Don’t Put Stones, Yogurt, or Garlic Cloves in Your Vagina

Dr Jen­nifer Gunter is a physi­cian who is board-cer­ti­fied in obstetrics/gynecology and in pain med­i­cine. She has ded­i­cat­ed her med­ical career to reliev­ing her patients’ suf­fer­ing. She has even risked her own life by per­form­ing abor­tions, in a coun­try where some abor­tion providers have been assas­si­nat­ed by anti-abor­tion ter­ror­ists. One might think that this would have earned Dr Gunter con­sid­er­able pres­tige among fem­i­nists, as both an expert on women’s health and a cham­pi­on of women’s rights. Yet Dr Gunter has come under fire for com­plain­ing that a lot of peo­ple are using the Inter­net to spread dan­ger­ous false infor­ma­tion about health and med­i­cine. In par­tic­u­lar, she point­ed out that the orga­ni­za­tion Our Bod­ies, Our­selves (for­mer­ly known as the Boston Women’s Health Col­lec­tive) has occa­sion­al­ly giv­en some ridicu­lous­ly bad health advice, such as encour­ag­ing women to put yogurt or gar­lic cloves in their vagi­na. In response, Jen­nifer Block (a for­mer edi­tor for Our Bod­ies, Our­selves and for Ms Mag­a­zine) vicious­ly attacked Dr Gunter in an op-ed that appeared on Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can’s web­site. [The op-ed itself was even­tu­al­ly retract­ed by Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can.]

Some Bad Advice From Our Bodies, Ourselves

Block claims that Dr Gunter is tar­get­ing Our Bod­ies, Our­selves because the book Our Bod­ies, Our­selves “was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in the 1970s, and not by doc­tors” [empha­sis in orig­i­nal]. In real­i­ty, Dr Gunter was con­cerned because Our Bod­ies, Our­selves was still urg­ing women to put gar­lic cloves or yogurt in their vagi­na. The advice to put gar­lic cloves or yogurt in one’s vagi­na was still on the Our Bod­ies, Our­selves web­site as of Novem­ber 29, 2019, in an arti­cle that was pub­lished in Octo­ber 2011 and revised on Sep­tem­ber 10, 2019.

Food Goes in the Mouth, Not in the Vagina

Dr Gunter tells us that the vagi­na is self-clean­ing, and that one should not put food in it. Her rea­son­ing makes a great deal of sense. Gar­lic cloves are often con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed with soil bac­te­ria, includ­ing the bac­te­ria respon­si­ble for bot­u­lism. Putting a gar­lic clove in your vagi­na would give those bac­te­ria the per­fect envi­ron­ment to mul­ti­ply and pro­duce bot­u­linum tox­in. Thus, putting a gar­lic clove in your vagi­na could put you at risk for paral­y­sis or even death. Sim­i­lar­ly, yogurt does con­tain lac­to­bacil­li, and some lac­to­bacil­li are sup­posed to live in the vagi­na. How­ev­er, yogurt does not nec­es­sar­i­ly con­tain the right kinds of lac­to­bacil­li. Also, any yogurt that con­tains live lac­to­bacil­li could con­tain oth­er live bac­te­ria. So a woman who puts gar­lic cloves or yogurt in her vagi­na could be run­ning seri­ous risks, in exchange for extreme­ly ques­tion­able ben­e­fits.

A Parody of Feminism?

Block’s op-ed seems almost to be a par­o­dy of the roman­ti­cism that was embraced by some fem­i­nists in the 1970s. For exam­ple, Block snipes that “Gunter was a child in the 1970s, but sure­ly she has read some his­to­ry.” Block then went on to describe how women “took off their pants and looked at their own and each other’s cer­vices” and swapped home reme­dies: “they com­pared all this gath­ered wis­dom to what men in white coats had been telling them and doing to them.” Block then went on to extol the “ideals of informed con­sent and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry med­i­cine” and the move­ment that “sent droves of women to med­ical school.” Yet Gunter was among the droves of women who went to med­ical school; Block was not. Gunter has not only looked at oth­er people’s cer­vices, she has per­formed surgery on them. Gunter has risked her own life to give oth­er women the chance to make their own deci­sions about preg­nan­cy. This fact should give Gunter a degree of cred­i­bil­i­ty and pres­tige that Black sore­ly lacks.

Tea-Tree Oil Could Disrupt the Endocrine System

Block does not under­stand that a lot of Dr Gunter’s advice is based on the con­cept of “bet­ter safe than sor­ry.” That is why Dr Gunter urges women to abstain com­plete­ly from some unnec­es­sary prod­ucts, includ­ing alco­holic bev­er­ages and tea-tree oil, dur­ing preg­nan­cy. Block dis­miss­es the study on tea-tree oil as “an unpub­lished case report pre­sent­ed at a meet­ing with indus­try spon­sors.” That is a gross mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion that reveals how lit­tle Block knows about how sci­ence is done. In real­i­ty, the study was not a “case report,” which would be a sto­ry about some­thing that hap­pened to a par­tic­u­lar per­son, per­haps for unknown rea­sons. Instead, the study was a study of human cells that were being grown in a lab­o­ra­to­ry under tight­ly con­trolled con­di­tions. The study is not “unpub­lished”: its pre­sen­ta­tion at ENDO (the annu­al meet­ing of the Endocrine Soci­ety) is actu­al­ly a form of pub­li­ca­tion. A for­mal arti­cle about the study was pub­lished in August 2019 in the Endocrine Soci­ety’s jour­nal, The Jour­nal of Clin­i­cal Endocrinol­o­gy and Metab­o­lism.

It is pre­pos­ter­ous for Block to dis­miss ENDO as “a meet­ing with indus­try spon­sors.” The Endocrine Soci­ety is not an indus­try trade group. Rather, it is a pro­fes­sion­al soci­ety whose 18,000 mem­bers are physi­cians and sci­en­tists who study the endocrine sys­tem (i.e., the hor­mones). The Endocrine Soci­ety has safe­guards in place to pre­vent indus­try from choos­ing which abstracts are accept­ed for pre­sen­ta­tion at ENDO. Fur­ther­more, the study on tea-tree oil wasn’t done by a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny or by any­one with a com­mer­cial agen­da. It was done by sci­en­tists who work for the Nation­al Insti­tute of Envi­ron­men­tal Health Sci­ences.

Lavender and Tea-Tree Oils Make Boys Grow Boobs

Sci­en­tists from the NIEHS already had com­pelling evi­dence that soaps, sham­poos, or lotions that con­tain laven­der oil or tea-tree oil have estro­gen-like effects. Use of those prod­ucts can cause gyneco­mas­tia, which means abnor­mal growth of the breasts in boys. The NIEHS researchers used stan­dard lab­o­ra­to­ry meth­ods to show that some of the com­pounds found nat­u­ral­ly in laven­der oil and tea-tree oil real­ly do act like female hor­mones or sup­press the effects of male hor­mones on human cells that are being grown in a lab­o­ra­to­ry. This study is part of the Nation­al Tox­i­col­o­gy Program’s efforts to iden­ti­fy sub­stances that dis­rupt the endocrine sys­tem and to assess what kinds of effects these sub­stances are hav­ing on human beings and on wildlife. This is a big story—the kind a jour­nal­ist should cover—but Block missed it because she does not know how sci­ence works.

Don’t Put Stones in Your Vagina

Dr Gunter has also warned women not to put “jade eggs” or oth­er stones in their vagi­na. If you want to strength­en the mus­cles of your pelvic floor, do Kegel exer­cis­es instead. The stone itself could car­ry bac­te­ria, such as the kind that caus­es tox­ic shock syn­drome, which can be fatal. Also, a woman could injure her­self while try­ing to remove a slip­pery pol­ished stone from her vagi­na. Dr Gunter has treat­ed sim­i­lar injuries that result­ed from women using sex toys.

Don’t Worry About Glyphosate in Tampons

Giv­en Dr Gunter’s cau­tions about alco­hol, laven­der oil, tea-tree oil, and vagi­nal stones, you may be sur­prised to hear that Dr Gunter tells women not to wor­ry about the trace amounts of glyphosate that might be found in tam­pons. Block feels that this reas­sur­ance is hyp­o­crit­i­cal. Block sneered, “No need for pre­cau­tion, because there’s not enough research.” This atti­tude mere­ly shows that Block her­self is unaware of the enor­mous body of research about the safe­ty of glyphosate. Ms Block’s atti­tude also sug­gests that she has poor math skills. The report­ed amount of glyphosate in tam­pons is extreme­ly small. As Dr Gunter explains, using tam­pons for every sin­gle day of every peri­od for 40 years would expose a woman to a total of 1 thou­sandth of a gram of glyphosate from the tam­pons. This amount real­ly is too small to mat­ter. So the glyphosate in tam­pons should be the least of your wor­ries.

Don’t Steam Your Private Parts

Ms Block is out­raged because Dr Gunter tells women not to steam their vul­va (the exter­nal female gen­i­talia). Ms Block feels that “vagi­nal steam­ing” is “about bring­ing com­fort and blood flow to areas that have suf­fered trau­ma, dis­con­nect, and abuse” and that it is a way to help women “regain sen­sa­tion.” Dr Gunter is con­cerned that women might burn them­selves with the hot water. In fact, there have been reports of women who burned their pri­vate parts while try­ing to steam them. How­ev­er, Ms Block scoffs at Dr Gunter’s warning—“as if women can’t han­dle boil­ing water.” Yet the Shriner’s Hos­pi­tal burn team has been warn­ing peo­ple for decades that scald­ing-hot water, even hot tap water, can cause seri­ous or even dead­ly burns. In one famous case, Stel­la Liebeck was bad­ly burned by a cup of hot cof­fee that spilled in her lap. As a result, she required 8 days of hos­pi­tal­iza­tion for skin graft­ing, fol­lowed by two years of addi­tion­al treat­ments. Her case is described in the doc­u­men­tary Hot Cof­fee:

We Have No Safeguards Against Bad Journalism

Ms Block com­plains about some things that Dr Gunter sup­pos­ed­ly has not writ­ten about. “Instead of tak­ing shots at what’s in your fridge or night­stand, she could be using her plat­form to talk about, say, obstet­ric vio­lence, the ris­ing mater­nal death rate, the pelvic mesh dis­as­ter or the overuse of hys­terec­tomies, to name a few trends more threat­en­ing to women’s health and lives than yogurt.” Not only is this crit­i­cism unfair, giv­en that Dr. Gunter actu­al­ly has addressed some of these things, but it shows that Ms Block com­plete­ly mis­un­der­stands the par­tic­u­lar gap that Dr Gunter is try­ing to fill.

Amer­i­cans already have sys­tems in place to deal with dan­ger­ous prod­ucts and bad doc­tor­ing. The Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion reg­u­lates the mar­ket­ing of med­i­cines and med­ical devices. The state gov­ern­ments reg­u­late med­ical prac­tice with­in their bor­ders. State gov­ern­ments issue pro­fes­sion­al licens­es, and state gov­ern­ments can take those licens­es away from bad prac­ti­tion­ers. State courts allow patients who have been injured by doc­tors to sue for dam­ages. The state can even pros­e­cute and imprison doc­tors for com­mit­ting crimes like assault, rape, or fraud. In con­trast, we have absolute­ly no pro­tec­tions against bad med­ical jour­nal­ism. We have no sys­tem in place to ensure that the med­ical advice that peo­ple spread through books and mag­a­zines or over the Inter­net is actu­al­ly reli­able.  

Whom Should We Trust?

Both Dr Jen­nifer Gunter and Ms Jen­nifer Block have writ­ten books about the vagi­na. By writ­ing her op-ed, Ms Block evi­dent­ly wants to posi­tion her­self as supe­ri­or to Dr Gunter as a source of knowl­edge and wis­dom about women’s health and as a cham­pi­on of women’s rights. That’s a breath­tak­ing dis­play of nar­cis­sism, even in the age of Trump. It is astound­ing that Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can pub­lished Block’s op-ed, giv­en that the piece shows Block’s obvi­ous con­tempt for the sci­en­tif­ic method and her fear and loathing of the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty. Block argues that “Doc­tors are not gods.” That’s cer­tain­ly true, but the edi­tors of women’s mag­a­zines are gen­er­al­ly not even doc­tors. [Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can with­drew the op-ed with this note: “Edi­tor’s note. The post that orig­i­nal­ly appeared here has been removed because we’ve deter­mined that it does­n’t meet our edi­to­r­i­al stan­dards.” It was lat­er amend­ed to this note: “Edi­tor’s Note: Because of laps­es in Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can’s review and fact-check­ing process, the post that orig­i­nal­ly appeared here has been removed due to prob­lems with sourc­ing and cita­tions. We apol­o­gize to the author and our read­ers.” ]

Editors and Standards

Many thought­ful peo­ple share Dr Gunter’s con­cern that the Inter­net is being used to spread mis­in­for­ma­tion about health. This prob­lem is main­ly a lack of edi­tor­ship. Ide­al­ly, a work about sci­ence or med­i­cine would go through a sci­en­tif­ic review before pub­li­ca­tion. The review process should pre­vent total non­sense from being pub­lished at all, and it should allow any defects in accept­able mate­r­i­al to be cor­rect­ed before pub­li­ca­tion. The review process that sci­en­tif­ic pub­li­ca­tions use is not fool-proof. But much of the mate­r­i­al that is pub­lished for the gen­er­al pub­lic has not been reviewed by any sci­en­tist. As a result, the pub­lic is being giv­en a lot of bad advice about mat­ters of life and death.

We Need Honest Critiques of Medicine

Soci­ety real­ly does need peo­ple to crit­i­cize per­sons and insti­tu­tions, such as pub­lic fig­ures and the med­ical pro­fes­sion. How­ev­er, such cri­tiques must be based on facts, not on rumors and guess­es and bias­es and para­noia. One can­not real­ly pro­vide a use­ful cri­tique unless one knows the facts and under­stands what those facts mean. To gain that under­stand­ing, you often have to take some of the hard, nerdy cours­es in col­lege or even grad­u­ate or pro­fes­sion­al school. That’s why we need edu­cat­ed experts like physi­cians and sci­en­tists to edu­cate the pub­lic. We also need edi­tors and jour­nal­ists who can sim­pli­fy and clar­i­fy those experts’ mes­sages. Health­care reform­ers need to focus on real prob­lems and work on find­ing real solu­tions. One of those real prob­lems is the bad health advice that peo­ple are get­ting over the Inter­net. Dr Gunter has warned us about it. Peo­ple from many walks of life will have to work togeth­er to solve it.