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THE HOLIDAY ISSUE / THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC

Ho-ho Hokum?

Chocolates that lift mood. Lamps that bust stress. Shoes that shed pounds. Can these gifts be for real?

December 15, 2008|Chris Woolston | Woolston is a freelance writer.

Some holiday gifts speak volumes about the giver. Are you the type who would fill a stocking with vitamins or fitness gadgets? If so, you're obviously concerned about the well-being of the people around you. You're also a bit of a risk-taker. When it comes to health products, it's all too easy to end up gift-wrapping a package of nothing. Even the best items may not work for every person every time. And some are pretty much guaranteed to disappoint.

This season -- and every season, really -- you'll need an abundance of skepticism to go along with your holiday cheer if you truly want to give the gift of health. Consider the following five real-life products that are vying for a place in Santa's bag.

The whole package would cost more than $400. Their actual value is another matter entirely.

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Salt lamps

These functioning electric lamps enclosed in a chunk of salt have been adding their pleasant glow to health fairs and mall kiosks for years. Unlike most light fixtures, illumination isn't their main selling point. Salt lamps are touted as a natural source of "negative ions" that supposedly improve the health of anyone nearby.

Shopping over the Internet, you can quickly find salt lamps in many shapes, including pyramids, angels and, appropriately enough for the season, Christmas trees. A 10-inch-tall, tree-shaped lamp from Toronto-based Gamma International costs about $50.

The claims: According to the Gamma International website, the negative ions released by salt lamps will relieve stress and "clean ambient air." The cleansing power of the lamps supposedly makes them "especially helpful for relieving the symptoms of allergies and asthma." The site also claims that the lamp's soft orange color can boost mood and improve the focus of children with attention deficit disorder. Other sites claim that salt lamps can treat migraines, insomnia, depression, sinusitis and viral infections.

Bottom line: If glowing crystals fit the home decor of your friends and family, salt lamps might be a good present. But experts see two basic flaws behind the claim that users will ionize their way to good health. First, it's not possible for a chunk of salt to release a significant amount of negative ions, says Victor Stenger, a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. There isn't nearly enough energy in a lamp to break up the ionic bonds between the sodium and chlorine in salt. "If that were true, we'd have chlorine gas coming out our salt shakers."

Nadeem Azeem, a partner at Gamma International, says he has heard such criticisms before but believes that his lamps really do produce ions. "Believe" is the key word. "We haven't done any studies," he says. "But I'm sure that meters can measure the ions."

Even if these salt blocks somehow released ions through a loophole in the laws of chemistry and physics, they couldn't deliver on their health claims, says Michael Terman, director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. Terman's studies have found that large doses of negatively charged oxygen ions generated by a machine can help ease depression in people with seasonal affective disorder -- a finding touted on several salt lamp sites. But there's a world of difference between oxygen streaming from a machine and chlorine supposedly trickling from a rock, he says. "I was dismayed to see my research touted by salt lamp companies. It's disgraceful." As for the claim that the color of the lamps can dramatically improve mood or treat ADHD -- "that's just nuts," Terman says.

Other studies of negative ions (from machines, not salt) have had decidedly mixed results. For example, a review published in 2003 found no evidence that negative ions can improve symptoms of asthma.

Azeem says his salt lamps can't really be compared to machine ionizers. "Salt lamps don't produce as many ions as a machine," he says. "In nature, things happen very slowly." Or, some would say, not at all.

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Earth footwear

Everyone knows that walking uphill is serious exercise. If you don't encounter enough real hills, you might be tempted to try a pair of shoes that bring the hills to you. Earth footwear makes a line of "calorie-burning" walking shoes, loafers, sandals and boots featuring a sole with a slight upward incline of 3.7 degrees. Recently touted on NBC's "Today Show," the shoes are sold online, at specialty footwear shops and at Whole Foods Markets. Expect to pay $70 to $140, depending on the style.

The claims: Earth footwear's motto is "burn more calories with every step." The company website boasts "better leg and calf toning, tighter thighs, firmer stomach muscles, straighter posture and better breathing."

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