I recently received an email from none other than Jann Bellamy pointing out a particular flavor of naturopathic nonsense that I had missed up until this point: “magic socks.” A quick search revealed that our own Scott Gavura had briefly mentioned this remedy in a 2013 post, but I plan on going into much greater detail. The claim contained in the newsletter attached to Jann’s email involved the use of said magic socks to “alleviate congestion.” Three links were thoughtfully provided for more information and I took the bait. Thanks Jann.
That’s right, magic socks!
The first link took me to the website of Bastyr University, where Britt Hermes matriculated to the tune of $300,000 and a leader in “innovation in natural health education” that offers numerous degrees in “science-based natural medicine.” According to the experts at Bastyr, wet sock treatment, apparently synonymous with “magic socks”, is “a natural method of stimulating the immune system and zapping a cold or flu” that involves forcing a child to don ice-cold socks overnight. They even admit that this is a treatment approach recommended regularly by the naturopathic physicians at Bastyr Center for Natural Health.
According to the chief medical officer at BCNH (seems like there should be an asterisk there or something), we shouldn’t be thrown by how much this sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because it works. He reassures us that magic socks “rally the body’s defenses” using the healing power of nature. And it’s free! All you need is water, socks, a freezer, and some electricity. Okay, so it isn’t free but it’s pretty darn cheap.
He explains that the underlying mechanism of action is something known as “heating compress.” The body, forced to deal with literal cold feet, must act to counteract the thermal challenge. In the process of restoring homeostasis to the ill child’s little piggies, blood circulation is increased and the immune system is stimulated, “revved up” for an epic battle with the invading infectious organisms.
Somehow, they claim, this also decreases nasal and chest congestion. And, while the immune system is in berserker mode thanks to the application of cold water to Timmy’s feet, there is a sedating action on the brain. According to Bastyr, many patients report improved sleep during the treatments. Or maybe they just don’t want to lose another toe to frostbite so they tell mommy what she wants to hear. And as if that weren’t enough, the aptly-named magic socks provide effective pain relief for a variety of complaints such as migraine headaches and sore throat, while also reducing inflammation.
Magic socks work best when applied at the first hint of a possible illness, and should be repeated for three consecutive nights. They caution readers with chronic conditions or compromised immunity to consult with a doctor first, however. After all, as Chief Wallace points out, wet socks are just one aspect of integrative care. It would be folly to ignore the expert use of “immunity-boosting supplements.” Do not taunt the magic socks.
Magic socks aren’t so magic
The magic socks choose the patient. It’s not always clear why. But I think it is clear that all we can expect from them is prune feet.
-Mr. Ollivander…I think
Regular readers of Science-Based Medicine have likely already picked up on some very common themes found in so-called natural medicine provided by naturopathic physicians. “Boosting the immune system” is a nearly ubiquitous claim that sounds like a great idea but falls apart under even light scrutiny. The immune system is an extremely complicated mechanism defined by the complex interaction of a variety of cellular and structural components rather than a singular entity that can be boosted by chilly toes or, as is also frequently claimed, suppressed by environmental toxins.
Which aspect of the immune system is “boosted” by magic socks? Innate or adaptive processes? Natural killer cells or lymphocytes? Complement or immunoglobulin levels? Furthermore, it is the immune system which is largely responsible for the initial symptomatology of most infections. Logically, revving it up might make a child feel worse or cause a complication from an otherwise self-limited viral infection (not to mention any autoimmune conditions). I find the concept of “boosting the immune system” and increasing blood flow, while also suppressing inflammation, which is a consequence of normal immune function and circulation, laughable.
Naturopaths like to keep these pronouncements vague because they don’t have any clue what they are talking about. And they expect the public to just take their word for it. All the while they hide their ignorance behind distracting marketing terms and compelling philosophical subterfuge. It’s a house of cards, easily brought down at any point by a patient who is truly ill.
Prevention is better than cure as long as it’s not a vaccine
Another common theme seen in the recommendations of worthless remedies like magic socks, is that the treatment must be initiated at the first hint of symptoms. This is very convenient considering that most of the time when people think that they might be coming down with something they aren’t. They are just tired or suffering from some other manifestation of chronic life syndrome, or have a mild and self-limited process like a cold, upset stomach, or headache. Naturally the ability to accurately predict the onset of an actual illness is even more limited when doing it for someone else, like a child or a hamster. Regardless, without proper scientific skepticism, it’s easy to see why people think that inert interventions have efficacy.
If more significant symptoms that are easily attributable to an infectious illness do develop, the weasel words included in the recommendations for magic socks don’t disappoint. Most self-limited infections in kids peak at around the third day. Even the dreaded “strep throat” starts to improve by day four even without treatment with antibiotics. So it’s easy to imagine a parent or patient with expectation of benefit from magic socks giving them credit after the recommended 3 nights of application, when in reality regular socks (or even more revolutionary – no socks at all!) would have sufficed. And if they don’t appear to be working, there is the convenient excuse that the treatments just weren’t started soon enough.
A look at the “research”
I was unable to find any helpful evidence regarding the use of cold feet to treat symptoms from an infection or improve recovery rates. The initial newsletter sent to me by Jann did include a link to a paper published in the North American Journal of Medical Sciences, which I’m not familiar with, to support the use of magic socks. I wasn’t impressed with the journal or the paper, which is a review of the evidence in support of the effects of hydrotherapy on a variety of conditions.
The authors of the paper come to the conclusion that hydrotherapy, in all its various forms ranging from a soak in a hot tub to colon cleansing, is helpful for everything. But nobody knows how it works, so “further studies are required.” According to the authors, colon cleansing can improve the mental state of patients with schizophrenia, which raises serious concerns about their ability to science.
The only mention of the feet, however, is a reference to a 1995 study published in Russian which found that localized exposure to cool water improved bronchial patency. Considering their evidence base, combined with a complete lack of plausibility, it’s safe to say that magic socks aren’t magic. They’re just mean.
Alternative medicine’s obsession with your feet
Magic socks are nonsense, but apparently fairly popular. I easily found numerous endorsements from parents online, including former classmates on Facebook, and even more websites from individual natural medicine practitioners recommending them. But the apparent infatuation with the feet in the world of irregular medicine doesn’t stop there.
Arguably the king of foot-based alternative medicine is reflexology. We all recognize that a good foot massage feels rather pleasant, and that a relaxing experience on the regular probably confers some non-specific benefits, be they from stress reduction or non-pharmaceutical distraction/altered perception. In the mind of the reflexology proponent, however, a foot massage done the right way can benefit not only overall health but also specific organ systems and diseases.
Through Reflexology you can get someone to relax, the immune system can then respond to the crisis, and you don’t have to die! It’s way more than just a foot message that makes you feel good. It’s something that triggers the electrical aspect of the body’s self-healing processes.
Who needs magic socks when you have the Electro Reflex Energizer machine!
Acupuncture and acupressure
Not to be outdone, there is a special focus on the feet in acupuncture as well. There are several acupuncture/acupressure points on or near the feet that correspond to distant areas of the body. Still none on the genitals, though. Not even for treating herpes.
Some chiropractic practitioners, sensing that the niche hadn’t quite been filled, also treat fictitious disorders of the feet. Yes, there are subluxations of the tiny bones in our distal lower extremities. Chiropractic clinics have even popped up that are especially devoted just to your barking dogs.
Detox foot pads and baths
Any post discussing alternative medicine and feet must include mention of detox foot pads and ionic foot baths. Despite being thoroughly debunked almost a decade ago, these treatments are still recommended by some practitioners of naturopathy.
If only it were silly walks
I’ll finish up with what are, in my opinion, the silliest approaches to improving health via the feet. Which is a tremendous waste of silly things we could do with our feet.
Proponents of earthing believe that the connection of bare feet to the surface of the planet allows its healing primordial electrons to flow into our bodies. Shoes are seen as an evil source of poor sleep, pain, chronic disease, and “general unwellness. Joe Mercola is a big fan of making money off of this stuff.
Have you ever heard that putting raw onion slices in your socks while you sleep at night can help treat cold and flu symptoms? Yes, this is a thing, and is surprisingly old. How does it work? By removing toxins and waking up dormant meridians of course. This video shows a mother trying out the onion sock remedy for her child, who has a headache and a high fever. After an hour of persistent fever despite the onions, her mother reaches for the Tylenol and her daughter is then shown happily eating breakfast the next morning. Guess which treatment is given “two thumbs up?”
The winner for the silliest form of foot-based medicine is the application of Vick’s VapoRub at bedtime. This is actually a common home remedy, and I’ve even heard pediatricians recommending it to parents. As with onions, there is rock bottom plausibility. Vapor rub is not a systemic or even a topical treatment. At best, and it’s a stretch, it provides some distraction when rubbed on the upper lip or chest and the fumes are inhaled. This 2010 study in pediatrics, which employs a very creative yet useless means of blinding, is about as good as the evidence gets.
Why are feet such a common focus of alternative medicine and home remedies?
I don’t have a great answer for why feet are such a big deal in the world of medical nonsense. It’s much easier to tease out the slimy tactics of those promoting it and the understandable reasons why patients and parents might believe that it works. My hunch is that it is likely a simple explanation rather than some deep philosophical or cultural reason.
A foot massage feels good, thus helping to activate certain placebo responses, and feet are easily accessible. And we do tend to place a lot of importance on the function and health of our feet because relatively minor issues can lead to significant changes in our quality of life. Regardless of why they are prominently featured, alternative medicine yet again is revealed to be a clump of random oddities that are really only connected by a shared absence of science and skepticism. If you want an effective means of preventing illness and improving your life using your feet, go for more walks.