The ‘Wellness Warrior’ influencers spreading dangerous lies

Online influencers can feel like friends to us.

They're relatable, engaging, charming, have dazzling smiles, bubbly personalities, share witty jokes, and are always waiting to tell us about their day.

We watch their carefully curated lives and follow their nifty tips, while they try to sell us shiny products that would surely make our lives better if only we had them in our possession.

Salespeople have existed throughout history, but they've never been able to reach such huge audiences. Unfortunately, the friend in our pocket can also exhibit an inflated sense of self-belief, speak with authority on topics where they have none, and occasionally possess the power and influence to seriously harm us by presenting ill-informed advice.

Influencers who promote "wellness" can dramatically improve the health of their followers, or they can cause devastating harm.

Enter Sarah Stevenson.

Sydney wellness influencer Sarah Stevenson aka Sarah's Day. Source: Insagram @sarahs_day
Sydney wellness influencer Sarah Stevenson aka Sarah's Day. Source: Insagram @sarahs_day

Sarah has the perfect teeth, the great hair, and she lives in an Instagrammable house, with the confidence to sit in front of
a camera for hours every day, drawing people into her world.

Using the brand Sarah's Day, she is one of Australia's most prominent wellness gurus and shares her lifestyle tips and healthy recipes to an audience of nearly 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube, and more than 1 million followers on Instagram.

She sells a range of skincare products, eyewear, activewear, exercise programs, an "inner-health and beauty powder", and cookie dough-flavoured protein powder.

She's one of a growing group that many refer to as "wellness warriors".

These are people who sell a healthy, happy lifestyle.

She always looks fit, energised, refreshed and ready to take on the world - but her photos are notable for prominent product placement.

Wellness influencer Sarah Stevenson aka Sarah's Daywith her family.
Wellness influencer Sarah Stevenson aka Sarah's Daywith her family.

Achieving the state of wellness promoted by people like Sarah is not only about living in the absence of disease or illness, but also has the added pressure of needing to maximise your fitness, productivity and enjoyment of life.

In other words, wellness is an ethereal concept that is unattainable in the real world.

Wellness is an endless pursuit for the privileged - an expensive hobby for those who are already well.

The trick of skilful social media influencers is that they make people think they don't have enough, are not healthy enough, or will just find that extra bit of happiness around the next corner.

I'd never heard of the self-proclaimed Holistic Health Princess until I received an email from the pop-culture podcast Shameless asking for my opinion about one of her Instagram posts.

Accompanying a very carefree-looking photo of her frolicking on the beach was an enthusiastic missive to her followers, excitedly announcing that she had reversed her cervical dysplasia.

The cogs in my medically trained brain suddenly ground to a halt.

Sarah may as well have claimed she made the sun come up this morning.

A screen shot from Sarah Stevenson’s Youtube video.
A screen shot from Sarah Stevenson’s Youtube video.

The cervix is the gateway to the uterus, positioned at the top of the vagina.

Unfortunately, abnormal cells can develop in the cervix and after many years can eventually turn into cancer.

Cervical dysplasia is the medical term used to describe these cells that have mutated but haven't yet become cancerous.

There are different Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia (CIN) grades used to describe the severity of the condition. CIN1 means there are only subtle changes, CIN2 means the changes are more obvious and CIN3 is heading towards cervical cancer.

Soon after her excited Instagram announcement Sarah posted a follow-up YouTube video, titled "How I Healed Myself Naturally: Cervical Dysplasia CIN 3 (High Grade)".

The clip starts with Sarah giving the following disclaimer:

"I'm like really excited to film this video, but at the same time I'm really nervous because everything in the health world - especially if it is like a serious health issue, there's just so much backlash and judgment that comes with it …"

To summarise the vlog, Sarah had consulted with her gynaecologist who advised her to have surgical treatment for these high grade (CIN3) changes.

Instead of following her doctor's advice, she decided to heal her cervix herself after doing "research" online, praying and creating her own cervical dysplasia diet.

Several months after making this lifestyle change, she went back to her gynaecologist to find her cervical dysplasia had improved.

Impressed by her own perceived ability to improve her cervical health, she was now sharing the information with her followers so they knew how to do it too.

Don't get me wrong, promoting a healthy lifestyle is admirable, but believing that you can cure cervical dysplasia by following a particular diet is not grounded in reality as it is not supported by science.

When more than a million people follow you online, and young women look up to you as a role model, telling them to diverge from medical advice is, in my view, extremely irresponsible.

While Sarah may seem convinced in her YouTube video that she was able to take control of the situation in a "healthy and holistic, natural way", scientific research has never proven a correlation between dietary changes and a reduction in cervical abnormalities.

Her advice would be ineffective at the very best, and, at the very worst, it would be potentially harmful to her fans.

The fact is that Sarah was lucky. Her cervical dysplasia reduced from CIN3 to a lower grade, but this would have happened without investing time in prayer, positive thoughts or special smoothies.

Others following her advice may not be so lucky. In fact, engaging in fanciful practices can delay timely gynaecological interventions and potentially lead to someone developing cervical cancer.

In the YouTube video, Sarah did take time to remind her audience that she was not a medical professional herself.

Health and wellness influencer Sarah Stevenson from Sarah's Day with her family.
Health and wellness influencer Sarah Stevenson from Sarah's Day with her family.

Influencers like her appear to believe that any consequences from making a health claim - no matter how medically incorrect - are able to be sidestepped by using a similar disclaimer.

It is quite frankly ridiculous for Sarah to say that she is not attempting to provide health advice to her followers by publishing this video.

Sarah Stevenson's cervical dysplasia video has been viewed more than 373,000 times and has more than 1500 comments. Despite her disclaimer, many comments are from Sarah's fans, thanking her for sharing her knowledge about beating cervical dysplasia.

It's worrying to see so many young people saying that after watching the video they now feel they can overcome their own cervical dysplasia through lifestyle changes.

Some even commented that their gynaecologist had recommended urgent surgery but they were instead going to heal themselves using Sarah's advice.

Instagram influencer, Sarah Stevenson, from her page Sarah's Day. Source: Instagram
Instagram influencer, Sarah Stevenson, from her page Sarah's Day. Source: Instagram

While Sarah Stevenson's advice for healing cervical dysplasia may be worrisome, it's not the only health claim made on her social media platforms.

Her accounts are full of misinformation and pseudoscience, like an immune boosting juice she created to help get rid of a cold.

The recipe contains lemon, turmeric powder, black pepper, water, "gubinge powder" (Kakadu plum) from a brand called Loving Earth, and "camu camu powder" (Peruvian sour berry) from a brand called Tropeaka.

Although this concoction might taste delicious, none of these products is proven to help your body fight off a cold.

In addition to this, and what may not be immediately evident from the recipe and social media post, is that Loving Earth and Tropeaka have sponsored Sarah's videos in the past.

In fact, she has her own range of health powders and nut mixes with these brands.

Many of her hardcore fans are already aware of these affiliations as she advertises the products on her website and offers a discount in the comments section below her videos - but it doesn't go unnoticed that the remedy for supposedly beating cervical dysplasia conveniently includes the products she is selling.

Sarah Stevenson is far from the only social media influencer impacting people's habits.

Jessica Ainscough, who was from the Sunshine Coast, was the original, self-proclaimed "wellness warrior".

She was only 22 years old when she found some lumps in her left arm and had biopsies performed.

Jessica Ainscough, founder of the Wellness Warrior blog in 2013. Picture: Peter Wallis
Jessica Ainscough, founder of the Wellness Warrior blog in 2013. Picture: Peter Wallis

In April 2008 she was diagnosed with a rare cancer called epithelioid sarcoma.

She followed her medical team's advice and in June 2008 started chemotherapy.

It looked like she was in remission, but when the cancer returned in November 2009, she didn't like what the doctors had to say.

She was told her best option for survival was to have her left arm amputated at the shoulder, but rather than heed this advice she decided to take a different route and sought alternative treatments.

Under the supervision of a physician in Mexico, she commenced Gerson therapy - a supposed cancer cure invented in the 1920s that is ineffective and is not based on science.

Jessica Ainscough, with her 'Wellness water' in 2013. Picture: Jamie Hanson
Jessica Ainscough, with her 'Wellness water' in 2013. Picture: Jamie Hanson

It involves taking lots of vitamins, minerals and enzyme supplements, consuming plenty of plant-based juices, and putting coffee up your backside five times a day.

Jessica shared her journey with her online followers and amassed a community of 1.5 million people who were inspired by her battle against cancer.

She appeared to sincerely believe in this ineffective treatment and rigorously participated in her own health regimen but unfortunately died in February 2015.

Wellness warriors may sincerely believe they are providing good advice but they can inadvertently mislead their audience if they are not formally trained in health sciences.

They are often highly skilful at being approachable, entertaining and engaging, which makes it easy for their opinions on healthy living to be misinterpreted as appropriate health advice.

What worries me the most is our inability to differentiate fact from fiction.

From Jessica Ainscough’s funeral.
From Jessica Ainscough’s funeral.

Sarah Stevenson has a large audience of impressionable young people, and with a big audience comes great responsibility. Medical experts have contacted her to raise our concerns, but she ignores criticism.

This beautiful, bubbly and charming young woman appears innocent, but when she provides dodgy health advice to a massive audience, ignores feedback from health professionals and disregards the safety of her dedicated fans, we can consider her to be a menace to public health.

Sarah's day will come when her fans notice the danger she poses by preaching poor health advice and the blurred line she's created between opinion, advice and advertising.

This is an edited extract from Fake Medicine by Dr Brad McKay, Hachette Australia, $33

Originally published as The 'Wellness Warrior' influencers spreading dangerous lies

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