A cure for wellness? A new film casts detox as a form of horror
As a new film casts detox as a form of horror, our reporter considers whether our obsession with 'clean' living has gone too far
The backlash against clean eating might be well underway, but it remains to be seen if the concept of 'cleaning' your life in general will be similarly affected.
The idea that you will benefit, we are told, from a detox from almost everything and a 'clean' lifestyle, with its connotations of fresh starts and new beginnings, has gained much traction - despite the fact that many health professionals say our liver and kidneys, which are designed to detoxify the body, do the job sufficiently on their own.
Apart from the usual suspects of alcohol, nicotine, drugs and food, we are now being advised on ways to 'clean' our lives of toxic friends and relationships, to disengage from unhealthy social media use, to invest in 'clean' cleaning products, to knock our finances into shape and to rid ourselves of an Asos addiction.
Signs are beginning to appear that people are growing tired of a movement that is largely fuelled by guilt and extremity. This Friday sees the release of psychological-horror film A Cure For Wellness, in which a young CEO is sent to a mysterious "wellness" centre in the Swiss Alps where the miraculous treatments are not what they seem.
Considering the often-horrible side effects that have to be endured when you try to cut anything completely out of your life, the notion of detox as a form of horror isn't that far-fetched.
It's easy to see why we may be getting fed up with the overwhelming torrent of 'advice' on how to eat, exercise, shop, shower, work, socialise and now even sleep.
Yes, the latest victim of the detox overhaul is sleep, with Gwyneth Paltrow - a celebrity always at the vanguard of all things wellness-related - advocating 'clean sleeping', by which she means seven to eight, or even 10, hours of good quality sleep a night, that, she maintains, should be more of a priority, even before you think about diet.
Beauty is another area in which 'clean' is becoming a huge selling point for brands as we become as interested in what ingredients we're using on our skin as what we're putting into our bodies, both in terms of efficacy and ingredients.
"People have become so aware of what's in their products," says professional make-up artist Orlaith Shore. "I think it's thanks to the internet, but people now know what you should be using for anti-ageing for example - they know what's available to them and they're choosing products with highly active ingredients."
Shore says there's a move towards seeking out 'hero products' that give targeted results such as retinol - a vitamin A derivative that promotes collagen production - or products with peptides to keep skin plump, as well as sun screens with a minimum SPF30.
Increasingly 'informed' consumers are also trying to avoid baddies like parabens, the preservatives used in everything from shampoo to spray tans which have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer, and sodium lauryl sulfate, which makes products foam and is a potential skin irritant. Shore is a fan of natural ingredients such as tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar, honey and avocado, and she uses coconut oil for everything from cleansing to making her own scrub. When it comes to make-up, she believes the full-on Instagram look has had its day.
"Fresh skin is a look that people are now trying to achieve and if people are invested in their skin, they want to be able to see it, so they're looking for nice light-wear products," she says.
With technology now such a central part of our lives, embarking on a digital detox is commonly seen as a useful tool for improving overall productivity and striking the right work-life balance.
Aidan Healy, head of learning and development at UnPlug, which offers programmes to help people engage more mindfully with technology, says baby steps are the key when it comes to making any lasting impact.
"The way most of us use technology isn't inherently toxic. We do good things on our smart phones and the internet, but also we might do things that are really distracting or not of a high quality," he says.
"If you have someone who is plugged in 24 hours a day - they're constantly checking their phone, they're constantly on email, or that teenager who is gaming all the time - their brain has become wired in a certain way because of their behaviours. A detox can be a good first step in resetting some of that brain circuitry and rebooting. The challenge is then sustaining it. We don't think people lack discipline or self control," Healy adds.
"This stuff is designed to be very enticing and to play havoc with your brain to not want to say no. When you get a text, it's very hard not to read it.
"So it's about creating those small boundaries between you and it."
Seductive as the idea of a 'clean' lifestyle is, Dublin-based counselling psychologist Dr Daragh Keogh offers some words of caution. "It can be exciting and motivating to make the dramatic pronouncement that everything is going to change.
"It can make it fun and, in a way, the more black and white it is, the easier it can be at the beginning.
"Unfortunately though, life can intrude in ways we haven't anticipated and it can often be incredibly difficult to sustain every aspect of an all-encompassing, all-or-nothing plan. So what begins as all, can sometimes end as nothing," he says.
He agrees with Healy that, in the longer term, we may be more likely to succeed with changing our lives incrementally, making small changes and adapting them into our routines.
"It can often be an issue of making changes that fit with other aspects of how we live and making those changes habitual parts of our everyday lives," he says.
Keogh also points out that from a psychological perspective, behaviours exist because they meet needs or fulfil functions.
"The problem with saying that something is toxic and so 'I am just going to cut it out of my life' is that unless I identify the function that behaviour serves, or the emotional needs it meets, then the behaviour is quite likely to reassert itself.
"For example, if I want to give up smoking, but smoking is how I reward myself at the end of work stress and how I allow myself a period of respite from anxiety, it's going to be very difficult just to detox and give it up.Whereas, I may be more successful if I focus not just on cutting out smoking, but also on substituting it with alternative ways to relax, reward or soothe myself."
The celebrity lifestyle gurus
After giving birth to her first daughter, the actress became so concerned about the safety of household products that she launched the Honest Company, pledging to avoid harsh chemicals. In 2015, the company was valued at $1.7bn, but has been hit by a string of lawsuits concerning false advertising.
The Operation Transformation presenter founded Pure Results Bootcamp, a seven-day programme with lifestyle and nutrition advice where the focus is on getting fitter, building confidence and making long-term lifestyle changes.
The actress champions all that is non-toxic. Her lifestyle website Goop sells everything from energy-clearing kits to a $70 ‘inner beauty’ powder. She courted controversy last year when she recommended vaginal steaming to cleanse the uterus.