Grift the Pain Away
I first saw the celery juice in November, on U.S. Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon’s Instagram stories. Maybe you saw it in December, when DJ and health and beauty influencer Hannah Bronfman posted a video to her Instagram feed in which she strains celery juice into a mason jar. Or maybe you saw it in Kim Kardashian’s stories last month—she hopes it will help her psoriasis. Maybe you were ahead of the curve and heard Busy Philipps last February saying, “Guys, [hairstylist] Tracey Cunningham told me yesterday that we’re supposed to drink fresh celery juice every morning.”
The recently ubiquitous wellness trend prescribes juicing or blending, then straining, a large bunch of celery, and drinking sixteen ounces of it on an empty stomach. In Rippon’s self-deprecating videos, I saw a #celeryjuice Rosetta Stone, a key to understanding what has propelled it to adorn some 85,000 Instagram posts and counting: the muddy understanding of its benefits that leads to a non-skeptical embrace of the routine, the juice’s aspirational veneer, and the dedicated drinker’s hope that the rumors just might be true.
Rippon’s stories are now archived on his page under a highlight called “I’m Healthy Now.” “One of my friends told me about this like, celery juice stuff,” he begins. A few videos later, Rippon clinks glasses with his phone, takes a sip, and grimaces. “I feel better, I think.” “So what does celery juice do?” he later asks. “Baby, I don’t know. I don’t have that answer. Do I look like a doctor? No. I saw it on Instagram!” How has he been tolerating his new-found health? “On day one, there was a moment when I thought I was going to shit myself.” Still, he explains what he thinks the benefits of barely controlled defecation are: “I think it’s supposed to like, clean you out and stuff. And like, make your skin better, and things.”
Like Rippon, the celery juice guru behind the fad—Anthony William, a.k.a. the Medical Medium—is not a doctor, or a health care professional at all. In fact, his website includes a lengthy disclaimer about his lack of medical bona fides, which reads in part, “Anthony William, Inc. dba Anthony William, Medical Medium (‘Anthony William, Medical Medium’) is not a licensed medical doctor, chiropractor, osteopathic physician, naturopathic doctor, nutritionist, pharmacist, psychologist, psychotherapist, or other formally licensed healthcare professional, practitioner or provider of any kind.” Nonetheless, William has been dispensing advice about medical issues for more than twenty-five years. He claims to have made his first diagnosis at age four. So where did he get his medical expertise? From Spirit, of course.
William claims to be a psychic medium who hears a voice that he calls Spirit of the Most High or Spirit of Compassion. In the first of his four best-selling books, Medical Medium: Secrets Behind Chronic and Mystery Illnesses and How to Finally Heal, he explains that Spirit tells him about the physical health of anyone he encounters and “what the person needs to do to become better.” He writes that Spirit is not a dead person, but a “word”—“the living essence of the word Compassion” that sits “at the fingertip of God.” Not only is William’s Spirit evidently God’s fingertip man, er, word, but thanks to Spirit, he receives “health information that’s incredibly accurate—much more so than any other medium alive.”
The celery juice guru behind the fad—Anthony William, a.k.a. the Medical Medium—is not a doctor, or a health care professional of any kind.
This line of psychic medicine has a long history; its most famous practitioner is probably Edgar Cayce, whose “Association for Research and Enlightenment” continues to operate today. In the early 1900s, Cayce—also not a doctor—would diagnose patients, occasionally from afar, while in a sleeping trance. According to the Washington Post, he “gave over 14,000 documented ‘readings’ during his life, covering . . . thousands of medical diagnoses, and treatments, sometimes of patients he hadn’t seen.” (Unsurprisingly, he also counseled on topics of “personal financial problems and economic healing” during many of these sessions.) Cayce’s reach may seem impressive, but William—who has publicly compared himself to Cayce—has 1.5 million Instagram followers alone. The rise of the internet, and William’s cadre of famous fans, has allowed him to spread his fact-free prescriptions more widely than Cayce could ever dream of.
William claims that he’s privy to treatments that real doctors don’t know about, because unlike them, he isn’t beholden to rigorous studies and evidence-based methods. And while he’s at it, fuck citations: “You won’t find citations after citation, references to study after study, because this is fresh, ahead-of-its-time information that comes from the heavens,” he writes in Medical Medium. He gives the hard sell by stoking legitimate fears about the pace of scientific discovery, particularly for rare diseases: “If you or a loved one is sick . . . do you feel you have twenty or thirty or fifty years to wait for answers? Can you bear to watch your daughter or son grow up to face the same health issues you have, and the same limits of medicine?”
William’s claims are potentially more dangerous than that of other celebrity mediums like Theresa Caputo (a.k.a. Long Island Medium), who says she connects with the spirits of dead people. While Caputo may grift the grieving by ventriloquizing the dead, she poses no real danger to the living, outside of their wallets. She only offers the hope that grief is possible to overcome and closure a mere séance away. Mediums who supposedly channel our dead loved ones are at least addressing problems rooted in reality. In Medical Medium, William invents problems, so you’ll buy his solutions.
One such problem is “a secret epidemic” of Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV). In William’s telling, “EBV is the source of numerous health problems that are currently considered mystery illnesses, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. EBV is also the cause of major maladies that medical communities think they understand but really don’t—including thyroid disease, vertigo, and tinnitus.” According to William, medical communities don’t even understand EBV itself: they “are only aware of one version of EBV, but there are actually over 60 varieties.”
EBV is indeed common, according to the CDC. Its symptoms include fever and fatigue, and after infection, the virus remains latent in the body, which makes William’s claim that EBV is at the root of chronic illnesses convenient. But, according to the National Institutes of Health, though 95 percent of people have been infected with EBV by adulthood, most people have no health problems from it. The “secret epidemic” is almost certainly not causing you any harm.
But what kills EBV, according to Spirit? Celery juice.
Searching for the truth on the juice isn’t easy. While celery juice itself is probably harmless for most people to drink, nutritionists, gastroenterologists, and dietitians are dubious about the supposed benefits. They admit that celery may help with bloating, because it contains a phytochemical called phthalides that lowers blood pressure. Celery is also full of water (good for your skin, yes), folate, potassium, vitamin K, antioxidants, and, crucially, fiber—though juicing it gets rid of that. Still, the long-term effects of drinking celery juice have not been studied, and consuming large quantities of celery can interfere with certain medications (or, per Rippon, give you diarrhea).
On Google, though, the experts are largely drowned out by credulous bloggers who repeat William’s claims. Unsurprisingly, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is among that chorus—earlier this year, Goop placed an ad on Google that cast nutritionists and doctors as killjoys, with a link that read “WTF’s Up with Celery Juice? | Haters will say it’s a hoax.” It took you directly to an article written by none other than William himself.
In the article, William lays out Spirit’s evidence for what celery juice does to your body and why it works. He begins by claiming that celery juice, unlike raw celery, makes the vegetable’s “concentrated undiscovered cluster salts” more bioavailable. The cluster salts are “undiscovered” because they likely don’t exist: the first hit on Google for “cluster salts” leads back to the Medical Medium website. This makes sense, as the salts are just a convenient way for William to plug his new book: “These cluster salts quickly rebuild your hydrochloric acid so that your stomach can break down protein. If protein isn’t broken down properly, it will cause gut rot and bloating—both of which I cover in detail in my book Liver Rescue, including their true unknown causes.”
Read quickly enough, it can almost seem like William knows what he’s talking about. Acid breaking things down? Sounds right. Stuff lingering in your stomach leads to bloat and rot? Sure, why not. This is part of why William’s schtick has been so successful: so many of us lack the scientific or medical literacy necessary to immediately call bullshit on it. But more than that, William has tapped into reserves of genuine human suffering caused by delayed diagnoses, byzantine health insurance hurdles, or inaccessible treatments. And it works: Liver Rescue, which came out in October, has already sold more than 150,000 copies.
Celebrities like Rippon and Philipps might not know about William’s woo-woo, Spirit-based evidence for the celery juice routine they’ve posted about—even the Medical Medium Instagram downplays the role of Spirit. (And if they did know, taking money from the rich and famous is more or less a victimless crime.) The bigger problem is that a different, less glamorous corner of the wellness world is also buying in, in hopes of curing chronic health problems.
Scrolling through the #celeryjuice posts, you’ll find many people who claim that it cleared up their eczema or reduced their bloating. But there are also more extreme testimonials, often reposted by the official @medicalmedium account. One woman writes:
I diagnosed myself w/like 4 different autoimmune diseases . . . No doctor was able to diagnose me with one, but I know that it often takes months & months & doctor after doctor & test after test to get answers. I had already been thru enough w/several doctors . . . So how did I get my life back[?] . . . One guy. One juice. @medicalmedium.
It’s clear why people suffering from the conditions that Medical Medium claims celery juice heals—among them, chronic fatigue syndrome and Lyme disease—would feel validated by his advice. It has become almost cliché to point out that many doctors dismiss patients’ experiences of such diseases as psychosomatic. And it seems every month there is a new story from a woman long told that her symptoms were all in her head, only to be diagnosed with diseases like epilepsy, endometriosis, or cervical cancer years later—in some cases, too late.
Our medical system is riven with cracks that allow miracle-cure-peddlers like William to flourish. It can be devastatingly expensive to seek medical care, particularly for people suffering from chronic illnesses. According to the CDC, patients with chronic and mental health conditions account for 90 percent of the U.S.’s $3.3 trillion in annual health care costs. A recent study by the IQVIA Institute found that in 2017, the median annual cost of an orphan drug, or a drug used to treat a rare disease, was over $46,800. Rare diseases, defined as affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the United States, are exactly the kinds of chronic conditions that William claims to have the answers to.
It’s clear why people suffering from the conditions that Medical Medium claims celery juice heals would feel validated by his advice.
His books, at about $20 each, are a relative bargain. The nearly two hundred supplements he affiliate-links on his website might be pricey, but they probably cost less than your copay for a specialist. And while your doctor may rush your appointment as she’s forced to squeeze in too many patients into too few slots, William is amply available, on social media, in his books, on HayHouse radio, or for private phone readings (those will reportedly run you as much as $500 for thirty minutes).
But it’s possible William has done graver harm than manipulating chronically ill people out of their money. As Rae Paoletta reported for Inverse last year, he has in some cases left people sicker than they were before they tried his bogus prescriptions. One seventy-two-year-old woman in Florida, who, according to her daughter, was not ill before she contacted William for a private reading, dropped to ninety-three pounds on a diet he advised; allegedly, their phone consultation convinced her that she had both fibromyalgia and EBV. People who are sick when they try William’s snake oil might waste crucial time that could be spent pursuing real treatments.
Obviously, there are much more pressing arguments to be made in favor of single payer health care—like the fact that lack of health insurance results in thousands of preventable deaths in America each year. But if we could all afford to visit real doctors to understand how to best treat our ailments and manage our symptoms, perhaps the $4.2 trillion Wellness Industrial Complex that William operates within wouldn’t continue to have such a powerful draw. And if those real doctors took their patients’ lived experiences of their illnesses seriously (particularly when those patients are women), maybe we could start to combat the disillusionment and distrust of conventional medicine that’s so successfully mobilized to sell Young Living essential oils (developed by another dubious figure), Himalayan salt lamps, activated charcoal—and, of course, celery juice.