Negative ions are anything but negative when it comes to your health. Recent studies suggest that breathing in air that is abundant in negative ions can have a big influence on your feelings of well-being.
So, what are negative ions and how do we gain exposure to them?
Ions are atoms or molecules that have gained or lost an electron. A positive ion is positively charged because it has more protons than electrons, while a negative ion is negatively charged because it has more electrons than protons.
Negative ions are found in abundance wherever air molecules are constantly breaking apart due to sunlight, radiation, moving air, or rushing water: the pounding surf at the beach, a waterfall, a lightning storm.
Michael Terman, Ph.D., is the author of Reset Your Inner Clock: The Drug-Free Way to Your Best-Ever Sleep, Mood, and Energy and a professor at Columbia University. In his research, he has found that there are three main benefits for remaining in an environment with a high concentration of negative air ions:
- They are an air pollution fighter and a purifier. The free electrons are attracted to circulating pollutants and allergens—for example, dust and smoke particles, mold spores, and pollen.
- The negative air ions attach to circulating pathogens—live microscopic organisms such as e-coli bacteria that cause digestive illness that spreads through inhalation. The electric charge kills these organisms, making them inert and harmless.
- High negative air concentrations have an antidepressant effect with as little as 30 minutes of exposure every day for about a week.
“For people with normal emotional states, the ions are a mood lifter, and the sensation can be felt within a few minutes,” says Terman. “For clinically depressed patients, the effect takes a bit longer, but we have seen profound clinical reversals in both seasonal and nonseasonal depressions, all without the use of any drugs.”
High-density negative air ions can also be used along with drug therapy in an attempt to reduce depressive symptoms to the lowest level possible, adds Terman.
Much of Terman’s research has focused on the use of air ionizers—electronic devices that produce negative air ions at a known constant level. He warns, however, that many air ionizers currently sold on the market produce too low of an ion flow to have much effect on low mood or depression.
In one of his studies, a group of participants received a "dribble" of ions, similar to the output of many home air cleaners. The other group received extremely high ion flow, such as used in industrial cleanrooms.
“There was a large, statistically significant antidepressant benefit of the high-output device over 2-3 weeks of daily exposure sessions, with remission levels similar to that seen for antidepressant drugs and light therapy,” says Terman. “On top of that, we measured no significant side effects.”
Getting out into nature, of course, is the most beautiful and refreshing way to get your dose of negative ions. Just after a thunderstorm blows through your city, step outside and expose yourself to the newly purified air. Or if you are fortunate enough to live near the ocean or a mountain waterfall, make an extra effort to get out into the elements. Then stay for a while and breathe it all in.