Jan. 16, 2018 -- When Sadie Kadlec approached her boss at a high-end fashion firm in New York City to ask for a raise a few years ago, she secretly clutched two small pebbles in her right hand. One was an orange crystal called carnelian, said to promote courage; the other, a pale bluish-green gem stone called kyanite, said to correspond to the throat, or voice, “chakra” (one of seven spiritual energy centers in the body described in some of the healing traditions of ancient India, including yoga).
Initially, her boss resisted her request. But Kadlec, fueled by a calm confidence that seemed to come out of nowhere, bargained hard and got what she asked for.
“I was blown away by what those two stones did for me,” says Kadlec, 30, who now meditates on crystals daily, carries them with her, and teaches classes on how to use them to promote emotional and physical health. “These are pieces of the Earth with their own gravitational force or energy, and you can feel it.”
A decade ago, Kadlec’s story might have been written off as New Age psychobabble, but today -- in what some are calling the “new New Age” -- such alternative healing therapies are everywhere.
Google searches for “crystal healing” have more than doubled in the past 5 years, fueled by endorsements from celebrities like Katy Perry, Kate Hudson, and Adele, who clutches one during performances to fend off stage fright. Himalayan salt lamps marketed as mood boosters and magnetic bracelets billed as pain relievers are easily found on Amazon and at Walmart. A Himalayan pink salt lamp was one of Amazon’s best-selling home improvement products over the holiday season among the company’s Prime subscribers.
And alternative healing centers from San Francisco to New York City are bursting with well-educated millennials from the real estate, finance, and tech industries. They pay big bucks per hour for a session of crystal or “flower essence” therapy, which uses tinctures dropped under the tongue, or Reiki, an alternative therapy that uses no-touch massage to transmit healing energy through the hands.
“We get a lot of people who come to New York to work, realize they need some tools to stay healthy because life is really intense, and say traditional medicine is not meeting their needs,” says Lisa Levine, a licensed acupuncturist and the founder of the popular Maha Rose Center for Healing in Brooklyn. A one-hour Reiki session there will run $100 to $175, and a palm-sized labradorite crystal will run you $30.
Could these treatments really work?
Actually, yes, say neuroscientists and psychologists. But not necessarily for the reasons people are told they do.
The placebo effect is almost certainly at play. And the mere act of doing something to take control of your destiny can often boost hope, brighten mood, and improve your ability to cope with a chronic condition, says psychologist Stuart Vyse, author of “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition."
"There is no scientific evidence to support the medical effectiveness of any of these remedies,” he says. "But there is the possibility that they might have an indirect psychological benefit."
What the Science Says
In all, U.S. consumers spend about $30 billion a year on complementary and alternative medicine. Some -- like meditation and yoga -- are backed by scientific evidence.
But for many others, there’s little supporting research.
One of the only studies ever to explore crystal healing was done in 2001 by University of London psychologist Christopher French. He gave 80 volunteers booklets explaining the sensations they might have while holding crystals, including tingling limbs, increased concentration, and heightened energy. Then he gave half of the participants genuine gemstones and the other half fakes made of cheap plastic. Those holding a fake were just as likely to respond physically as those holding the real thing. French’s conclusion: The power of suggestion -- not flowing energy -- was to credit.
A study done in 2013 examined magnetic bracelets, often used as remedies for pain. Researchers assigned 70 people with rheumatoid arthritis to consecutively wear one of four different devices (two kinds of magnetic wrist straps, a copper bracelet, and an ordinary bracelet) for 5 weeks each. They found no difference between the bracelets in easing pain or inflammation.
While Himalayan salt lamp sellers say their lamps give off negative ions that can boost feel-good brain chemicals, they can cite no quality studies.
“Is there something about Himalayan salt that releases negative ions in the air and has a therapeutic effect on the human body at a distance? From everything I have read, I would have to say ‘No,’ ” says James Giordano, PhD, a professor in the departments of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University.
But that is not to say they don’t help some people, he says.
Numerous studies have shown that short-wavelength blue light can suppress sleep-inducing melatonin, while longer-wavelength reddish-orange lights can stimulate calming brain chemicals, Giordano says. “Himalayan salt lamps put out a really nice, pinkish light, and it’s certainly possible that could induce a feeling of emotional well-being in some people.”
And there may be other things at play that scientists don’t have the tools to study yet, he says. “Sometimes we scientists think we know how things work, or don’t work, and we really don’t.”
Another explanation, Giordano says: The mere ritual of flipping on a salt lamp, donning a crystal, or paying a visit to a reiki practitioner, with the expectation it can help you, can evoke measurable changes in the brain and body -- a.k.a. the placebo effect.
In other words, if you believe it helps, it just might.
The Real Placebo Effect
Ted Kaptchuk, PhD, director of the Program in Placebo Studies at Harvard Medical School, says the placebo effect is often wrongly assumed to be “all in your head” -- a “fake” response to an inert substance. But brain imaging studies have shown that when a patient performs an action, such as taking a sugar pill or getting a sham acupuncture session, it activates very specific regions in the brain and can trigger the release of feel-good hormones like endorphins, dopamine, and natural painkillers.
“We are talking about a real biological process, not something you are just making up,” says Kaptchuk.
Numerous studies have shown that when patients are told they are receiving a drug that will ease pain, they respond twice as well as when they are given that drug secretly (through an IV or otherwise) -- a fact that suggests a large portion of prescription drugs’ effectiveness comes from the power of suggestion.
The placebo effect works even better when patients interact with a health care professional that is attentive and compassionate -- qualities that alternative medicine practitioners are well-known for.
One study of 262 irritable bowel syndrome patients found that 61% of those who got placebo acupuncture along with a patient-practitioner relationship “augmented by warmth, attention, and confidence” for 6 weeks had significant symptom relief.
“The magnitude of effect was better than the best drug on the market, and it wasn’t even real acupuncture,” says Kaptchuk, author of the study.
Believing in Healing
Americans -- particularly those struggling with chronic disease -- are very open to experimenting with the unproven.
One-quarter of the people surveyed in a Pew Research survey said they believed in spiritual energy in physical things like crystals and trees. Another study of dietary supplement users found that 80% would continue taking their supplement of choice even if government studies said it was ineffective.
“In many cases, people do not like the answer -- or the odds -- given to them by their physicians … and are motivated to try unproven or untested therapies,” says Vyse.
Fortunately, most of these alternative therapies lack dangerous side effects, aside from damage to the pocketbook.
But people should keep in mind that the placebo effect, while it may lessen symptoms, can’t cure disease, says Giordano.
“I view the greatest potential harm with these modalities as one of omission. If people put too much stock in these and don’t utilize medical resources needed for their conditions, that can be a real problem.”
Kadlec gets this. “I would never say Western medicine is not necessary,” she stresses.
Melissa Abe, an event producer and brand strategist from Brooklyn, agrees.
If she has a bad infection, she doesn’t hesitate to turn to antibiotics. If she has a crushing headache, she’ll take an Advil.
But she also visits Maha Rose regularly for reiki and flower therapy, and she meditates with carefully selected crystals daily.
What does she make of the lack of scientific evidence?
“Honestly, I don’t give a crap,” she says, matter-of-factly. “All that matters is how I feel, and these things make me feel better.”