The Satvic Movement, a non-profit “holistic health education platform”, founded in August 2017 by a couple, Subah and Harshvardhan Saraf, has constantly stood out from the steady stream of health and fitness influencers that dominate social media feeds in India. As of September 25, 2023, the nationwide movement, which supposedly guides people towards a healthier life through satvic measures, lifestyle changes, and a reconnect with nature, has 5.94 million subscribers on Youtube, 1.2 million followers on Instagram, and 556,000 on Facebook.
The platform, besides its social media presence, also connects with the community through regular in-person interactions and workshops, such as the Ultimate Health Challenge, 3-Day Juice Fast, 21-Day Yoga Challenge, 5 AM Challenge, and the 4-hour Health Transformation Workshop. The organisation’s headquarters is in Gurgaon.
Satvik comes from the Sanskrit word “Sattva”, which means pure, clean and strong energy, so satvic foods are thought to be pure and balanced, offering feelings of calmness, happiness, and mental clarity. Diets and retreats that encourage a satvik (organic and clean) approach and regular yoga sessions are finding a lot of takers globally as a way to breathe new life into their health regimes.
Amid the increasing popularity of the movement, multiple videos of the influencers have repeatedly drawn the ire of doctors and experts, who have criticised their health-related claims and tips as inaccurate, unscientific, dangerously misleading and engaging in fear mongering.
Doctors sound strong note of caution against sungazing
Harshvardhan claims in an Instagram video, which was uploaded in March 2023, that a practice called sungazing helped him get rid of his spectacles, which he had been wearing since the age of 15. The video has garnered 90,388 likes, as of September 25, 2023. However, the post also mentions that sungazing alone is not enough and that “four other steps have to be followed”.
“I started wearing spectacles when I was just 15 years old. I couldn’t see anything clearly without them! Neither the blackboard, nor the scoreboard. But today, I haven’t touched my spectacles for 2 years. And I can see everything clearly,” reads the post, which also asked for engagement, a known monetisation technique, so that people can get access to the next steps. An influencer with a higher engagement rate may earn more than another with a huge following, but fewer likes and comments on their posts, as followers that engage more are more likely to purchase.
Interestingly, the video does not touch upon the four steps, but focuses exclusively on the sungazing aspect, stating that it must be done only within the first hour after sunrise or the first hour before sunset and never in the afternoon.
We got intrigued and looked at the comments section and found many users, including ophthalmologists and optometrists, asking for evidence, while also stating that Harshvardhan’s claim is not only misleading but also dangerous.
To investigate further, we reached out to one of the people who commented, Chennai- based paediatric ophthalmologist and neuro-ophthalmologist Dr Shruti Nishanth, who said sungazing is not a scientific recommendation, and could be harmful.
“I commented on the post as I was worried that an account with so many followers may be misleading the public into making a bad health decision,” she says. Referring to a study on solar retinopathy, she further says, “Direct sungazing has been scientifically proven to cause burns on a sensitive layer called the retina in the eye. Though exposure to outdoors and indirect sunlight has a scientific effect on preventing the rise in the power of glasses for children, the content on the video was about direct sun viewing and how it can ‘cure’ glasses’ power.”
We also came across this Healthline article, titled “Why Shouldn’t You Stare at the Sun”, dated September 18, 2018, clearly stating, “While the sun sustains our lives, it’s very important that you don’t stare at it directly, even during a total or partial eclipse. While you might not feel any pain or sense any damage as you gaze at the sun, the risk of damage to your eyes is high.”
Another medically reviewed report published in 2022 states that there are no proven health benefits to sungazing as it can damage eyes. The report goes on to emphasise the necessity for further scientific investigations to ascertain the validity of claims suggesting that sungazing boosts serotonin and melatonin levels, natural energy and enhances the immune system. It asserts that, “The only concrete research indicates that spending time sungazing can take a toll on your eye health,” states the study.
Dr. S. Natarajan, an ophthalmologist based in Mumbai, debunked the claim made in Harshvardhan’s video, asserting that early-morning sun gazing cannot cure myopia (short-sightedness). With over four decades of experience in the field of ophthalmology and the prestigious Padmashri award in recognition of his contributions, Dr. Natarajan runs Aditya Jyot Eye Hospital in Wadala. When questioned about the personal account shared by Harshvardhan in the video, claiming improved eyesight to the point of no longer needing glasses, Dr. Natarajan unequivocally states, “My answer is crystal clear: Sungazing cannot eliminate the need for eyeglasses.”
We found a criticism of this video on X (formerly known as Twitter). Kerala-based hepatologist and clinician-scientist Dr Abby Philips, who goes by TheLiverDoc on X, states that the benefits of sungazing are “usually promoted by unscientific groups”
In his post, he emphasised on the lack of scientific research to support the practice of sungazing. “However, there is evidence that the practice can be extremely HARMFUL,” the doctor states in a post on X, dated June 13, 2023, while cautioning people to stay away from “movements” that detach you away from reality and leave you without the capacity for rational and logical thinking.
Not the first bit of misinfo, not even their first concerning the Sun
Dr Philips had also previously come down heavily on the couple behind Satvic Movement, pointing out the scientific inaccuracies in multiple claims, including the purported medicinal benefits of Himalayan salt and ash gourd, stating in one post that “The Satvik health videos are absolute clownery and a danger to public health”.
Newschecker noticed that several of their claims revolved around the “healing” and “meditative” powers of the Sun, particularly this Youtube video from four years ago, titled, “How To Use Sunlight As Medicine For Your Body”. One particular claim by Subah stood out, seen from 08:36 in the video, where she advocates the shunning of sunscreen as it is “one of the most toxic things you can apply on your body”.
Subah points out the ingredients seen on the back of a tube of sunscreen lotion, stating that the chemicals “go deep inside our skin issues because of the external pressure of the sun. It is never the sun that gives us cancer, but the chemicals in the sunscreen that give us cancer”. She says use physical protection against the strong afternoon sunlight, such as using a hat or covering your head with a cloth.
Sunscreen causes cancer? No evidence, say experts
Does sunscreen, which is touted to help protect our skin from the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, itself cause cancer? According to Dr Sapna Patel, a medical oncologist and associate professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, there is no medical evidence that sunscreen causes cancer, while there is a lot of medical evidence that UV rays from the sun and tanning beds do.
A Healthline article, dated March 19, 2021, addresses the concerns of consumers who had pointed out that some studies have shown potential problems with certain ingredients in various sunscreen products. “Some ingredients in sunscreens can be absorbed through your skin, which has raised concerns about the possibility of cancer risk. However, there is no evidence that any of the ingredients in sunscreen raise your risk of cancer. Dermatologists in the US and Canada recommend that you wear a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more when you’re in the sun. Sunscreen protects your skin from the harmful effects of the sun’s UV rays, one of which is skin cancer,” stated the report, emphasising on the point that the cancer risk from not wearing sunscreen far exceeds any potential health risk from sunscreen ingredients.
According to an article on sunscreen safety, published by the Skin Cancer Foundation on June 15, 2023, consumer concerns were mostly directed towards the ingredient oxybenzone and whether it is a hormone disruptor. “One study showed uterine growth in rats. But if you look at that study, they fed the rats a huge amount of this chemical over the course of four days. To duplicate that amount in humans would take applying sunscreen all over the entire body every day for 70 years. It was not an accurate model for what a human would be exposed to,” reads the article.
We then came across this Times of India report, dated August 14, 2023, where Dr Sonal Bansal, consultant, dermatology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram, says, “It’s concerning to hear about high levels of benzene in some sunscreens. However, it’s important to put this into context. While benzene is indeed a cancer-causing chemical, the presence of high levels of benzene in some sunscreens is not representative of all sunscreens on the market…The benefits of using sunscreen far outweigh the potential risks associated with benzene exposure from a few products. UV radiation from the sun is a known carcinogen and a leading cause of skin cancer. Regular use of sunscreen, when chosen carefully, remains a crucial element in protecting your skin from the damaging effects of UV rays…My recommendation is to select sunscreens from reputable brands and consult with healthcare professionals if you have concerns. The goal is to strike a balance between safeguarding your skin from cancer-causing UV rays while minimising exposure to any potentially harmful chemicals.”
Newschecker then reached out to Dr Dipin Sudhakaran, senior resident doctor (radiology), AIIMS, Delhi, who says the claim that the chemicals in sunscreen cause cancer is false. “It seems she [Subah] is confusing it with whitening creams, which remove melanin and make us more prone to sunburns and cancers. Also, it was previously a concern that regular sunscreen use would result in vitamin D deficiency; however, vitamin D levels are not significantly affected by the regular use of sunscreen,” says Dr Sudhakaran.
“Several surveys and cohort studies, including several thousand individuals, have shown that regular application of skin-lightening cosmetics to large surface areas can have irreversible cutaneous adverse effects, such as patchy hyper- or hypopigmentation, skin atrophy, stretch marks and delayed wound healing, and can also mask or, on the contrary, promote or reactivate skin infections. Cases of skin cancer have been attributed to skin-lightening cosmetics,” Dr Sudhakaran adds, referring to a study.
Newschecker reached out to the Satvic Movement for their response to the comments by the experts, but has received no response till the time of publishing this article. We will update this webpage with their reply if we receive a response.
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