alternative medicine, Bad History, doctors, Hippocrates, remedies, sex, womb

I can forgive Gwyneth for the jade eggs and mugwort, but not for this rubbish about Hippocrates…

Like many people, I find the claims of Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘modern lifestyle brand’ Goop pretty irritating. I was sufficiently cross about the claims for the benefits of vagina steaming that I wrote something for The Conversation about it. And I loved Dr Jen Gunter’s blog post about jade eggs and in particular the way Gunter gently breaks the news to Paltrow that ‘the uterus and vagina are different structures’; it’s amazing to me how many modern discussions don’t seem to have worked this out. I know you should never read the comments, but … in the comments on Gunter’s attack on jade eggs, several people seem to think they must be fine because they are allegedly ‘ancient’ and ‘Eastern’, that it’s wrong to diss the practices of ‘other cultures’ and that Gunter’s warnings about the possible risks of inserting jade eggs into the vagina, applying hot steam to it, etc show ‘lack of understanding about what works from other cultures’. So, using modern medical knowledge to challenge fringe practices is supposed to be wrong, and culturally insensitive.

Into the fray today came Jaya Saxena for Elle magazine. In an article called ‘I tried the Goop Jade Egg to awaken my sexual chakras or something’ she describes how she bought one and shares the instructions for use: soap and water, as well as a ‘spiritual’ cleaner like burning sage, which appears to be mixing the ‘it was used in ancient China so it must be good’ approach with a bit of Native American healing. After inserting the egg, she was surprised that it didn’t fall out, but suggested ‘There’s only one explanation for this: my vagina is swole as hell’. Saxena also notes that there’s a social divide here, between white women who can ‘sage their jade eggs’ and young people from the First Nations who aren’t allowed to take part in their ancestral rituals. Again, there’s something interesting here about cultural difference, although here the stress is on the way that rich white women glamorise the practices of ‘the Other’.

And now, Goop has fought back against criticism by bringing in its own medical experts. The site’s position seems to be that women are clever enough to make their own decisions; that it’s possible to synthesise eastern and western medical traditions; and that we don’t know it all yet. So far, so good, maybe.

But… whatever I think about all that, I can’t stand by while medical history is distorted to fit the Goop message! Here is one of their chosen medical experts, Dr Steven Gundry:

… fifteen years ago I resigned my position as Professor and Chairman of Cardiothoracic Surgery at a major medical school to devote myself to reversing disease with food and nutraceutical supplementation, instead of bypasses, stents, or medications, just like Hippocrates asked you and me to do when we took our oath: “Let food be thy medicine.” He also instructed that all disease begins in the gut. And finally, he taught that a physician’s job was to search out and remove the obstacles that are keeping the patient from healing themselves. For the last fifteen years, I’ve been doing just that …

Where do I start?

‘Hippocrates asked…’ Scholars today would say that no treatise in the Hippocratic corpus – the surviving classical Greek treatises on medicine – is by the historical Hippocrates. I wrote a short piece on this here. So he can’t be ‘asking’ us anything.

‘… you and me … when we took our oath’ As I pointed out in the article just mentioned, the Hippocratic Oath is not by Hippocrates. That’s just the name it has been given by tradition. And over time not all doctors have sworn it. And today, if it is sworn either at the beginning or the end of medical training, what is sworn or at least recited is likely to be a modern reworking of the ancient text.

‘Let food be thy medicine’… No. A thousand times, no. And no again. No because (1) those words are not in the Hippocratic Oath. Not in any version of it, taken today or taken in the past. And no because (2) there is no treatise in the Hippocratic Corpus which contains those words. That was demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt by Diana Cardenas in a 2013 article ‘Let not thy food be confused with thy medicine: the Hippocratic misquotation‘. In 2019 I wrote a book on modern (mis)uses of Hippocrates and included a whole chapter on this particular ‘no’: it’s free to read online here.

The appeal to Hippocrates, like the jade eggs and their alleged origin in ancient, secret Chinese practices, is an attempt to support a questionable practice by appealing to history. In this case, it’s the west rather than the east which is being used, but the structure of the argument is the same.

Just say ‘no’ to Bad History.

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