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THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC

Giver, beware

Do the claims of these potential holiday presents hold up under scrutiny? The experts weigh in.

By Chris Woolston

Special to The Times

December 17, 2007

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It's a jolly time of year for companies selling health products. The credit cards are flying, wishful thinking hits an annual high, and shopper skepticism doesn't come easy. But many gadgets or supplements have all of the health-enhancing power of a lump of coal. And though a gift that actually boosts health could make someone's season, hokum is still hokum, even if it's wrapped in a bow.

We took a look at eight health products that seem to make some outlandish, questionable or just goofy claims. The verdict: If you put them all together, Santa would definitely have a mixed bag.

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StressEraser

The StressEraser is a hand-held biofeedback device that promises "stress-free living," a bold claim for the holidays or any time of year. Sold online for about $300, the Walkman-sized device monitors your pulse with infrared light and translates your heart rate into a series of electronic waves on a small display screen. Users are instructed to breathe along with the waves while thinking calming thoughts such as "I am relaxed." Just 15 minutes of this focused breathing each night before bed is supposed to banish stress from your life.

After using the StressEraser several times, the Healthy Skeptic can report that he still feels stress. Still, the device is undeniably calming. Watching your heart rate and concentrating on breathing leaves little room for other thoughts.

Mrs. Skeptic used the device three times before bed, and each time she enjoyed a solid night's sleep, which for her is an accomplishment. On the night she didn't use it, she was back to fidgeting, staring at the ceiling and, she later admitted, spending an inordinate amount of time wondering if hamsters could ride bicycles. The StressEraser and similar hand-held biofeedback devices should "generally relax people," says Robert Jenkins, a biofeedback practitioner and the chief psychologist and neuropsychologist at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

But like treadmills and stationary bikes, he says, there's a good chance the StressEraser will end up in storage before its time. "People buy these units without any guidance," he says. Users should try it at least 10 to 20 times to get the full effect, he says, "but by then, it's likely to be sitting in a drawer."

There are other, cheaper options for anyone looking for a break from stress. You don't need a machine to show you how to take deep, regular breaths, and you can meditate without prompts from a display screen. But if you feel most at peace with a gadget in your hand, the StressEraser might be for you.

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Sleeptracker

Every night, you cycle through five different stages of sleep, ranging from borderline comatose to almost awake. The two deepest stages of sleep are the most restful, but also the least compatible with alarm clocks. If an alarm catches you in deep sleep, you'll wake up dazed and groggy, a state that could last well into your first cup of coffee.

The Sleeptracker wristwatch -- available online and sold through Brookstone and other catalogs for $150 to $180 -- promises to prevent rude awakenings by tracking sleep phases.

The watch has a motion detector that constantly monitors your movements through the night. When morning arrives, the watch supposedly sounds the alarm only when it detects restless movements that go along with the lightest phases of sleep. "When you're tossing and turning, you're virtually awake," says Lee Loree, the inventor of Sleeptracker. According to the company website, the Sleeptracker is "ideal for anyone who wants to wake up alert and ready to start the day."

The Sleeptracker -- or any motion-sensing device -- can accurately tell whether a person is sleeping or awake, says Dr. Gerald Rich, director of the Pacific Sleep Program in Portland, Ore., and a spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The Sleeptracker records your sleep time, which, Rich says, can be valuable information if you're seeking a doctor's help for sleep trouble.

But the claim that the Sleeptracker somehow synchronizes the alarm with your sleep phase just doesn't hold up, Rich says. "There's no way this kind of device can detect sleep phases," he says. Inevitably, there will be mornings when the alarm goes off during the deepest phase of sleep, and it will be just as unwelcome as ever.

Loree says that his company has sold more than 30,000 Sleeptrackers and fewer than 5% of those have been returned by dissatisfied customers. "We would have significant return problems if it didn't help people," he says.

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Pure-Go

Here's a gadget that combines the germ-killing power of popular hand sanitizers with the glamour of a Casio watch. Pure-Go is essentially a small tub of sanitizer attached to a wristband. Press gently on top, collect the sanitizer as it oozes out and rub it all over your hands. Sold online for $12 (sanitizer included), Pure-Go comes in several shades of plastic that all make the same fashion statement: I'm so worried about the germs on that shopping cart handle that I'm willing to accessorize with a disinfectant.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can kill viruses and bacteria and prevent the spread of illness, especially at playgrounds, mall food courts and other places where you may not have easy access to soap and water. And there's no doubt that pressing on your wrist takes slightly less effort than pulling a bottle of sanitizer out of your pocket or purse. But before you buy Pure-Go for yourself or someone on your shopping list, ask yourself: How convenient does sanitizer really need to be?

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Frankincense and myrrh

According to the Bible, frankincense and myrrh were two of the hot gift ideas for the first Christmas. Although the aromatic tree resins have since been eclipsed by gift cards and gaming systems, you can still buy them at health food stores or online.

For thousands of years, wise men and others have prized frankincense and myrrh for their earthy, spicy fragrances. To see what the fuss was about, consider buying vials of essential oils made from the resins. Expect to pay about $10 for 5 milliliters of either. Mix a little oil with a bath or pour it into an aromatherapy nebulizer, and you'll instantly re-create the scents of the manger scene -- at least the pleasant parts.

Both resins may also have some medicinal benefits. Myrrh -- sometimes added to mouthwashes and toothpastes -- can kill bacteria and also seems to ease inflammation. Websites selling myrrh recommend putting a small amount of essential oil on mouth sores, but there's no good evidence that this works. Test-tube studies suggest that frankincense also has some anti-inflammatory powers, and a small study found that a product combining the resin with three other herbs (ginger, turmeric and ashwagandha) seemed to relieve osteoarthritis pain.

Overall, though, it seems that frankincense and myrrh have more to offer the nose than any other part of the body.

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Health by Chocolate

Devotees of chocolate have already heard the good news: The antioxidant flavonoids and other nutrients in dark chocolate can actually be good for you. For example, a 2004 Finnish study found that eating 75 grams of dark chocolate daily boosted HDL, or "good," cholesterol, by more than 10%. Other studies suggest dark chocolate can relax blood vessels and discourage blood clots.

It was only a matter of time before chocolate migrated from the candy aisle to the world of health products. And perhaps no product has made that move more explicitly than Health by Chocolate, sold at health food stores, upscale grocers and over the Internet. Shopping online, you can buy a 24-pack of 1.75-ounce bars for a little less than $90, or nearly $3.75 per bar.

Health by Chocolate makes claims that go beyond the heart. One variety -- the Instant Bliss Beauty Bar -- is touted as "the most delicious way to give yourself soft, smooth, luxurious looking skin." It's not a completely far-fetched claim: A small study recently published in the Journal of Nutrition found that drinking flavonoid-rich cocoa powder every day for three months improved circulation to the skin, leaving it thicker and better hydrated.

The Beautiful Bones bar promises to "give much-needed support to your beautiful bones," an offer that's bolstered by extra calcium and vitamin D.

Any dark chocolate bar made with real cocoa is likely to offer health benefits, as long as you don't eat enough to blow your calorie budget. (Milk chocolate has fewer flavonoids and more calories.) In comparing brands, the real issue is taste. And for that, shoppers might prefer bars with a richer, more decadent flavor.

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Tanita Ironman Body Composition Monitor

If you're planning to give someone a scale for the holidays, you've already shown a willingness to take risks. (Certain people would see a gift-wrapped scale as an invitation for violence.) But some gambles are doomed from the start.

Consider the Tanita Ironman Body Composition Monitor, sold for about $130. One of the scale's main selling points is that it purportedly measures levels of visceral fat, the kind that builds up around the intestines and other organs. Experts believe that visceral fat can throw off a person's metabolism, greatly increasing the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Unfortunately, no bathroom scale can accurately measure visceral fat, says Kenneth Ellis, principal investigator of the Body Composition Laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "It really surprises me that they are claiming to do it," he says. Instead, scales such as the Ironman can make only a rough estimate based on a person's weight and the ease with which a small jolt of electricity runs through the body. (Electricity moves easily through lean tissue, but lots of fat will make for a sluggish signal.)

Two recent studies from Japan have found that electricity-based estimates of visceral fat can be off by as much as 50%. Estimates of total body fat would be somewhat more reliable, Ellis says, but they're still limited by the fact that they can measure only the electricity that flows up one leg and down the other. Anything you're carrying above the waist would be essentially invisible to the machine.

The only way to accurately measure visceral fat is to have a CT scan or similar high-tech test. But, in most cases, Ellis says, your body mass index -- a calculation based on your height and weight -- will tell you all you need know. Unless you're muscle-bound, a BMI of 30 strongly suggests that you have too much fat -- visceral and otherwise -- for your own good.

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EMF pendants

If you'd like to protect friends and family from electromagnetic fields -- invisible energy streaming from power lines, cellphones and strings of Christmas lights -- Earthtrade and other companies have a gift idea: pendants that supposedly block EMFs. Some of the pendants cost nearly $500, but the Q-Link pendant -- made of "biocompatible" acrylic -- is a relative bargain at about $100. The Earthtrade site explains that "while the jewelry is shielding you from the radiation, your body can start eliminating the toxins from your body and help to raise your energy levels along with your level of health."

The pendants may look stylish -- if biocompatible acrylic is your thing -- but there's no way they could protect a person against EMFs, says Kelly Classic, a health physicist at the Mayo Clinic and a spokeswoman for the Health Physics Society. "They're a waste of money," she says. As Classic explains, the skin directly beneath the pendant might be shielded from EMFs. But for the rest of the body, it will be business as usual. Contrary to ads, the Q-Link pendant was never intended to block EMFs, says Liz Katona, director of marketing for Clarus Transphase Scientific, the company that manufactures the product. "I don't know of anything that could work as a shield against EMFs short of a lead cage." Instead, she says, the pendant reinforces a person's innate energy fields to make the body immune to the dangers of EMFs.

Those dangers are still unproven: According to a 2007 report from the World Health Organization, there's no good evidence that everyday EMFs from power lines or cellphones can cause cancer or any other illness.

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Q-Ray bracelet

For just $80 to $300, you can buy jewelry that made history. The "ionized" Q-Ray bracelet isn't just a flashy piece of metallic wristwear; it was also the centerpiece of a landmark false advertising lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission.

Advertisements from QT Inc. -- the company behind Q-Ray -- had claimed that the ionized metals in the bracelet worked like acupuncture to "relieve pain the natural way" and restore a person's natural energy flow, or "chi." Some websites selling the Q-Ray bracelets continue to make similar claims, a bold move considering QT's fate.

QT founder Que Te Park admitted in federal court that the term "ionized" was essentially meaningless. In a 2006 verdict, the judge ruled that "there was no scientific evidence presented that the Q-Ray bracelet . . . has any properties different from any other bracelet made from the same metals." In 2006, Park and other defendants were ordered to turn over $22.5 million in profits and refund as much as $87 million to disgruntled customers. The company continues to sell Q-Ray bracelets over the Internet, but now it promises little more than "alternative ways to enhance overall lifestyle and happiness."

A 2002 study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that patients reported less pain after wearing Q-Ray bracelets for a month, but patients wearing regular bracelets enjoyed just as much relief.

Sometimes, a bracelet is just a bracelet.