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If Something Makes You Feel Better, Is It Medicine?

by Sian Ferguson

February 2, 2017

Education and Technology:

Microsoft Learning Tools is software that helps improve reading skills by reducing visual crowding, highlighting words, and reading text aloud, so students can engage with words in a whole new way.

Learn more
Two women relax on lounge chairs in front of Himalayan salt lamps at the Glacier Salt Cave in Juneau, Alaska, during a halotherapy session, which some say alleviates respiratory ailments.

Himalayan salt lamps, made of large chunks of pink salt mined from the Punjab region of Pakistan near the Himalayan mountain range, emit a soft, warm glow. And depending on who you ask, they also offer a range of therapeutic effects. Online stores and wellness sites claim that the lamps release negative ions, absorb positive ones, and ease health issues as diverse as asthma and mood disorders.

Holistic health practitioner Kimberly Petree, says that this is because when the lamps release ions, they’re filtering the air. When pressed to explain, she says, these “are the same negative ions that are released by a moving body of water or during a thunderstorm. The salt is attracted to water. These small amounts of water carry bacteria, mold, and allergens. The salt lamp traps the water and the substance it carries and cleans the air.” 

I don’t think that the ions coming off of one lamp are enough to have a major effect on physical ailments.

For this reason, Petree tells her clients to use the lamps for a better night’s sleep and for help with ailments like allergies or even anxiety. But Dr. Stephania Sciamano, a naturopathic physician and shaman, has a different perspective. Though the lamps do in fact give off negative ions, “I don’t think that the ions coming off of one lamp are enough to have a major effect on physical ailments. You would need several lamps to flood the room with ions.”

Sciamano isn’t alone. In the medical community, it would be an understatement to suggest that there are doubts as to whether the salt lamps offer any scientifically viable health benefits. As noted in Alex Kasprak’s recent salt lamp fact-check on Snopes.com, one of the most shared papers touting the lamps’ supposed effects, published in 2010 in the Pakistan Journal of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, wasn’t peer-reviewed—while an exhaustive 2013 review of relevant experiments found that “exposure to negative or positive air ions does not appear to play an appreciable role in respiratory function.”

Dr. James Giordano, professor in the departments of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, points out that the lamps’ negative ions may not be the only reason they make people feel better. “As even the most ardent skeptics will note, these lamps do indeed produce a rather pleasant ambient light. A number of well-controlled studies have examined the effects of varying wavelengths of light on brain functions. There is good evidence that affecting the type and quality of ambient lighting can evoke some reasonably strong neurophysiological effects.”

Our bodies respond to a variety of environmental stimuli and cues, says Giordano—and our responses can be “bottom-up,” which means that they can start with our bodily sensations and then travel to our brain, where our moods can be improved. “It is also possible that such changes in brain network and chemical activity induce ‘top-down’ effects, which, in turn, can engage neurological mechanisms that control a variety of bodily functions to change our physiology.”

In layman’s terms: A Himalayan salt lamp is technically producing a placebo effect, which is generally defined as “a physiopsychological response to factors that we find pleasing,” he says.

Has this cat fallen prey to the placebo effect?

Dr. Giordano’s extensive research into the neurocognitive functions of placebo effects has demonstrated to him that, although many people equate placebo effects with “sham” or bogus medicine, that isn’t quite the right way to view it. A growing body of research suggests “that a host of differing factors in our environments can induce such changes in brain activity, and these responses can be conditioned, learned, and, in some cases, be rather powerful,” he says.

If something as simple and natural as a salt lamp makes people feel better, why not try it?

Dr. Sciamano agrees with this view. “My approach is that if something makes you feel better, without any harm, then it counts as medicine,” she says. “If something as simple and natural as a salt lamp makes people feel better, why not try it?”

Although Himalayan salt lamps do not have much science to back up any claims that they work, that doesn’t mean that they are wholly ineffectual. It would be inappropriate to equate anecdotal evidence with scientific evidence—but that doesn’t mean we should entirely dismiss anecdotal evidence. If you find that a salt lamp reduces your stress, don’t overthink it. As long as it isn’t actively damaging your physical or mental health, use the method that soothes what ails you. 

Image by wanderlust via Getty images.

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