Forty-three years ago, Dan Rather, then the host of “60 Minutes,” interviewed Dr. John W. Travis, founder of the Wellness Resource Center, located in Marin County, California.
“Wellness, there’s a word you don’t hear every day,” Rather quipped.
His guest, whose work would go on to influence medical, academic, and corporate arenas, told Rather that even if one leaves a doctor’s office with a “clean bill of health, that doesn’t mean you’re well.”
“Wellness,” Travis said, “is recognizing that there is more to life than the absence of sickness. It’s an on-going dynamic state of growth.”
Travis and his partners looked at a person's whole lifestyle — their diet, work habits, stress, relationships, and physical activity — with the aim of getting to the root causes of their symptoms and preventing disease or injury in the future.
Dr. Halbert L. Dunn, whose 1961 book “High Level Wellness” would greatly influence Travis, described wellness as an integrated, holistic approach to “maximize one’s potential.”
Since then, it’s safe to say, what was once a fringe movement has morphed into a full-blown phenomenon, also known as “functional medicine.”
According to a 2021 McKinsey report, today’s wellness market is valued at $1.5 trillion and is expected to grow 5-10% every year for the foreseeable future. Consumers report wanting to improve six areas of their lives: health, fitness, nutrition, appearance, sleep, and mindfulness, or the ability to focus on the present moment.
Corporate America has bought into the wellness craze. According to the CDC, more than half of all workplaces offer employees health and wellness programs, and the Harvard Business Review reports that highly effective programs have a direct impact on employee retention and company health care savings.
Today’s consumers are willing to pay top dollar for everything from fitness trackers to vitamin and mineral supplements to diagnostic testing for metal and toxin exposure. Goop, the wellness enterprise launched by actress Gwyneth Paltrow in 2008, and considered by some to be the gold standard for wellness trends, advertises that it wants to be “worthy of your trust and your wallet.”
While some Goop products, such as a toxin-free sunscreen line, have made it into retail pharmacies, other products, such as the $8,099 personal infrared sauna in effect draw a line in the sand for everyday Americans.
Such a commodification of health sends the message that wellness is out of reach.
“It seems to be more important, or maybe marketed to, other socioeconomic and ethnic groups,” observed Father Michael Masteller, associate pastor of St. Helen Church in South Gate, with parishioners from largely Hispanic and lower- to middle-class backgrounds.
While Masteller sees the value in paying attention to one’s human needs, the wellness craze doesn’t seem to take into account that for many ordinary Americans, self-care is a luxury for which they lack the time, money, and space to indulge.
Indeed, the modern wellness movement, with its roots in post-industrialized 19th- and 20th-century Europe, was aimed at alleviating the effects of a more indulgent and decadent lifestyle.
A combination of the elite price point and addictive pursuits of her clients motivated wellness practitioner Jackie Mulligan to found Reform Wellness, “a functional medicine and holistic wellness practice rooted in Christ.”
Mulligan became familiar with the field after her mother was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. She studied how food and nutrition could help to heal systemic issues like autoimmune diseases and began observing the effects of the contemporary American lifestyle on people in her community. As a Spanish teacher, she says she couldn’t help but notice “how much of a role food and overall well-being played in my student’s capacity to learn, maintain information, and pay attention.”
Mulligan moved to San Diego, where she built a successful book of business with high end clients, a place where “it was easy to put wellness practices into place.” Her clients began to ask to extend their contracts with her in pursuit of higher goals and mile markers.
While that option would have been lucrative, Mulligan said it became “clear that no matter how healthy they ate, how much they lifted, or how productive at work they were, they were hungry for something else.”
Around that time, Mulligan was going through a personal reversion to the Catholic faith. She realized that her clients “were hungry for the Lord, the Divine Physician, who could ultimately sustain them.”
She founded Reform with the aim of giving clients a set of “simple but radical” tools that they could use for a lifetime to live more abundantly, citing John 10:10 as their foundation.
Reform’s wellness plans are aimed at counteracting the effects of the American lifestyle, which Mulligan says work against human flourishing. “Stress is one of the main root causes of disease,” she said.
Because she believes that the tools for building a healthier life should be available to everyone, her company makes a number of best practices available for free through online talks and on social media.
Victoria Battell, an educator from Albany, New York, remembers finding Reform online and being struck by their intake questions — ”Are you overextending yourself and ignoring yourself in the process? Are you filling your calendar with busy work that leaves you distracted rather than dialed in?”
After answering yes to every prompt, she signed up for two courses, which she said were life-changing and got to the roots of her physical and spiritual habits.
While she admitted that one of her initial goals was to lose weight and get fit, as she went through the program and examined her whole life, she realized the course wasn’t going to be a “six-week fix.”
“I’ve changed all of my habits, from sleep to prayer,” she said. “Reform is a way of life, and the online community is an aspect of it that I can’t do without.”
Bridget Vander Woude, a doctor of naturopathic medicine who works with Mulligan, said that while there are “plenty of things to be cautious about” when it comes to the movement, it also provides the best possible foundation for health that she’s seen.
“It’s most aligned with what I’ve learned about human nature and how God designed the human body,” said Vander Woude, who also has a background in philosophy.
The field is attracting interest from a growing number of Catholic physicians like Vander Woude, while secular institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and the Mayo Clinic begin to offer patients programs designed to holistically address their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
According to My Catholic Doctor, an organization linking patients with doctors who practice medicine in a way that is consistent “with the highest principles of our faith,” functional medicine involves developing an “individualized, science-based care plan” to optimize a patient’s wellness.
Instead of prescribing treatment to alleviate symptoms and sending a patient home, practitioners of integrative medicine examine blood work, hormones, food sensitivity, and lifestyle factors to identify the root causes of many issues, including infertility, gut health, depression, anxiety, and fatigue.
Wellness and the Catholic tradition
Reform is one of a number of Catholic entities marketing a Christian version of wellness to a population interested in self-care.
Given that many secular wellness groups promote practices at odds with the practice of the Catholic faith, such as astrology, “healing crystals,” Reiki, and even violent sexual practices, these groups want to harness the instinct for “whole-living” but situate it in a sound theological context.
Many Catholic groups note that pursuit of health has longstanding roots in the Church’s tradition.
The Ember Collective, another Catholic wellness practice, offers personalized guidance on issues from thyroid and metabolic health to blood sugar regulation “with eternity in mind,” and markets that it’s “important in all seasons to nourish our bodies well, to support our vocations as well as those placed in our care.”
Their wellness curriculum is named “Viriditas,” a term coined by St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century mystic and doctor of the Church, who was interested in herbal and naturopathic medicine.
The term is roughly translated as the “divine greening or healing power” found in all created things, or the principle in created things that organizes them toward vitality and wholeness.
According to Katie Gearns, The Ember Collective’s CEO and co-founder, its mission has an ecological element, in that they “believe in a holy reverence for creation,” and want to help other “be good stewards of the land not just in our own backyards, but in the food we choose to nourish our families.”
Sister Marica Ternes, FSE, director of faith formation at Duke University’s Catholic Center, said their campus ministry team created a “Catholic Guide to Wellness” for students, which includes recommendations for “daily deposits,” or habitual practices to improve one’s mental, spiritual, and physical health.
“We teach them “Lectio Divina” [“Divine Reading”], “Visio Divina” [“Divine Seeing”], and contemplation of Scripture, especially the Psalms,” she said. Students, she added, learn the difference between Christian contemplative prayer and secular meditation practices.
Jeffrey P. Bishop, the Tenet Endowed Chair in Bioethics and professor of philosophy, health care ethics, and theology at St. Louis University, speculated that wellness programs “seem to be thriving because they give a broader and more holistic vision in a world, especially a medical world, that is reductive and atomistic.”
Bishop, who is also an M.D., noted that when a person is ill, especially with a terminal illness, there’s an experience of alienation from the body that modern medicine is ill-equipped to address.
“Medicine no longer knows how to make sense of the meaning of your body and your life,” he said, “so it makes sense that people are looking for holism.” Given that “religion has always been pretty good about integrating the meaning of our bodies, lives, and selves, it makes sense that people are turning to religious wellness programs,” he said.
Bishop points prospective clients to a figure in the tradition for guidance — St. Basil of Caesarea, an influential figure in the Council of Nicaea. In one letter, Basil instructs the reader in discernment about how and when to prioritize one’s spiritual and physical health.
“It’s important to find a spiritual director who can help you determine if you’re overemphasizing your physical health to the detriment of your spiritual health, or vice versa,” Bishop told Angelus. “It also can’t be that everyone has to take care of themselves first and be healthy before taking care of everybody else,” he said, cautioning against letting wellness turn into pop psychology.
At the same time, he noted that if a person is spiritually unwell, they can harm others spiritually. “It’s a delicate balance,” he observed.
Likewise, Masteller cautioned that happiness cannot be derived from health or wellness itself. “When self-care becomes a sort of self-salvation project, that’s a real problem,” he said.
And, of course, in a world where the modern idea of wellness is out of reach for the sick, poor, or otherwise afflicted, Christianity invites all of us to “look to Christ on the cross who cannot defend himself, cannot feed himself, who is powerless,” the priest believes.
“There’s a temptation in the modern world to say, ‘If I just follow this technique, or read this book, or do this diet, or get this amount of sleep, then I’ll be OK,’ ” he cautioned.
“But the deeper peace, especially in our limitations and in our suffering,” he said, “always comes from Christ.”