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The Goop Lab's 'energy healing' is no better than placebo, research proves

Netflix's The Goop Lab dedicated an episode to "energy healing" as a treatment for pain and emotional trauma -- here's what research has to say about that.

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A perpetual scene in The Goop Lab, Paltrow and her Chief Content Officer Elise Loehnen sit and talk with people who are well-known in the alternative wellness world. 

Adam Rose/Netflix

Imagine that you could get a full release of all your pent-up emotions and relief from all your physical aches and pains, courtesy of a 60-minute session with an energy healer who flaps his hands four to six feet above your body in the name of quantum physics. 

This is what goes down in the fifth, and perhaps the most outrageous, episode of Gwyneth Paltrow's The Goop Lab on Netflix. The docuseries features alternative wellness trends often covered on Paltrow's goop.com and is available to stream now on Netflix. 

Though designed to "entertain and inform" (as per the disclaimer), the chiropractor turned "somatic energy practitioner" in this episode certainly makes it sound like everyone should give up their primary care provider for an apparent force-field manipulator.

Is there any promise? Is it all quackery? We investigate, but you probably (hopefully) already know the answer. 

The Goop Lab episode 5: The Energy Experience

Energy healer John Amaral waves his hands like magic wands over three Goop employees (and random guest star, dancer Julianne Hough) to whisk away their emotional traumas and physical aches. 

Paltrow asks Amaral why he hasn't, until now, shown his practice on-screen. Amaral gives an, uh, interesting response: "It just looks wacky … I've been hesitant to show it just because it can look strange. But I think it's time for the world to see." The world sees three Goop-ers and Hough all writhe, wiggle and whimper on the tables. It's as if they're actually being prodded and pulled, without ever being touched. 

Hough screams and contorts her body into positions that only a professional dancer could accomplish, and Elise Loehnen, Goop's chief content officer, lets out long, monotone moans that left me mildly uncomfortable. 

Only one of the Goop-ers -- Brian, a software architect and self-proclaimed skeptic -- remains relatively still throughout the group treatment. This, to me, strengthens the notion that energy healing is all placebo.  

After the fact, Loehnen says the experience felt like an exorcism. Even Paltrow gives a subtle nod to the woo-woo effect of all this, asking Loehner, "Could you get any Goop-ier?" 

I would love to know what gets Goop-ier than this. 

What is energy healing?

Energy healing is a type of alternative wellness therapy that involves manipulating the flow of energy in and around your body. One popular form of energy healing, called reiki, aims to remove "blockages" of energy that have built up where physical and emotional pain have occurred. 

For example, people who have chronic headaches might have an energy healer work on the supposed energy fields around their head and neck. A runner who's struggled with repetitive stress injuries in the past might have an energy healer focus on the ankles, knees and hips. 

Energy healing is (or should be) performed by a trained practitioner. You lie on a table while the practitioner uses their hands to manipulate the energy fields around your body. The practitioner may not touch you at all or may lightly touch certain areas of your body, such as your neck, to feel and reroute energy. 

According to Amaral, "If you just change the frequency of vibration of the body itself, it changes the way the cells regrow, it changes the way the sensory system processes." Amaral admits this is just a hypothesis, but the Goop-ers seem to take it as fact nonetheless. 

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Adam Rose/Netflix

What does the science say?

A 2017 review of studies in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine states that it is currently impossible to conclude whether or not energy healing is effective for any conditions. The current body of research is too limited and much of it is too flawed. A Cochrane review looking specifically at the effects of reiki on anxiety and depression seconds that conclusion. 

A 2019 paper in Global Advances in Health and Medicine, however, gives "energy medicine" some credit, saying that while this type of therapy cannot and should not be used singularly, it can offer an additional element of healing for some people and conditions.

The paper notes that "The healing of a patient must include more than the biology and chemistry of their physical body; by necessity, it must include the mental, emotional, and spiritual (energetic) aspects."

I suppose that since chiropractors were once (not too long ago) considered quacks, there is room for open-mindedness. But according to the International Center for Reiki Training, energy healing has been around for at least 100 years -- usually a treatment can be proven or debunked in less time than that, yet many questions still remain about energy healing.

It is worth noting that placebo effects aren't useless: Even Harvard University acknowledges placebos as effective feel-good tools, helping people overcome fatigue, chronic pain and stress. 

For example, one study found that a sham version of reiki (performed by an unlicensed person) was just as effective as the real thing in helping chemotherapy patients feel more comfortable. This proved that energy healing was a placebo, but even so, it was helpful for these patients.

Still, placebos can't cure you. 

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During Reiki or energy healing, the practitioner does not touch you or only does so very briefly and lightly.

Getty Images

What do the experts say?

According to science writer Dana G. Smith, this episode "is everything that is wrong with Goop," and it looks like other experts agree with her. 

Chris Lee, a physicist and writer at Ars Technica, crushes Amaral's allusions to quantum physics and the famed double-slit experiment, saying "Quantum mechanics does not provide you with the mental power to balance energies, find lay lines or cure syphilis. It does, unfortunately, seem to provide buzzwords to those prone to prey on the rich and gullible."

I am far from an expert on quantum physics and the vibrational frequency of body cells (whatever that means), but this episode rubbed me the wrong way, largely because it features a beautiful, successful celebrity partaking in what is currently an utterly unproven therapy. 

Julianne Hough is a role model to many women who, after watching Hough writhe and wail on a table, might feel the need to do the same thing. I'm a big fan of Hough, but her part in this episode gave me sleazy celebrity endorsement vibes. 

Who is this for?

Energy healing, reiki or whatever you want to call it, falls comfortably into the "if this makes you feel better, go ahead" category. Energy healers don't actually touch you, and if they do it's just the graze of a fingertip, so the practice is harmless from a physical standpoint. 

Theoretically, there's nothing wrong with seeing an energy healer if you can afford it and it makes you feel good. But the controversy comes from the fact that people who need real, proven psychological or physical treatments might ignore that need in favor of this trendy alternative.  

Amaral fails to discuss when conventional medical or psychological treatment is the best option, only putting forth his method as the ultimate healing tactic. Amaral cannot mend a broken bone with his energy, nor can he remedy the neurotransmitter imbalances that cause severe depression. 

It can be deadly, even, to ignore conventional treatment and rely on unproven therapies. Research has suggested that cancer patients who reject traditional care are less likely to overcome their illness

But Amaral can, it seems, produce some level of catharsis: If that's what you need, feel free to lie on the table.  

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.