The HBO docuseries “Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God” begins with a jarring image. The corpse of the cult leader, Amy Carlson, laying in a bed, wrapped in blankets and string lights. She is noticeably gaunt and her face is a very blue color. When Carlson died in 2021 at the age of 45, a coroner’s report deemed her cause of death to be “alcohol abuse, anorexia and chronic colloidal silver ingestion.”
While discoloration of the face is a natural part of the death process, Carlson’s face started to turn blue long before. That’s because she was ingesting large amounts of colloidal silver, which are small particles of the metal silver in a liquid solution. The particles are small enough that they don’t sink and can be delivered in a tincture-like form.
The docuseries makes it clear that colloidal silver was a big part of not only Carlson’s health regimen, partly guided by the so-called Galactics, which included the late Robin Williams, but it was also an alternative health remedy that the cult widely promoted to its followers. They even sold bottles of their own colloidal silver online, which they touted as a “cure-all” substance and one of the “most healing” medicines on the planet that can boost the body’s immune system.
Thanks to the docuseries, colloidal silver has materialized in popular culture once again, but it’s not the first time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Alex Jones promoted colloidal silver as a treatment for the coronavirus. Gwyneth Paltrow once told Dr. Oz that colloidal silver “really keeps viruses away.” Before Paltrow, libertarians gravitated toward colloidal silver in the early aughts in part thanks to a man named Stan Jones, who also turned blue from ingesting too much colloidal silver. Jones latched onto it at the turn of the millenium after attending a so-called “preparedness expo” for the impending Y2K crisis, which thankfully never materialized, for fear that antibiotics would be in short supply.
Most medical experts advise against ingesting silver — especially in large amounts. That’s because too much of it can build up in a person’s body and lead to argyria, which is the condition that Carlson and Stan Jones both had that turned them a blue. While argyria alone isn’t a serious health condition, it doesn’t go away when a person stops ingesting silver. Plus, too much silver can be fatal.
“There’s really no evidence at all that taking colloidal silver has any health benefits.”
“If you take a very large amount or injected IV, those types of things, then that can cause organ failure and you can get very, very sick,” Rob Hendrickson, the medical director of the Oregon Poison Center at Oregon Health & Science University, told Salon. When people experience argyria, Hendrickson said, is the result of silver building up in the skin. This is why it can look more blue when exposed to sunlight. “It all really comes down to silver being impregnated in the layers of your skin, and then eventually it gets sort of activated by sunlight to turn into a blue color.”
Historically, silver has been known to help the healing process for venous leg ulcers and heal wounds. Hendrickson said there are some catheters used today that are coated with silver to decrease the risk of infection. Notably, these are topical uses — not internal. “While putting silver on a specific bacteria or on a wound can decrease infections, there’s really no evidence at all that taking colloidal silver has any health benefits,” Hendrickson said. “Certainly not decreasing infection rates.”
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon’s weekly newsletter Lab Notes.
Yet tinctures continue to be sold (sometimes for more than $100 per vial) and promoted on social media platforms like TikTok. What is it about ingesting silver that keeps hooking both alternative-health seekers? Hendrickson said he thinks there is a certain fascination with metals, or the idea that an element like silver could be a cure-all.
Derek Beres, co-host of the Conspirituality Podcast, told Salon he agreed that there is a preoccupation with precious metals, and it goes a bit deeper than that. Specifically, the jump in logic from how silver can be a topical treatment to an internal one speaks to “the idea that the inner world and the external world are one-to-one matched.” It’s the same logic behind “manifesting” or “becoming your thoughts.”
“If I put silver on a wound and it heals it well, then it must do the same thing to my organs,” Beres explained. “This is a real lack of scientific literacy, of course, but this is why I think this is so popular.”
“The countercultural left and the far right both converge on their distrust of corporations and institutional expertise.”
Some might be surprised that colloidal silver has been embraced by both the far left and far right. The Love Has Won cult attracted more New Age types, while on the far-right so-called “preppers” and “survivalists” have colloidal silver in their survival kits. Beres said it shouldn’t come as a surprise because there are many supplements these two groups have in common.
“That crossover has existed for a long time,” he said. “And I do think it’s that anti-establishment sentiment that exists between those groups.”
Dr. Stephanie Alice Baker at City, University of London, who wrote the book Wellness Culture, agreed that the anti-establishment sentiment is what brings the two groups together in the health world.
“The countercultural left and the far right both converge on their distrust of corporations and institutional expertise,” she said. “Whereas qualified experts are often seen as commercially and politically compromised, these groups privilege renegades, figures such as Andrew Wakefield, and ‘native expertise’ intuited and experienced through the body.”
Beres said that there is also the sentiment of declinism that both groups have in common, which is the belief that a society or institution is on the decline. It sparks a certain kind of romanticized nostalgia that the past was better, especially in terms of healing.
“The idea that we need to take cues from the past and get back to that place,” he said. “Nevermind that supplements are all made in laboratories and that sometimes they’re using pharmaceutical-grade ingredients.”
While it’s true that there are many life-saving medical treatments and vaccines available, and people aren’t faced with as many life-threatening diseases and illnesses as they were in the past, the structure of America’s healthcare system enables such pseudoscience to persist. As my Salon colleague Mary Elizabeth Williams once wrote: ” It’s not hard to see why opening up your chakras sounds more appealing than some once a day pill that’s constantly being peddled on Hulu.” For this reason, Beres said he has empathy for those who seek out remedies like colloidal silver.
“It’s so frustrating to live within a system where profits trump actual medical care unless you’re at a certain threshold financially with which most of us are not,” he said. “People are just frustrated with healthcare and with politics in general, so they’re going to look to other sources to try to take care of themselves.”
about wellness culture