[tl;dr: There are some interesting research avenues concerning the biological effects of negative ions. These suggest a role in reducing serotonin levels in humans. Ionising air particles also causes aggregation and precipitation of suspended particulate matter along with whatever pathogens happen to be hitching a ride on those particles. However, NO RESEARCH has gone into the effects of small point sources of ions such as those in bands and bracelets and it is unclear whether these actually do anything at all…]
The EQ Bandz website that I mentioned in a previous post details a number of claims concerning their product. When you google the terminology they use, it seems that these phrases are repeated verbatim across the internet, so it’s worth taking a closer look at them. I think chunks of the text are copied from this WebMD article.
Background on Negative Ions
Ions in the air are charged gas particles. Positive ions are called “cations” (“cat” ions are “pussy-tive” is the way I still remember that) and negative ions are called “anions”. The air is made up of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, then bits of helium, carbon dioxide, and trace amounts of a bunch of other gases. Molecules of these gases are “charged” or “ionised” when large amounts of energy are present. This energy breaks the bonds between the ions which make up the molecules and rather than having a single molecule with no charge, there are multiple charged particles, or “ions”. There are many natural processes (lightning, for example) that can generate such energy. Background levels tend to be around 1,000 negative ions per cubic centimetre (“cc”) and 1,200 positive ions per cc. Here is a table of some measured air ion concentrations:
Which particular ions are forming the bulk of the ions in the air is unclear, and the levels of these ions vary with air pollution, time of day, season and weather. Following their discovery in 1900, a lot of research went into the biological effects of negative ions in the first half of the 20th Century and, just like today, many grandiose claims were made about their benefits. It was these unsubstantiated claims that led to the Food and Drug Administration in the USA banning the sale of ionizers for medical purposes in the mid-1950s.
Research almost completely halted at this point, but experienced a resurgence at the hands of two scientists: Albert Krueger working on animals, and Felix Sulman working on human hormone levels. Krueger worked on a number of different topics, demonstrating that negative ions influenced plant growth and animal hormone levels, as well as pathogen abundance (e.g. Krueger and Reed, 1976). Inspired by Krueger, Sulman carried out a number of studies on the effects of meteorological phenomena (desert winds) on hormone levels in Israel. The idea was that certain winds cause variations in ion concentrations. He found that treatment with negative ions reduced the incidence of serotonin-related ailments (Sulman et al., 1974a,b).
Equilibrium Bands Claims
CLAIM 1: “Anti-oxidising: US Dept. of Agriculture found that anions led to 52% less dust in the air and 95% less bacteria”
OK, I tracked this one down fairly easily. It’s a report by the Agricultural Research Service branch of the USDA. The two studies (Gast et al., 1999; Ritz et al., 2006) looked at ways to remove dust from the air and found that electrostatically-charged were extremely effective. So, a win for the pro-ion crowd, eh? Not so fast… You see the ionizers used in these studies were big, mains-powered units: “Each ionizer bar was 50.8 cm long, with 1.27×1.27 cm cross sections and electrodes every 1.27 cm. The bars were…operated at –20,000 V direct current by a current-limited power supply” (Gast et al., 1999). These are hardly energy bracelets… Furthermore, you might have been wondering why the USDA was involved in all of this. The reason is that the whole study was conducted in a bloody chicken coop! The authors were interested in reducing dust and infection in chicks! Finally, the finding that there is was “95% less bacteria” is due to the fact that the bacteria are sat on the dust particles. A summary of the study stated that the treatment “reduced Salmonella in air samples by 95 percent in a room with Salmonella infected egg-laying hens.” So we have evidence that if you are in a chicken coop with Salmonella infected egg-laying hens then there is less Salmonella in the air when you have mains-powered ionizers. Good to know! Now I really want a $40 rubber band!
CLAIM 2: “Emotional: 25 people tested with seasonal affective depression (SAD) found that anion treatment proved to be as effective against SAD as antidepressants without the side effects of these drugs”
For a start, the condition is actually “seasonal affective disorder”… The website cites a small, poor study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (Terman and Terman, 1995) – not a title that instills much confidence. A sample size of 25 is pretty poor for any kind of study. However, I am not going to spend much time on that paper as the authors have subsequently published two more in far more respectable journals (Terman et al. 1998; Terman and Terman 2006). These two subsequent studies do have some fairly convincing effects of high levels of negative ions and demonstrate that this treatment is as effective as bright light therapy for SAD. The experiments were blinded and involved a number of comparisons between different levels of ions and different light regimes. However, they note that the mechanism for this improvement is not known. It is worth noting as I mentioned above that ion concentrations vary with time of day so it is not unreasonable to expect that they can be used to treat a disorder that is associated with daily cycles. Again, however, this is a mains-operated air ionizer, not a rubber band…
CLAIM 3: “Immune system: Norwich Union Insurance Group: Reduced incidence of sickness and headaches by 78% when exposed to 1000 anions per C/C.”
This study was not actually conducted by Norwich Union… It was conducted by a researcher from the University of Surrey in the UK, who happened to be using the Norwich Union headquarters as her experimental population. The study (Hawkins, 1981) used a blinded model where three different rooms in an office block were either exposed to increased ion levels or not. Where ions were not being supplemented, the fan on the room ionizer was left running so that the participants were not aware of ion levels. This is the aspect of the design that makes the study so convincing. There were considerable benefits in participant self-reported health (headaches and nausea) which were independent of affects of temperature or humidity. However, as Hawkins notes: “Very little is known about the mechanisms for the biological influence of ions”. Also, this is still a program of mains-powered air ionisers and not rubber bands…
CLAIM 4: “Aging: Dr Nagao Katsharu, Japan found that skin cells were replaced at 2.5 times normal speed with anions by accelerating the delivery of oxygen to the cells and tissues.”
This is a funny one… Googling “Nagao Katsharu” only brings up balance band websites (and bloody hell are there hundreds, all using the same quotes!). Also, putting the name into Google Scholar yields nothing at all. Searching PubMed on the full author name gives nothing, either. I’ll chalk this one up to an obscure grey-literature reference, but until I can read it for myself I’m going to label the claim as “unsubstantiated”. If anybody knows of this study then let me know! Without the reference, all we can say is that enhanced oxygenation of the skin will result in greater skin cell replacement. This is an area that is currently being researched for skin grafts, which can be greatly improved by increasing blood and oxygen flow to the affected area.
CLAIM 5: “Respiratory: Swiss Textile Mill – 66% fewer sick days when exposed to anions at 1000 unites per C/C”
I’m going to admit to not being able to read this study, published entirely in German (Stark, 1971). Instead, here is a blurb from a pro-ion website outlining the study:
Negative ions help prevent respiratory-related illnesses In a study conducted in a Swiss textile mill, negative ionizers were placed in two, 60’ by 60’ rooms, each containing 22 employees. In one room, the negative ion electronic air cleaner was turned on during the course of the study. In the other room, the negative ion air purifier was permanently turned off, although the employees in this room were led to believe they were working in a room enriched by negative ions. During this six-month study, a total of 22 sick days were lost by employees working in the room in which the negative ionizer was operating. In the room where the machine was not operating, a total of 64 days were lost to sickness. During a month-long flu epidemic, the first group lost a total of 3 days to sickness, while the second group lost a total of 40 days to sickness (Stark, 1971).
This is presumably the same well-documented effect that was found in the poultry cages: ions cause aggregation of dust particles in the air –> these particles cluster and drop to the ground –> bacteria that would be transmitted on the particles are lost –> lower rates of infection. Also, we have the situation where, like the poultry house, a textile mill is an environment with very high levels of aerial particles. Ionisation can help to reduce this number which can only have a positive effect on respiratory infections. Again, though, it’s a big mains-powered ionizer, not a rubber band…
CLAIM 6: “Sleep: 1969 French Researcher found most people exposed to high levels of anions were able to sleep better”
I cannot find this reference anywhere, although based on another source it appears to involve a reduction in serotonin levels due to anion exposure. The patients involved in the study all suffered from an over-production of serotonin which was causing sleep problems. Exposure to negative ions apparently reduced the serotonin levels, thus relieving the problem. This is a very specific group of people suffering from a specific ailment who were helped by an air ionizer. You cannot extrapolate from this study to say that rubber bands help everyone sleep better. Again, it is mains-powered air ionisers, not wrist bands, that are being tested.
CLAIM 7: “Mental performance: Negative Anions increase the flow of oxygen to the brain; resulting in higher alertness, decreased drowsiness and more mental energy.”
As opposed to positive anions? Like Claim 4, this hinges on negative ions increasing blood flow. The Hawkins (1981) study, mentioned in Claim 3, demonstrated a weak but significant increase in mental alertness in the presence of ion supplementation. However, specifying a mechanism such as “increased blood flow to the brain” might be a bit premature. Certainly I haven’t been able to find anything to support that mechanism (but I would love to hear if anybody knows of a study).
On the EQBandz website they have some pictures showing how their bands improve circulation. Of course, they are not the only company claiming that their negative ions help blood flow. They aren’t even the only company using the same images of the same hands! However, they do manage to get the images the wrong way around… Here are two sets of images, the first from a product known as the Ki Flow bracelet (it’s also used by my old friends over at Harmony Balance Bands) and the comparison with Equilibrium Bands:
Finally, the very claim that these bracelets are emitting detectable amounts of ions is questionable. The Ki Flow bracelet advertises a maximum of 1,340 negative ions per cc when agitated and an average of 40 per cc at rest (I have no idea what this means…). Here are some other meaningless figures:
- INNERgy: 5,500 ions per cc
- BioHealth: more than 1,200 ions per cc
- Lunavit: at least 1,200 ions per cc
- Vital-Ion: around 1,200 ions per cc
But where is this measured? How is it measured? Is this in the material itself? How far from the bracelet can you detect the effect? I have assumed for the sake of argument that the bands discussed here actually do emit ions As a comparison, the room ioniser used by Terman and Terman (2006) produced ion flow rates of 4.5 x10^14 ions per second (high-density exposure) or 1.7×10^11 ions per second (low-density exposure). These units were positioned 60cm from the pillow on which the participant was resting.
As you can see from this review, there is no evidence for any kind of rubber band-related ionisation. There seems to be pretty good evidence that room ionisers reduce air particles that can cause respiratory problems, and with them airborne pathogens, and there may be a physiological effect, likely via a reduction in serotonin production. The mechanisms for the physiological effects are still unclear, though, and need further research. However, there is NO EVIDENCE FOR BANDS OR BRACELETS PERFORMING THE SAME ROLE. It seems that “look at all this good stuff air ionisers do, here’s a bracelet that does the same thing” is like saying “look how great scuba equipment is for breathing underwater, here’s a paper bag filled with air”…
Gast, R.K., Mitchell, B.W., and Holt, P.S. (1999) Application of negative air ionization for reducing experimental airborne transmission of Salmonella enteritidis to chicks, Poultry Science, 78: 57-61.
Hawkins, L.H (1981) The influence of air ions, temperature and humidity on subjective wellbeing and comfort, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1: 279-292.
Krueger, A.P., and Reed, E.J. (1976) Biological impact of small air ions. Science, 193: 1209-1213.
Ritz, C.W., Mitchell, B.W., Fairchild, B.D., Czarick, III, M., and Worley, J.W. (2006) Improving In-House Air Quality in Broiler Production Facilities Using an Electrostatic Space Charge System, Journal of Applied Poultry Research, 15: 333-340.
Stark, W. (1971). Vitaionen-ein potentieller Gesundheitsfaktor. Lugano, Switzerland: Tipografia.
Sulman, F.G., Levy, D., Levy, A., Pfeifer, Y, Superstine, E. and Tal E. (1974a) Air-ionometry of hot, dry dessert winds (Sharav) and treatment with air ions of weather-sensitive subjects, International Journal of Biometeorology, 18: 313-318.
Sulman, F.G., Levy, D., Pfeifer, Y, Superstine, E. and Tal E. (1974b) Effects of the sharav and bora on urinary neurohormone excretion in 500 weather-sensitive females, International Journal of Biometeorology, 18: 313-318.
Terman, M. and Terman, J.S (1995) Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder with a High-Output Negative Ionizer, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 1: 87-92.
Terman, M. and Terman, J.S (2006) Controlled Trial of Naturalistic Dawn Simulation and Negative Air Ionization for Seasonal Affective Disorder, Am J Psychiatry, 163:2126-2133.
Terman, M., Terman, J.S and Ross, D.C. (1998) A Controlled Trial of Timed Bright Light and Negative Air Ionization for Treatment of Winter Depression, Arch Gen Psychiatry, 55: 875-882.