The Oprah-fication Of Medicine

How does Oprah do it? Easy (for her, at least). She makes stars of woo-meisters by featuring them on her show and giving them her stamp of approval, that’s how. Indeed, there was a documentary on the other night that I missed called The Oprah Effect. While not specifically about Oprah’s promotion of pseudoscience, happily it appears not to shy away from it, either. The basic structure of the documentary is to examine what happened to three business after they were mentioned on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Not surprisingly, their sales went through the roof, and apparently the documentary derives much of its interest and drama from how each company reacted to sudden fame and skyrocketing business. However, the Oprah Effect affects far more than companies she may feature on her show or books that she features on Oprah’s Book Club, a regular feature that can make a bestseller out of an obscure book by an even more obscure author. The Oprah Effect also includes her favorites and proteges, and, sadly, most of those people are not particularly science-based in their recommendations about medicine. Indeed, some of them are into dangerous medical practices and quackery, and Oprah gives them the stamp of approval.

The Oprah Winfrey Show and the promotion of pseudoscience

Over the years, Oprah has promoted a wide variety of dubious medical practices, pseudoscience, and mysticism on her show. Indeed, just this week, NEWSWEEK ran a long article (excerpts of which I will quote but which you should read in its entirety) entitled Live Your Best Life Ever! Wish Away Cancer! Get A Lunchtime Face-Lift! Eradicate Autism! Turn Back The Clock! Thin Your Thighs! Cure Menopause! Harness Positive Energy! Erase Wrinkles! Banish Obesity! Live Your Best Life Ever! (Indeed, the article was a big part of my impetus to write about the Oprah-fication of America.) It reveals just how forcefully Oprah and her credulous belief in New Age nonsense are reflected in her show. It starts with the example of Suzanne Somers, whom I’ve mentioned before because of her belief that alternative medicine cured her of her breast cancer:

In January, Oprah Winfrey invited Suzanne Somers on her show to share her unusual secrets to staying young. Each morning, the 62-year-old actress and self-help author rubs a potent estrogen cream into the skin on her arm. She smears progesterone on her other arm two weeks a month. And once a day, she uses a syringe to inject estrogen directly into her vagina. The idea is to use these unregulated “bio-identical” hormones to restore her levels back to what they were when she was in her 30s, thus fooling her body into thinking she’s a younger woman. According to Somers, the hormones, which are synthesized from plants instead of the usual mare’s urine (disgusting but true), are all natural and, unlike conventional hormones, virtually risk-free (not even close to true, but we’ll get to that in a minute).

Next come the pills. She swallows 60 vitamins and other preparations every day. “I take about 40 supplements in the morning,” she told Oprah, “and then, before I go to bed, I try to remember … to start taking the last 20.” She didn’t go into it on the show, but in her books she says that she also starts each day by giving herself injections of human growth hormone, vitamin B12 and vitamin B complex. In addition, she wears “nanotechnology patches” to help her sleep, lose weight and promote “overall detoxification.” If she drinks wine, she goes to her doctor to rejuvenate her liver with an intravenous drip of vitamin C. If she’s exposed to cigarette smoke, she has her blood chemically cleaned with chelation therapy. In the time that’s left over, she eats right and exercises, and relieves stress by standing on her head. Somers makes astounding claims about the ability of hormones to treat almost anything that ails the female body. She believes they block disease and will double her life span. “I know I look like some kind of freak and fanatic,” she said. “But I want to be there until I’m 110, and I’m going to do what I have to do to get there.”

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