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.
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.
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.
THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC