Unwell – Diving into the oily waters of the Health and Wellness Industry in the new Netflix series

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The global health and wellness industry is now worth trillions of dollars according to the Global Wellness Institute. The Health and Wellness industry includes all activities that promote physical and mental wellbeing; from healthy eating to personal care, yoga and fitness to meditation, spa retreats and wellness tourism. With any industry, there comes a mix of research and true benefit, and then people who take advantage of people’s desire to be healthy and take care of ourselves, and push products, routines and services that aren’t necessarily proven to work but seem great for self care and wellness.

The new Netflix series, Unwell, jumps into the exploration of essential oils in the health and wellness industry, in episode one. Essential oils are often used in aromatherapy, which is an alternative medicine that uses plant extracts to support health and well-being. The oils capture the plant’s scent and flavour, and are obtained through distillation using steam or water, or mechanical methods like cold pressing. Once the aromatic chemicals have been extracted, they are combined with a carrier oil to create a product that is ready for human use. Aromatic oils have been used for over 5000 years, and can provide some comfort to people, but these days come with some controversial health claims.

The show bounces between different individuals with differing views on the use of essential oils. The first woman to speak is a holistic nurse who was trained to help her hospital patients use essential oils to help with pain and anxiety. She believes that alternative medicines, like essential oils, should not replace pharmaceuticals in health care, but if it can be used in conjunction with less addictive pain medications than opioids (especially in the current opioid crisis), they can be useful. There might be a placebo effect working that helps reduce anxiety or pain, but some medication also has this effect. As long as used safely, they could be beneficial.

Safe use was a debated topic among the different individuals in the episode. One family claimed that they used essential oils for everything including cleaning, personal hygiene, diffusing in the air, cooking and drinking. They are known widely as a health driven family, and through their popular website and videos, they share their use of essential oils in their day to day lives, and in favourite recipes loved by them and their children. Many experts, including the clinical aromatherapist in the episode, highlight that essential oils are not meant to be swallowed. You can put them in the air, on your skin, but there are very few reasons you should be ingesting essential oils. Many people think that these oils are harmless because they are natural and have been used for a long time – in some cases this isn’t true, and since essential oils generally are not regulated, it can be hard to know what is in an essential oil bottle. There may be contaminants or other oils mixed in that may cause a negative reaction, may cause toxicity from other ingredients, or poor interactions with other drugs. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean that is should be used without caution.

One large issue discussed during this episode is the false claims that are often made about essential oils. One scientist talked about how many of the studies are done on small lab animals, which is not easily translated to humans. There was a blind study (meaning that two groups were given different items without knowing which group they were in), that has shown a comparison in use of lavender oils vs lorazipam for anxiety and that both groups experienced decrease in their anxiety. However, the health claims for essential oils are much broader than simply relaxation or anxiety. One woman in the episode who sells essential oils, claims they cured her of her inoperable brain tumor. She also preaches that oils like frankincense can cure cancer, cuts and scrapes and emotional issues. “The National Institute of Health provides a thorough summary via the US National Library of Medicine of research conducted into the efficacy of essential oils. Currently, there is no evidence-backed research showing any illnesses that can be cured through the use of essential oils or the practice of aromatherapy. The results on the other possible benefits of essential oils as, for example, mood elevators or stress relievers, are more mixed. But most are still inconclusive.” This article mentions that most of the studies done have not yet extended to clinical trials, meaning there is still much more work to do before essential oils would be potentially prescribed by physicians… or before they should be recommended as a cure all by any individual, especially one selling the oils. And this is where the episode moves into one of my favourite things to research during my COVID quarantine adventures… Multilevel Marketing Companies.

What is Multilevel Marketing?
Often MLMs are also referred to as Pyramid Schemes … whether you believe they are or are not, the recruitment model does look similar.

Multilevel Marketing (MLM) is a business opportunity, that is often related to starting your own business, but instead of starting from scratch the MLM participant works with a direct selling company that supplies the products and sometimes offers training as well. As a consultant or distributor (different companies call them different titles), you make your money by selling products, or recruiting people to your team. As the people in your team sell and recruit others, you earn a percentage of the income generated from their efforts. Often there are bonuses for hitting certain sales goals or signing up a certain number of new members. There is a large controversy around MLMs and their resemblance to pyramid schemes, and how often distributors prey on the vulnerable (see Anti MLM videos on youtube for more info). Some examples of well known Multilevel Marketing companies include Arbonne, Monat and Beach body. There are also MLMs which sell specifically essential oils (which were discussed in this episode) which include Young Living and Doterra.

The issue with these multilevel marketing companies and their oils, that was pointed out in the episode, is their push to use essential oils in EVERYTHING you do. Because the more you use them and share their use, the more you sell, and the more you sell, the more money and bonuses you can make, the MLMs sell the idea of more is best. Distributors preach diffusing oils, putting them on your body, in your laundry, ingesting them in your food etc… which is more daily use than what has ever been studied on human lives. There is no evidence that the accumulative use of essential oils is beneficial for people, and these people are accumulating a lot in their systems daily. As mentioned above, there is also not tons of evidence supporting the curative features of oils that people in these companies like to preach. Our friend in the episode who claims oils cured her inoperable brain tumor? She was in Doterra. By telling her vulnerable story, she captures the attention and the hope of individuals looking for healthy solutions, and potentially their business.

The episode goes into detail about another essential oil MLM – Young Living. Now you definitely could watch this on your own if you wanted to, but I wanted to highlight the MLM life and how individuals working with these companies frequently don’t know where the information their upline (the people who recruit them) share with them.

Gary Young is the founder of Young Living, and the self proclaimed father of essential oils. He didn’t have a medical license, and his degree in naturopathy was from an unaccredited university. After starting Young Living in 1993, he opened a clinic in Utah and had to close it soon after, because a patient said her treatment which involved infusing vitamin C had almost killed her. He closed this clinic and opened clinics in Mexico, where he claimed to be able to cure people of cancer and lupus. He gave patients essential oils through intravenous, and even performed a gallbladder surgery without a medical license. As his Young Living empire grew, he contributed greatly to the idea that essential oils have healing properties.

Margaret Angel is one of my favourite Anti MLM Youtuber, speaking about Young Living’s Gary Young

The youtube video above by Margaret Angel talks about Gary Young, and his life story. This is important to understand because as the “founding father” of essential oils, many Americans and others around the world believe in the curative powers of these oils. Margaret’s next video to be released (part 2 of this video will be linked here soon) talks about the predatory nature of MLM’s and how they use the promise of financial freedom and health benefits to get vulnerable people on board to buy and sell their product.

The rest of the episode goes a bit more into depth about the predatory nature of MLMs, a look at a past distributor’s experience, and the class action lawsuit that Young Living was given for being a Pyramid Scheme. Young living refused to provide an interview for this episode, but provided a statement than included the following : “Our products are not meant to treat or diagnose medical conditions and we encourage our customers to consult medical professionals if they feel they may have health issues.” Regardless of the small disclaimer about their oils being not meant for treatment of medical conditions, their distributors still preach magnificent results – something to be aware of as a consumer of essential oils.

At the end of the episode, we revisit a mother from the beginning of the episode who got help from a clinical aromatherapist to use essential oils to help her daughter with autism to sleep. The trained aromatherapist put together a custom blend of oils to be diffused into the air before bed to help the daughter relax and fall asleep. She puts her experience with essential oils into great words, sharing that they have definitely seen improvements in their daughter’s sleep which has contributed to her better moods and better focus, but is not the be all end all. She acknowledges the importance of all of the support her daughter gets, the exercise she does and the effort the family has put in outside of the oils as well. I completely agree with this statement in regards to essential oils. I use my oils to help me feel calm, to relieve tension/stress headaches, but I do not discount the benefits of modern medicine. I still take advil when my headaches get extremely bad (which can be frequent for me), still head to the doctor and get prescriptions when I need medical attention, and wouldn’t hesitate to use modern medicine in a case of a serious diagnosis like cancer.

As you watch this episode and read this blog, keep in mind that you can do your own research, and if you do please make sure it is based on scientific fact. Put on your detective hat and look at the sources of what you are reading – if an article is written by someone who is a scientist with many credentials, your research is much better than something written by someone without a degree or educated background specific to the topic you are looking for. As well, be aware of articles written by people or companies that may benefit from the sale of essential oils – often companies will hire someone to write articles pumping up their product so people believe it’s backed by research (an example of this can be seen with the Monat Multilevel Marketing Company as they refer to the National Hair Loss Association, which is actually a clinic and the individual that “recommends” their product is associated with Monat directly).

If you have any questions about essential oils, Multilevel marketing companies, or how to find if your research is reliable and valid, please feel free to send me an email or connect with me on instagram 🙂


Published by maiiflowerr

Pronouns She/Her/they/them. I'm a millennial just trying to make a difference in the world, and create space for people to accept themselves and live their best lives. My fiancee, Sydney, and I are mothers to our two goofy cats, and the queens of creative adventures. I am an Occupational therapist, a dancer and a yoga instructor with a passion for supporting people and creating community.

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