Manitoba·Q&A

Gynecologist wants women to 'close the browser' on trendy wellness advice

Celebrities promoting ways to supposedly enhance a woman's health are no better qualified than the person sitting next to you on a bus, says a Winnipeg-raised doctor and go-to expert online for debunking questionable wellness trends.

Winnipeg-born doctor has previously battled celebrities, including Gwyneth Paltrow, over unfounded online tips

Dr. Jen Gunter was born and raised in Winnipeg and is now an ob-gyn and pain medicine physician working in San Francisco. She describes herself on her blog as a fierce advocate for women's health. (Facebook)

In the midst of the mass of information that can be found online, one doctor in particular has taken it upon herself to speak out against questionable, or downright false, medical advice aimed at women.

Dr. Jen Gunter, a Winnipeg-born obstetrician-gynecologist, focuses specifically on celebrity wellness trends and unnecessary female hygiene products.

Last year, she gained some notoriety when she took on Gwyneth Paltrow and the actress' lifestyle brand, Goop, for promoting the practice of vagina steaming. She says this and similar trends can be both medically and psychologically harmful to women.

Gunter posts almost daily to her blog and Twitter, debunking celebrity wellness advice. She has quickly become known as the internet's resident ob-gyn.

She's returning to her hometown this week for a talk and Q&A with young women at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. She spoke with CBC News by phone from her home in San Francisco to explain why she fights celebrity advice. She also offered a few tips for avoiding harmful trends.

How prevalent is this kind of dangerous celebrity advice?

It's very prevalent. I mean celebrities sell everything, right?. But then there's this idea where they're selling some sort of health or wellness.

We all want to look like celebrities; they're gorgeous! So I can see the lure. But in general, their advice tends to be less good than [that of] somebody you'd be sitting next to on a bus from what I've seen. Because they're just interested in getting attention and ultimately in selling products, which means they have a bias.

That's a piece of advice that I give to everybody when they're researching information online: if that person is selling what they're talking about, close the browser and go somewhere else.

How do you keep up with all of the trends?

People send me a lot of stuff online. I have a large following on Twitter, so people are sending me stuff all the time. I'm really only scratching the surface, but it's really helpful because of my clinical practice.

I see women all the time with these concerns, so being ahead of the curve in terms of what people are talking about has been really helpful because I can head my patients off at the pass.

The trend that brought you into the public eye was vaginal steaming. What was that all about?

It's squatting over a pot of steaming allergens. It's one of these sort of scam-y, quasi-health products that's marketed under the idea that it's an ancient therapy, but really has nothing biologically plausible about it.

A lot of these products are aimed at women's health care and they cross over with a lot of, what I call, genital tract shaming, so they're not only potentially medically harmful, but they can be psychologically harmful too.

How can this be medically harmful?

People make claims and there's absolutely nothing to back them up.

With this one, the claim is that somehow you want to cleanse your uterus by sitting over a pot of steaming herbs, which you know is physically not possible. You obviously don't need to clean your uterus at all; you don't need to clean any of your internal organs. So there are those concerns. And then, the herbs that are recommended are related to ragweed, so that's a potential allergen. The vagina is a low-oxygen environment, so anything that could push air up there is actually not a good idea.

And how is it psychologically harmful?

As a women's health practitioner who has been specializing in vulva and vaginal conditions for over 25 years, I see many women who have this idea that somehow their normal genital tract is dirty and needs to be cleaned. This leads to women buying all kinds of over-the-counter products, like wipes and washes.

It's this idea that a normal genital tract needs to be tamed and that's not true, and it can lead [women] to do a lot of unnecessary things.

What are some of the other trends that concern you?

One of the things that's out there on the internet is the idea that somehow cotton tampons or natural tampons are somehow better for you, and there are absolutely no studies to back that up.

There is a very recent study that came out a couple of weeks ago that shows that they are not better at all for the prevention of toxic shock syndrome.

I want people to know that so they're not spending their money on things that they don't need to spend it on. So this pervasive idea that people are putting toxins in tampons is actually a common myth that I hear.

What's the most memorable or strange trend you've seen?

There's a very recent one where people are selling menstrual pads with ground-up earth elements to treat menstrual pain. That sounds to me like they've got backyard dirt in the menstrual pad. They didn't say what "earth elements" they were. So, no, dirt in the menstrual pad will not treat painful periods.

About the Author

Aviva Jacob holds a degree in journalism from the University of King's College. Avi, along with a small team, was the winner of the 2018 Emerge Media Award in audio storytelling. You can email Avi with story ideas at aviva.jacob@cbc.ca