Posts Tagged Pseudomedicine

Green is Good?

You may have heard that exposure to nature can improve your health*. There are also many trends floating around the Internet that claim to leverage the benefits of nature to improve your physical and mental health. While proponents claim to be driven by evidence, is there really evidence that nature can improve your health? And if so, is it really necessary to reorganise your daily life, drive out to the wilderness, and/or buy expensive accoutrements in order to leverage the benefits?

Popular Claims

Among the most prominent trends is earthing or grounding, a practice popularised by a variety of holistic health devotees, from nature-loving vegans and Ayurvedic enthusiasts to paleo and primal dieters and Silicon valley biohackers. The trend is based on the idea that the earth has a negative charge; but that modern life bombards us with positive charges, creating an imbalance and reducing our ability to combat free radicals. The benefits of grounding touted by advocates are vast, from reducing jetlag to balancing hormones and normalising blood pressure.

A large field under a blue almost cloudless sky

At its most basic, grounding advocates suggest we simply spend more time walking outside on soil and grass in bare feet; but many advocates also promote grounding mats, blankets, shoes, sheets, bags, and a variety of other devices to counteract modern life and provide ready (and overnight!) access to the benefits of the earth through an electrical charge. Most of these sites enthusiastically link to studies, but any effects seen in these small studies are miniscule and potentially the results of design flaws, as described in a recent segment of Skeptics with a K.

Forest bathing is an older cousin of grounding, referring to the Japanese practice of using your senses to soak in the forest atmosphere. Increasingly popular outside of Japan, it has a small number of researchers who suggest it is not only a way to combat the psychological stresses of increasingly urban life but also a way to combat cancer, lower blood pressure, and boost immune function. Although one would think this is a fairly solitary endeavour, as with many holistic practices, its Western reinterpretation includes guided group visits and sometimes even hugging and speaking to trees.People walking along a footpath surrounded by trees

Understanding the connections between exposure to nature and human health

For most people, the idea of sleeping on a specially designed electrical mat and wandering around barefoot in forests are beyond what they are willing to do for health. Access to nature can also be challenging for city dwellers, and in most developed countries, more than 75% of the population lives in urban areas. In the UK that number is over 90%. While cities offer many benefits, urbanisation increases the incidence of a host of health problems and associated socio-economic costs. For these reasons, it’s perhaps more helpful to investigate what we actually know about urban green space and human health, to see if there are measurable benefits.

A tarmac road lined with trees

The evidence

A considerable body of research is developing, suggesting positive impacts of being in, and leaving near, green space. The amount of green space seems more important for perceived health than the amount of urbanisation, although certain groups may benefit more.

The benefits

Exposure to green spaces has been shown to relieve stress and promote relaxation, and has positive impacts on affect and reducing sadness, which improve cardiovascular disease outcomes and all-cause mortality. The effect may be amplified by the fact that people prefer green spaces for physical activity, making exercise and active forms of transport more attractive. Some studies have shown decreases in salivary cortisol and reduced blood pressure, with women potentially more negatively affected by lack of green space. Although some reviews have noted this effect is not consistent across studies.

Increasingly studies are looking at the dose of nature that we actually need to experience these benefits.  Most studies suggest that the required dose is likely relatively small (perhaps only 5-10 minutes on a given day). Benefits are evident whether you are merely looking at nature or exercising in it, although the latter, perhaps understandably, offers benefits more quickly. Lower rates of blood pressure and depression have been documented from just 30 minutes in green space per week. The shape of the dose-response curve is still in question.

A footpath beneath lots of trees with sunlight shining through

Countering harm

It is also worth noting that green space can contribute to reducing air pollution, which is a major contributor to poor human health outcomes. This effect is direct, in that vegetation can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce pollutants such as particulates (PM10), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), and nitrogen and sulphur oxides (NOx and SOx). Green space makes walking and cycling more attractive. This contributes not only to improving air quality via reduced vehicle use, but the increased physical activity has associated health benefits.

Green space can also reduce the urban heat island (UHI) effect, wherein cities are hotter than surrounding areas because of the prevalence of dark surfaces such as asphalt and concrete. UHI also contributes to poor air and water quality. By lessening this effect, green spaces can improve the urban environment, decrease health impacts of heat and even reduce mortality from heat waves.

Caveats within the literature

There is a lot of academic literature focusing on the connections between human health and urban green space**. This literature is both theoretical and empirical, and methods are a mixed bag. For example:

  • Self-reported data from individuals on perceived improvements in health (usually gathered via questionnaires)
  • Correlations between access to green space and population-level data
  • Direct measurements of key indicators (e.g. blood pressure, heart rate, salivary cortisol) either linked to exposure or accessibility of green space.

What constitutes health varies across studies, with the first two categories often adopting a fairly broad definition that includes physical health as well as mental health (especially anxiety and depression) and broader indicators such as happiness, life satisfaction, and social cohesion.

A body of water with a bridge in the background and trees on either side

As with all social and health research in the “real world”, teasing out causal relationships is difficult. Confounding factors are controlled for, to an extent, but there are so many causal factors that complicate the issue. For example, people prefer to exercise in green space, but green space tends to be more scarce and of lower quality in areas with multiple social, economic, and health deprivations. However increasing green space (and improving its quality, addressing personal safety issues, etc.) can also improve these indicators.

Conclusion

Spending more time in green areas, whether forests urban parks, is likely to offer you some health benefits and encourage you to be more active. The great news is that it needn’t take much of your time, and no special mats, shoes, blankets, or spiritual guides are required. Green spaces also address some of the environmental problems in urban areas, providing benefits for both people and nature.

Dr Sarah Clement standing in front of a wall and smilingDr Sarah Clement

Sarah is a faculty member in the Department of Geography and Planning within the School of Environmental Science at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on environmental governance, science-based policy, and nature-based solutions. She is particularly interested in how reforming policy and practice can enable better ecological, socio-economic, and democratic outcomes, particularly during periods of rapid environmental and social change.  Sarah has worked in the field of environmental science and policy for 16 years as an environmental consultant, researcher, and environmental policy advisor in Australia, the UK, and the USA. She is also on the board of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. She spends most of her spare time hiking in nature, travelling, lifting heavy things, adoring her cat, and documenting all of these in pictures. She tweets as @DrSarahClement, and posts said pictures on IG @umsfromumbridge.

 

Footnotes:

* The most widely used definition of ‘health’ is from the World Health Organisation: ‘physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. Operationalising and measuring this concept is a major challenge that leads to the variety of measures discussed here.

** Also called “green infrastructure” and “nature based solutions” in the literature and public policy. To complicate matters, “blue infrastructure” (i.e. water) is often, but not always, embedded in these terms.

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Happy Homeopathy Awareness Week!

In celebration of Homeopathy Awareness Week – and in recognition of the fact that genuine awareness is the biggest threat to belief in homeopathy – our friends* at the Good Thinking Society have released their own awareness-raising site, with 12 key points to be aware of when it comes to homeopathy.

Homeopathy Awareness Week takes place internationally from April 10th-16th and is aimed at raising awareness of homeopathic remedies. Each year, homeopaths from around the world use this week to promote their practice and gain publicity – yet public awareness of the realities of homeopathy remains low.

For example, many people mistakenly believe homeopathic products are a form of herbal product – not realising that homeopathic products typically contain no active ingredients at all. Over two centuries ago, the first homeopaths perversely decided that diluting an active medicinal ingredient makes it more potent, with the vast majority of remedies containing nothing at all! Modern homeopathic tablets are generally 100% sugar, containing no active ingredient whatsoever.

As part of World Homeopathy Awareness Week, we would like to raise awareness of twelve key points about homeopathy.

Head over to homeopathyawarenessweek.org to read the twelve points in full!

*full disclosure – Vice President of the MSS, Michael Marshall, is the Project Director of the Good Thinking Society.

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New Diploma in Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine

QED: Question. Explore. Discover.

Get your QED ticket now!

Here at the Merseyside Skeptics Society, we heartily endorse awareness-raising publicity stunts. Obviously. After all, we organised for nearly 500 people worldwide to ‘overdose’ on homeopathic products. Pretty hard to deny our love of a good publicity stunt, then. Plus, on September 14th our BBC documentary involving the creation and distribution of homeopathic ‘QED Vodka’ will be screened. So, yeah, publicity stunts are our thing, really.

So when I saw that the Voice of Young Science are to take to the streets of London to hand out qualifications in Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine, I was very interested indeed. Unfortunately, I can’t make it along to the event, so my practice of traditional old-wives-tale remedies will have to remain strictly that of an unlicensed amateur, but if you’re around and free, why not pop along and get yourself a qualification? It beats spending 5 years learning to be a ‘Doctor’ of homeopathy, and leaves you just as qualified to treat people. Details of the event are below, and you can RSVP on Facebook too (if you do, tell them we sent you!).

New Diploma in Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine

Do you remember how your grandmother thought burns should be treated?  What happens to your hair if you don’t eat your crusts?  If you think you can answer questions like these and your hands are clean, why not become a registered practitioner of Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine?

The Voice of Young Science School of Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine will hit the streets of London on Wednesday, handing out diplomas for people to practice Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine. Young medics and researchers in lab coats will be registering members of the public who can correctly answer questions about traditional advice and cures.

Find out if you qualify for a diploma at the Department of Health, Richmond House, Whitehall, SW1A 2NS, on Wednesday 8th September 11.30 – 12.30.

The VoYS Network is launching its Old Wives’ Traditional Medicine Accreditation Scheme to draw attention to the Department of Health’s proposed professional registration scheme for practitioners of traditional medicine, which will regulate everything except whether a practitioner has medical training or is practicing an evidence-based discipline. Read the rest of this entry »

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Skeptics with a K: Episode #027

More homeopathy (!), treating impotence, victimising Bosnians and permanent gastric fistulas. Diagnosed by passages from the Koran, it’s Skeptics with a K.

Play

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F*ckin’ Magnetic Bracelets – How Do They Work?

Magnet Health Bracelets

This grey fella sure has his health problems

This week I want to take you both to the seaside, to take a look at something listener submitted, Blackpool-based, and textbook-woo. So, with a tip of the hat to Hoopy1888 on Twitter, I present to you – Magnetic Zone, and their Magnetic Health Bracelet.

Now, confusing as the name might seem, this isn’t a bracelet you wrap around magnets to help them stay healthy – this isn’t about the health of your magnets at all. Instead, this is about trying to use magnets to make YOU healthy. Confusing, I know, but stick with me, and I’ll talk you through the leaflet that our listener sent to my via the magic of twitpic. The leaflet – which is available on the MSS site and linked from the show notes – starts promisingly, with the printed name ‘Magnetic Zone’ hastily surrounded by scrawled writing either side of it, to read ‘www.magneticzone.co.uk’. Which is always nicely professional – especially when you visit the site, and find nothing but a black holding page with garish yellow text giving you an email address to contact, and nothing else. I know that’s how I like to get MY health advice.

Still, as the leaflet declares, these products promise that they ‘Change your health for the better’ – which is an amazing claim, presumably in oppostion to all of those bracelets that seek to change your health for the worse. Handcuffs, I suppose you’d call them.

So, what can these mystery bracelets do for you? Well, despite not yet saying anything about them – again, another sure sign that we’re dealing with a genuine health product here – the leaflet gives us a charming grey silhouette of a man with little lines coming off to list the ailments he can be relieved of via the use of Magnetic Health Bracelets (promotional price from £10, the handwritten scrawl appears to inform us). Read the rest of this entry »

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Newspapers Wake Up From A Coma Speaking Fluent Bullshit

This is a story that recently popped up in both the Daily Fail and the Telegraph (from now on referred to as the BellyLaugh).

Apparently, Croatian doctors are baffled after a teenage girl who fell into a mysterious coma woke up speaking fluent German. The teenager has been unable to speak Croatian – although can understand it when it is spoken to her – and now communicates only in German.

Pretty off-the-wall I think you’ll agree. This is the kind of thing that would have steadfast believers in past lives screaming “Proof!” in very loud voices, particularly if this unfortunate teenager didn’t speak German beforehand. Going by the tone of the article, you would think that this is what had actually happened. Read the rest of this entry »

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