HO-HO HOKUM?

Woolston is a freelance writer.

Some holiday gifts speak volumes about the giver. Are you the type who would fill a stocking with vitamins or fitness gadgets? If so, you're obviously concerned about the well-being of the people around you. You're also a bit of a risk-taker. When it comes to health products, it's all too easy to end up gift-wrapping a package of nothing. Even the best items may not work for every person every time. And some are pretty much guaranteed to disappoint.

This season -- and every season, really -- you'll need an abundance of skepticism to go along with your holiday cheer if you truly want to give the gift of health. Consider the following five real-life products that are vying for a place in Santa's bag.

The whole package would cost more than $400. Their actual value is another matter entirely.

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Salt lamps

These functioning electric lamps enclosed in a chunk of salt have been adding their pleasant glow to health fairs and mall kiosks for years. Unlike most light fixtures, illumination isn't their main selling point. Salt lamps are touted as a natural source of "negative ions" that supposedly improve the health of anyone nearby.

Shopping over the Internet, you can quickly find salt lamps in many shapes, including pyramids, angels and, appropriately enough for the season, Christmas trees. A 10-inch-tall, tree-shaped lamp from Toronto-based Gamma International costs about $50.

The claims: According to the Gamma International website, the negative ions released by salt lamps will relieve stress and "clean ambient air." The cleansing power of the lamps supposedly makes them "especially helpful for relieving the symptoms of allergies and asthma." The site also claims that the lamp's soft orange color can boost mood and improve the focus of children with attention deficit disorder. Other sites claim that salt lamps can treat migraines, insomnia, depression, sinusitis and viral infections.

Bottom line: If glowing crystals fit the home decor of your friends and family, salt lamps might be a good present. But experts see two basic flaws behind the claim that users will ionize their way to good health. First, it's not possible for a chunk of salt to release a significant amount of negative ions, says Victor Stenger, a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. There isn't nearly enough energy in a lamp to break up the ionic bonds between the sodium and chlorine in salt. "If that were true, we'd have chlorine gas coming out our salt shakers."

Nadeem Azeem, a partner at Gamma International, says he has heard such criticisms before but believes that his lamps really do produce ions. "Believe" is the key word. "We haven't done any studies," he says. "But I'm sure that meters can measure the ions."

Even if these salt blocks somehow released ions through a loophole in the laws of chemistry and physics, they couldn't deliver on their health claims, says Michael Terman, director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. Terman's studies have found that large doses of negatively charged oxygen ions generated by a machine can help ease depression in people with seasonal affective disorder -- a finding touted on several salt lamp sites. But there's a world of difference between oxygen streaming from a machine and chlorine supposedly trickling from a rock, he says. "I was dismayed to see my research touted by salt lamp companies. It's disgraceful." As for the claim that the color of the lamps can dramatically improve mood or treat ADHD -- "that's just nuts," Terman says.

Other studies of negative ions (from machines, not salt) have had decidedly mixed results. For example, a review published in 2003 found no evidence that negative ions can improve symptoms of asthma.

Azeem says his salt lamps can't really be compared to machine ionizers. "Salt lamps don't produce as many ions as a machine," he says. "In nature, things happen very slowly." Or, some would say, not at all.

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Earth footwear

Everyone knows that walking uphill is serious exercise. If you don't encounter enough real hills, you might be tempted to try a pair of shoes that bring the hills to you. Earth footwear makes a line of "calorie-burning" walking shoes, loafers, sandals and boots featuring a sole with a slight upward incline of 3.7 degrees. Recently touted on NBC's "Today Show," the shoes are sold online, at specialty footwear shops and at Whole Foods Markets. Expect to pay $70 to $140, depending on the style.

The claims: Earth footwear's motto is "burn more calories with every step." The company website boasts "better leg and calf toning, tighter thighs, firmer stomach muscles, straighter posture and better breathing."

The bottom line: Inclined shoes have been around for decades, but there's still no good evidence that the design will help wearers burn extra calories or lose weight, says Geza Kogler, a scientist in the Clinical Biomechanics Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and a member of the Footwear Biomechanics Group of the International Society of Biomechanics. "I think it's a stretch to make those claims," he says.

An unpublished study commissioned by the company found that wearing Earth shoes might actually slow weight loss. The 31 women in the study all walked about four miles three times a week for four weeks. Twenty-four women wearing Earth shoes lost an average of 0.7 pounds, while the seven women wearing regular walking shoes lost an average of 1.1 pounds. The Earth group did lose a bit more body fat, a finding not lost on study author and company consultant Katy Santiago, director of the Restorative Exercise Institute in Ventura. Santiago says her study shows that Earth shoes help wearers turn fat to muscle. "Losing weight is great, but in the long term, lean body mass is much more important."

But Kogler thinks this single, very small study didn't prove much, either for or against Earth shoes. The group wearing regular shoes had lower levels of body fat to begin with, and they were faster walkers. Such differences could skew the results, Kogler says. Also, the study was probably too short to permit conclusions. "This study should have been at least three to six months long," Kogler says.

While there's no strong evidence that inclined soles can do any harm, Kogler speculates that Earth shoes could potentially strain the plantar fascia, a band of connective tissue on the bottom of the foot. Over time, such strain could cause plantar fasciitis, a common source of heel pain. The Earth website says that some users may feel some "discomfort" and encourages people with a "preexisting foot condition" to consult a doctor before trying their shoes.

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Eyeport Vision Training System

The human eye wasn't built for staring at computer screens, plowing through textbooks or reading the dialogue in comic strips. If your eyes feel weary after a day on the job, you might be interested in the Eyeport Vision Training System, a device that supposedly exercises eyes to better cope with modern life. Developed by Hawaii-based optometrist Jacob Liberman, the system features a console that flashes patterns of blue and red lights. Users are instructed to follow a set of programs for 10 minutes a day, six days a week, for 12 weeks. The system is sold online for about $240.

The claims: The Eyeport website claims that users can dramatically improve "speed, accuracy, and efficiency" of their eyes. The company doesn't claim that the system will treat common vision problems such as nearsightedness or astigmatism, but Liberman, who has used Eyeport, says he hasn't worn eyeglasses since 1976, when he was 29.

The bottom line: The system is no vision cure-all, but it can give tired eyes an impressive boost, says Hannu Laukkanen, a professor of optometry at Pacific University College of Optometry in Forest Grove, Ore. Laukkanen, who has no financial ties to the company, co-authored a study on Eyeport for a 2006 issue of the journal Optometry. Thirty-one students with normal vision used the system for 10 minutes a day, six days a week, for three weeks. All of them also went three weeks without using the system. Tests showed that the students' eyes worked more efficiently after the training. Their eyes could quickly work together to focus on a target, an improvement that could help prevent eyestrain in office and classroom. Other established vision training programs take much longer to work, Laukkanen says. "I was quite surprised to see these improvements."

Laukkanen suspects that training with Eyeport could help improve depth perception, especially for people who have trouble gauging distances while driving at night. James Kundart, an assistant professor of optometry at Pacific University, says the system has potential to help people who see blurred or doubled words while reading, even with glasses.

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Portable toothbrush sanitizers

If you've ever thought about the germs that could be lurking in a toothbrush, you've probably also thought, "Yecch." While most people simply put the germs out of their mind, others prefer to blast them into oblivion. For about $30, you can buy a Zapi, a portable toothbrush sanitizer from Violight Inc. that uses ultraviolet rays to kill germs hiding in the bristles. Recently featured in Oprah magazine's gift guide, the devices are sold at drugstores and department stores.

The claims: The Violight website claims the product will kill "up to 99.9% of the bacteria that thrive on your toothbrush" along with cold and flu viruses. The site also says that germs on a toothbrush are a major source of tooth decay. But Joel Pinsky, founder of Violight, says the sanitizers aren't really intended to reduce cavities. He says their main job is to kill the unpleasant germs that float around in any bathroom. He even brings up the specter of water drops splashing from the toilet into the toothbrush zone.

"Bathrooms are breeding grounds for germs," he says. "I equate putting a toothbrush in a sanitizer with putting silverware in a dishwasher."

The bottom line: Though UV rays can undoubtedly kill germs, toothbrush sanitizers are "unnecessary," says Mathew Messina, a Cleveland-area dentist and the consumer advisor for the American Dental Assn. According to Messina, the germs that live in the mouth like things moist and warm, so "simply allowing the toothbrush to dry out will kill the bacteria." If you happen to drop your toothbrush in the toilet -- or if you're worried that your toothbrush might contain flu germs or other infectious troublemakers -- he suggests a cost-effective alternative to a UV device: a new toothbrush. "You can buy a large number of new toothbrushes for the cost of a sanitizer." No matter where you keep your brush, Messina recommends switching to a new one every three months.

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Intentional Chocolate

Chocolate lovers know that joy, satisfaction and energy can all come in the same foil-wrapped package. As if chocolate weren't already rewarding enough, a Madison, Wis., company with offices in Los Angeles is promising to push it to a new frontier. The company, Intentional Chocolate, claims that it has found a way to infuse chocolate with prayers of "good intentions" from Buddhist monks. The monks -- some of whom are said to have trained with the Dalai Lama -- pray directly over the chocolate, presumably using some sort of spiritual assembly line.

According to the company website, prayers contain simple messages such as "be well" and "thank you." The website sells nearly a half-pound of chocolate caramels for about $16. You can buy 14 ounces of hot cocoa mix for about $30.

The claims: The company website says that "scientific testing has demonstrated that consumption of Intentional Chocolate has a positive effect on mood, energy, and overall sense of well-being."

Bottom line: Studies show that chocolate really can improve mood -- proof that researchers are sometimes willing to study the obvious. But can prayers make chocolate better? Researchers studied this question too. A 2007 study of 62 chocolate-eaters, reported in the alternative health journal Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, found that subjects who ate the blessed treats from Intentional Chocolate had more energy and better moods after three days than subjects stuck with plain, old unblessed chocolate.

It would take far more than a small study in an obscure journal to convince Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. "There's nothing in the way that we understand the universe that would explain how a group of people could influence the well-being of others by blessing their chocolate," he says. Besides, he adds, if chocolate could be blessed, it could also be cursed. Before you wrap that gift and send it off to a loved one, ask yourself: Are you willing to take that chance?

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health@latimes.com

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latimes.com /skeptic

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