Every Episode of ‘Goop Lab,’ Graded for Scientific Legitimacy
The science in Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Netflix series isn’t that bad—until you get to the exorcism
I’m going to be honest, I wanted to be outraged by this show. As Elemental’s senior staff writer, I’ve written about how the wellness industry, embodied by Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop, exploits people’s insecurities and very real health issues. I’ve nodded along and tweeted and ranted about the pseudoscience she and others peddle, selling people false hope in the form of useless overpriced devices and treatments, the best of which are a waste of money, the worst of which can cause very real health harms.
To science writers, Gwyneth Paltrow is a matador holding up the red flag, and I was fully prepared to charge. But, surprisingly, Goop Labs, which debuts on January 24 (Netflix granted me an early screener of the show), isn’t that bad. At least for the first four 30-minute episodes. Then things really take a turn.
Episode 1: “The Healing Trip”
The first episode is on the use of psychedelics in guided therapy, and it’s pretty legitimate. Although still relatively fringe, the stigma around psychedelic-assisted therapy is starting to diminish as doctors and scientists learn about the drugs’ therapeutic properties. Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, anorexia, and coping with a terminal illness are all being treated with psilocybin (magic mushrooms) or MDMA in clinical trials. The FDA has even granted “breakthrough status” to these drugs because of the efficacy seen in the early trials, opening the door for them to become approved medications.
The two experts from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) brought on to talk to the show’s co-hosts — Paltrow and Goop’s Chief Content Officer, Elise Loehnen — are well respected, the clinical trials they mention are well-designed studies at major universities, and the theories they provide about how psychedelics can assist in processing trauma are relatively sound. They even give the important caveat that taking the drugs in a clinical trial is very different from doing so at a party or an ayahuasca ceremony in a warehouse in Brooklyn.
Perhaps it’s unconventional to have a group of co-workers travel to Jamaica to take magic mushrooms together (the “lab” part of the episode), but it doesn’t sound like anyone was coerced into the trip.
Grade: A, as much as it pains me to admit it.
Episode 2: “Cold Comfort”
Next up, Goop profiles “The Iceman” Wim Hof, who has made a name for himself selling his method of breathing, meditation, and cold exposure to transform people’s lives. He says that through breathing, you can control your autonomic nervous system, helping you overcome everything from panic attacks to bacterial infections. According to Hof, breathing can change the body’s pH, turning it more alkaline, which is what you need to “go into the elements of nature and oppose it.”
Shockingly, some of his claims are true. There are scientific studies published in real journals detailing Hof’s method and how it changes the body. Hyperventilating (what his breathing exercise essentially entails) decreases the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood, making it more alkaline. The stress from hyperventilating causes the body to release the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, which in turn affects both the immune system and responses to pain. One paper showed that 12 people trained in Hof’s method had higher levels of an anti-inflammatory molecule and lower levels of pro-inflammatory markers in their blood after being exposed to E. coli, suggesting that their immune systems were better able to fight off infection. Another study revealed that Hof is able to activate an area of his brain that releases opioids and cannabinoids, the body’s natural pain relievers, which is likely how he’s able to endure freezing cold temperatures.
For the Goop lab, six employees travel to Lake Tahoe, California to meditate, hyperventilate, do yoga in bathing suits in the snow, and jump into the 38-degrees-Fahrenheit lake. And they all do it happily. One woman later says the experience helped her overcome her panic attacks, which actually makes sense. The hyperventilation works as a sort of exposure therapy, recreating the same physical experience of a panic attack but without the anxiety.
Grade: B. Hof makes some pretty outlandish claims, and the research needs to be replicated, but meditation and certain breathing techniques really can influence the body.
Episode 3: “The Pleasure Is Ours”
I genuinely enjoyed this episode and felt like it was performing a public health service. Women’s sexuality is not talked about enough, and this was a smart, nonjudgmental look at it. Goop focuses on legendary sex educator Betty Dodson and her business partner, Carlin Ross. There are no jade eggs or vaginal steams — two of the most controversial products and procedures Goop has recommended in the past. Instead, they offer practical advice on getting to know your anatomy, full-frontal shots of real women’s vulvas, masturbation tips, and footage of a woman getting herself off. You know, your standard sex education.
Sex is always sensationalized, and this episode is no different. But Paltrow and Loehnen provide a sensible explanation as to why they decided to air the graphic clips. They point out that we almost never see images of real women’s vulvas (as opposed to the pictures of penises pop culture and internet trolls inundate us with) or what a woman’s orgasm looks and sounds like in real life. Most people only view women’s sexuality through porn, and that is very far off from how women actually look and feel and act during sex.
Grade: A, and not even begrudgingly.
Episode 4: “The Health-Span Plan”
This episode incorporates some fairly legitimate research about how diet can influence aging. There is a lot of evidence from animal models that calorie restriction increases lifespan and health-span (delaying age-related illnesses), and clinical trials are currently ongoing to see if dietary changes have the same results in humans.
Paltrow, Loehnen, and Goop marketing vice president Wendy Lauria interview Valter Longo, director of the University of Southern California Longevity Institute, and Morgan Levine, an assistant professor of pathology at Yale University. Levine developed a method to calculate a person’s “biological age” by revealing the health of various organ systems through blood biomarkers. Based on these tests, the three women conduct a mini experiment to see if various diets (vegan, pescatarian, and Longo’s signature Fasting Mimicking Diet — essentially extreme calorie restriction) can lower their biological ages. Paltrow’s five-day fast wins, lowering her biological age by 1.7 years.
Grade: B. Levine’s method aside, it’s virtually impossible to measure changes in longevity in humans, so the jury is still out about whether anti-aging interventions work. However, diet and exercise influence human health in virtually every possible way, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they impact how we age, too.
He waves his hands over their bodies as they undulate and spasm and moan. One woman says she feels like she had an exorcism.
Episode 5: “The Energy Experience”
Here’s where things start to go off the rails. Paltrow and Loehnen interview energy healer John Amaral, who claims to heal people by moving energy through their bodies and changing the vibrational frequency of their cells. He attributes some of these changes to quantum physics and something called the double-slit experiment, saying that how we interact with someone, without even touching them, changes them at a subatomic level.
I don’t know enough about physics to fact check this, so I called someone who does: my dad, a retired physicist and professor of biomedical engineering. He says the double-slit experiment involves a controversial theory that observing the experiment can change its results, but this hasn’t been proven. And, he says, “It has nothing to do with healing. That word has never been used with it.”
Three Goopers attend an energy session with Amaral. He waves his hands over their bodies as they undulate and spasm and moan. One woman says she feels like she had an exorcism. In my opinion, this is pure placebo. The largest twitches and spasms come from the women who believe in energy healing, while the man who says he’s skeptical lies there like a rock.
Grade: F. This episode infuriated me because it used all of the pseudoscience mumbo jumbo that confuses people into thinking a treatment is real. It is irresponsible to air this episode after four shows on valid health research because it gives energy healing a veneer of legitimacy. This episode is everything that is wrong with Goop.
Episode 6: “Are You Intuit?”
Psychic medium Laura Lynne Jackson does readings for the Goop employees, supposedly channeling their dead loved ones from the other side. She also holds a workshop for staff members to become more in touch with their own psychic abilities. There are some spooky and entertaining moments, but there is no scientific explanation of how communication with the dead might work, nor was there really an attempt to rationalize the phenomenon and prove that it’s real. However, Goop does include a slide stating that “critics believe that psychics and mediums use dishonest techniques to give sitters accurate readings,” such as gaining knowledge about the person before a reading (a “hot reading”) or using their emotional cues and body language to guide the session (a “cold reading”).
Grade: D. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment for entertainment’s sake, but the long tradition of mediums exploiting people’s grief to make money is a sordid one.
In all, Goop Labs wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be. Most of the episodes included actual science, and it did not appear to be a thinly veiled product placement opportunity. Paltrow did her best to come off as relatable and even skeptical at times. But lumping together real research on the human body with energy healing and psychic mediums is extremely problematic because it equates the two, making it difficult for people to gauge the different levels of validity. In the current climate of science denialism, we need consistently clear science communication more than ever, and this wasn’t it.