Questioning whether this new spa treatment provides all the medical benefits it claims.
One of our most abundant renewable resources is bogus medical therapies. About every day, someone thinks up a new one: sometimes invented from whole cloth, sometimes extrapolated from a real therapy, sometimes tweaked from an old tradition. Today we’re going to look closely at one such spin-the-wheel-and-create-an-alternate-therapy: cryotherapy.
Don’t confuse this with medical cryotherapy, the freezing off of tissue, usually called cryoablation. Alternative cryotherapy is a hijack of an actual medical term repurposed to refer to the use of what they call a cryosauna, the opposite of a regular sauna. Rather than applying ice to a specific body part, a cryosauna is used for what they call Whole Body Cryotherapy. It’s a small room for one or more people, cooled by liquid nitrogen to extreme temperatures, usually about -125°C/-200°F but sometimes advertised as low as -170°C/-275°F. You have to wear special slippers to protect your feet since you can’t touch anything in there, and you have to wear a mask to avoid frostbite to your pulmonary system. You stay in for no more than three minutes.
What is the medical claim? Unfortunately, as it is with so many alternative therapies, cryosaunas are claimed to cure just about anything the proprietor says, and they all have different spiels. Most all of them say it treats inflammation, skin conditions, and aids in workout recovery. There are several spas, plus chiropractors and other alternative practitioners near me who offer cryotherapy, according to Yelp.
Almost all of the customer reviews are raving. Here are some samples:
“My inflammation almost immediately decreased and I felt a huge wave of euphoria similar to a runner’s high.”
“Felt great afterwards. Will try again to see if I have any lasting effects.”
“I feel euphorically energized after each session and I have noticed that my tendinitis has gotten better after 2 sessions.”
“I feel so good afterwards. I can tell this cryotherapy is helping to heal my body!”
Why do these people feel so good unless there’s something to cryosauna therapy? Is it possible their reaction comes from something other than genuine treatment of some medical condition? The evidence shows that it probably is.
Masaru Emoto believes that water entagles with human consciousness and emotion, a concept he calls ‘hado’. Is there anything behind Emoto’s water woo?
Today we’re going take a look at one of the founders of a pseudoscience that has, for more than three decades, given birth to a whole slew of knockoff pseudosciences pertaining to water. The man is Masaru Emoto, born in Yokohama in 1943, and creator of what he calls hado (rhymes with shadow). It is Emoto’s firm conviction that water, human consciousness, and human emotion are deeply entangled; and he has become best known for his photographs of ice crystals (basically snowflakes) that he says are either beautiful or ugly based on the emotions expressed at the time of their formation. If you write a positive word on a bottle of water, or expose it to a picture of beautiful animals like dolphins, it will freeze into beautiful ice crystals; but if you speak harshly to it, or write a negative word on the bottle, it will freeze into ugly non-crystalline lumps. Emoto’s definition of hado is “The intrinsic vibrational pattern at the atomic level in all matter. The smallest unit of energy. Its basis is the energy of human consciousness.” Throughout his writing in his several books, Emoto uses the word “vibration” in much the same way as Deepak Chopra uses the word “quantum”: without any actual meaning relevant to its context. He writes:
Hado creates words
Words are the vibrations of nature
Therefore beautiful words create beautiful nature
Ugly words create ugly nature
This is the root of the universe.
It’s quite poetic, yet to find any meaning in it, it seems one must view Emoto’s writing purely from the perspective of metaphysics and allegory. But Emoto means it quite literally, and a massive number of products and books have sprung to life in the ecosystem created by Emoto’s magical water beliefs. Water filters claiming to form water into special molecular arrangements that promote super health cite Emoto. His emotion-governed ice crystals were a major theme in the 2004 New Age pseudo-documentary film What the Bleep Do We Know? Uncounted companies sell bottles of water that they say has been blessed, or spoken to positively, or exposed to positive energy, or otherwise prepared in some manner according to Emoto’s research. One web site selling such blessed water (since defunct) even claimed:
…Malformed crystals were created when the water was placed next to a microwave oven, a cell phone, a computer, and a television (unless it showed wholesome family shows).
Emoto also famously claimed that jars of rice will rot if negative words are written on the containers yet will stay fresh if positive words are used instead, an experiment that has become viral on the Internet. And, of course, his beliefs have been embraced and publicized by Hollywood celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow.
But to establish the validity of a scientific claim, we don’t look at what pop culture phenomena it has created. Instead, we look at the data; so to learn more about Emoto’s hado, we have to set aside all of that.
The essences of certain flowers and herbs produce a pleasing smell, but is it also medicinal?
The popularity of essences of aromatic plants appears to have skyrocketed in recent years. Normally they’re used as simple fragrances, in perfumes, incense, soaps and candles, or even potpourri. But their recent rise may be due in part to stinkier practices: a lot of people are now turning to essential oils for medical purposes. Some believe they promote general wellness, some believe they boost the immune system, and some depend on specific aromatherapies to treat very specific diseases. Are they right to do so?
Let’s look exactly at what an essential oil is. First of all, the word “essential” means that the oil contains the “essence” of whatever plant it’s from; it does not mean that it’s essential (as in necessary for health). Leaves, stems, flowers, or whatever part of the desired plant is placed in a distillation vessel with steam. The heat releases the volatile organic compounds from the plant matter (volatile means they exist as a vapor at room temperature). Volatile organic compounds are what goes into your nose when you smell a flower. These compounds are then distilled into a liquid, which we colloquially call the “essence” of the plant. Finally, to make a nicely packageable product of desired consistency and concentration, the essence is usually mixed with an odorless carrier oil. Then, voilà: we have what’s called an essential oil, strong with the smell of the plant it’s made from.
It can be a massage oil; it can be the scent added to incense; it can be added to bath water, to soaps, or to candles; you can put some in your tea; or you can dab some on your skin for the fragrance. Many such aromas are delightful, even pleasurable. For a thousand years, people have been willing to pay a fair price for essential oils. But in recent years, prices have skyrocketed, especially among allegedly “premium” oils. Why might this be? The plants have not become any more scarce, and the production methods have only become more efficient and cheaper (particularly with our global economy providing the best access ever to bargain-basement oils produced in developing countries).
The answer is a resurgence of aromatherapy in the New Age and alternative medicine communities. But before we talk about its resurgence, let’s see how it first became a thing at all.
The principal anecdote cited by virtually all credulous articles on essential oils comes from the perfume industry.
A new trend in spas is to let people relax in salt caves. Is there any benefit to this?
Read transcript below or listen here
You lay comfortably in a lounge chair, perhaps snuggled into a robe of natural fibers, in a quiet, peaceful room. Soothing music plays softly. The cool air is dry and still, and has a slightly salty tinge. For you’re relaxing in a salt cave, perhaps in an exclusive modern spa, perhaps deep underground in a real salt mine, undergoing halotherapy or speleotherapy or salt therapy.
The room is entirely made of salt, but most spas use machines that grind up salt into fine particles and waft it into the air. The claim is that restful breathing in this environment brings health benefits unavailable in any other conditions. Now, don’t ask too quickly exactly what the benefits are supposed to be, or exactly what the specific environmental conditions need to be, because those aren’t really too clear. Instead, let’s just ask why people all over the world are turning to salt therapy.
So just for grins, I did a Google search for “salt cave therapy“. Here are a few specific claims for what conditions salt caves treat, from the first page of Google results. They come from boutique spas selling the service:
A small minority of spa sites I reviewed stated that salt caves do not treat any medical conditions, and merely provide relaxation. However, the majority are very clear that their service is a miracle treatment, even a cure, for most or all of these conditions. Clearly the salt cave industry has not yet reached any consensus on exactly what it’s selling.
Some of the sites I reviewed emphasized purity of the salt, while others credited all the many minerals in it. One site said that the unique combination of 94 (!) elements in natural salt is what makes it work. A number of sites say all 84 are needed. Another says that they only use Himalayan pink crystal salt, because that’s the only way to insure purity (pink salts are pink because they are contaminated with iron oxide). Analyses of Himalayan pink salt have found that it contains between 95-98% salt, with most of the rest being gypsum. Trace elements of about 10 minerals are usually found. Although gypsum is recommended in some alternative medicine schemes, no sound medical research has ever found any benefit from consuming it; so it’s not clear why salt therapy practitioners recommend it. Either way, the practice seems to present no clear consensus on whether pure salt or contaminated salt is best; it seems to be a pretty even split. But both sides sound pretty adamant that their way is best.
The mechanism for how salt caves treat these conditions is also in hot dispute. While about half emphasize the salt itself being beneficial once it gets into your lungs, the other half are all about ions. Ions, they say, promote good health. An ion is a molecule with an electric charge, either positive or negative, made so because it has more electrons than protons, or more protons than electrons. Negative ion generators have been a staple of alternative therapies for a long time, based largely on the sciencey-soundingness of the term and a misunderstanding of what they actually do. Negative ion generators use high voltage to add an electron to particles in the air. Electrostatic attraction then causes those particles to move toward, and bind to, a grounded surface such as a wall. Thus, an ionizer can help to reduce the amount of dust particles, allergens, and other particles from the air in a room.
Many of the salt therapy spas claim that the ionizers in their caves produce negative ions that destroy bacteria. This is also wrong. An ionizer can help draw bacteria out of the air, as just described, but . . .
- Skeptoid #376: Salt Therapies (skeptoid.com)
- Say Hello to Salt Therapy Ireland (mompreneursirelandblog.com)
- Salt Cave Salt Therapy Salt Speleotherapy/Halotherapy! Yes or No? (ctesthetic.com)
- Salt cave opens in Fairfield County (donnachristopher.wordpress.com)
- Pure Himalayan Salt Now Available with Complimentary Shipping (virtual-strategy.com)