance work productivity. However, in 2021, the FDA seized over 207,000 units of dietary supplements and ingredients containing kratom from a manufacturer in Fort Myers, Fla. Totaling approximately $1.3 million worth of products, the recalled supplements put consumers at risk of “respiratory depression, vomiting, nervousness, weight loss and constipation,” along with narcotic effects with associated withdrawal symptoms.

Even when they comply with FDA regulations, the proliferation of obscenely expensive edible wellness products has a profound socio-cultural impact. Overall, older members of Generation Z and younger Millennials are trending away from restrictive diet culture. However, while dangerously limiting food intake on hyper-restrictive diets is waning on a large scale, “wellness” has insidiously crept in to take its place.

Rather than advocating for outright food restriction, social media influencers and wellness brands are currently capitalizing on improving “gut health” by promoting non-FDA-approved supplements. Despite explicit guarantees that the suggested products support holistic wellness, weight loss and thinness remain ideals.

At the forefront of the recent “gut health” wellness trend is bone broth, which, like aloe vera — whose first recorded medicinal uses date back to Egyptian documents from 1550 B.C.E. — has been used in traditional wellness practice for centuries. In traditional Chinese medicine, bone broth is served to strengthen the kidneys and support healthy digestion. However, in the contemporary wellness economy, six-packs of bone broth “elixirs” sell for roughly $180. Instead of being used for medicinal purposes, “bone broth fasts” and “bone broth detoxes” have gained popularity as a repackaged form of dieting. Popular wellness brand OWL Venice offers a six-day bone broth Reset Cleanse for $380, where replacing meals with Mason jars of broth is promised to “work in synergy to provide a simple, powerful way to maintain your gut health and digestion.”

Renaming diets such as bone broth fasts, aloe vera juice cleanses and other “gut health” efforts as “wellness” is dangerous for three primary reasons. Firstly, as with all other facets of the wellness economy, many new edible wellness products are not scientifically substantiated, and as such are not approved by the FDA. Secondly, following wellness trends adds a moral imperative to restrict food intake for abstract holistic wellness goals, which adds even more mental stress. Finally, with 16-ounce jars of “wildcrafted and organic” sea moss gel selling for $33 and two-ounce jars of Ashwagandha spices for $23, wellness products are unaffordable for most people. Therefore, achieving a “maximally optimized” body with pristine gut health, digestion, circulation and immunity are reserved for the uber-rich, which further entrenches unrealistic body expectations and idealizes wealth and thinness.

With little oversight, massive recalls and thinly veiled fad diets, the contemporary wellness industry capitalizes on vague moral imperatives thoughtlessly lifted from centuries of traditional practice. Although the FDA has flagged some apparent wellness fraud, the psychological impact of unhealthy expectations hides in plain sight. As the wellness industry grows, consumers must stay vigilant against the dangers that lie in a $23 bottle.

Avery Crystal is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at averycr@umich.edu.