Friday, February 3, 2017

I Wore Some Onions for Science Reasons.

I want to preface this by saying that my S.O. is a very, very patient and understanding person. He has stuck by me through many things -- intracranial hypertension, all of the side-effects of my treatment, anxiety attacks, and even piggybacking me up the stairs to our new apartment because I wasn't yet strong enough to climb them on my own.

He also still chose to sleep next to me when I told him I decided to wear socks full of onions for a week.

There're some infographics and blog posts going around about how wearing onions to bed can purify your blood, remove toxins, and even fight illness. Sounds like an interesting prospect, yeah? I've been feeling a little drained and sniffly lately. I also have a chronic illness and a five pound sack of onions I want to try to use up before they all sprout on me.

Onions? What for?

Onions are in the same family as garlic, another plant touted for its health-preserving properties. The pungent, eye-watering smell of fresh onions and garlic is courtesy of several sulfur compounds that have received a lot of scientific attention. These compounds evolved as a defense mechanism -- they spring into action once the plant is breached, by crushing, biting, or cutting. Eating onions and garlic is supposed to be very good for you. I wasn't so sure about wearing them.

The Experiment.

Pretty basic. I followed the instructions -- slice an onion, slap it on your soles, wear socks over it, go to bed, wake up, remove onion, rejoice in your fresh, healthy, purified body. Simple enough, yeah? I've also read that you can tell they're working because they'll look all nasty the next day. Having no barometer for what a nasty-looking-foot-onion looks like versus a regular one, I cut a "control slice," stuck it in a sock, and left it to sit, unworn, overnight for comparison purposes.

Now, wearing onion socks didn't feel bad (at first). Kind of nice, actually. The slice of onion sat under the arch of my foot, and was cool, supportive, and slightly squishy -- like a good gel insole. I felt like a complete fool, but my feet weren't doing bad at all.

At first.

After an hour or two, I noticed a subtle burning feeling. I powered through it for the sake of science (also it was midnight and I didn't feel like getting out of bed). I had originally decided to repeat this with a fresh slice each night for a week -- even if I didn't notice a difference after one day, that doesn't mean it doesn't work, right? -- but by day 3 the burning was too much and I had to abandon ship.

I know, I know, you're likely wondering, "Okay, but did it work?" The answer is, "Probably not." I didn't notice any improvement and was even just prescribed antibiotics for something unrelated. So, if wearing onions on your feet is supposed to help you fight illness, it definitely didn't do it for me.

The Good.

I've heard good stuff about onions and garlic. The compounds in them can help inhibit cancer, and may help lower blood pressure a little bit. They also make everything taste like onions and garlic, and that is rad.

I'm not surprised that the organosulfur compounds in onions and garlic can kill bad stuff. I've used them before for ear aches, skin conditions, UTIs, and even to make Fire Cider and Four Thieves Vinegar in winter. There are a lot of extremely excellent things that alliums are good for.

"Wearing on your feet" is probably not one of them.

The Bad.

There are a couple of problems with the ideas presented by proponents of this practice. I'm going to try to address some of them, and give the evidence I've collected during the course of this experiment:

  • As was noted on Snopes, there's a lot of conflated and misappropriated ideas from eastern and western medicine here that aren't exactly compatible in this context.

  • The beneficial compounds in alliums are released when they experience trauma. Slicing an onion doesn't liberate very much of them when compared to chopping or crushing it. So, even if this worked the way it supposedly does, a sliced onion would be a crappy and inefficient way to go about it.

  • Most of the studies that sorta kinda back up the sock-onion claims (there are some studies on viruses too, but all of the ones I found were behind a pay wall) a) used garlic, b) in a concentrated form, on c) an in-vitro culture. There is a huge difference between applying concentrated organosulfur compounds directly to a culture, and putting a little fresh onion on someone's feet and hoping it'll wipe out an internal infection.

  • Given all of these things, it's very unlikely that an appreciable amount of the beneficial compounds in onions make it to where they need to go in the strength they need to be in order to actually do anything.

  • The onion-sock treatment is usually touted as useful for colds or the flu. Both of these are self-limiting conditions of variable severity and duration. It's virtually impossible for one person to meaningfully compare their illness with someone else's, or one season's illness with the next. It's very easy to do something completely unrelated to a cold or flu, have the disease resolve, and misattribute the healing to the action.

  • The idea of "purifying" the blood is suspect, at best. What specific toxins are being removed? How do an onion's beneficial compounds purify the blood? If they work by binding to toxins, what happens afterward? Does it result in particles that might increase your risk of clots? Do the compounds break down toxic molecules, and, if so, how? Why is applying an onion to the soles of the feet more effective at purifying blood than running blood directly through the liver and kidneys?

  • Sometimes, there's an attached claim that you can tell the onions are working because of the way they look the next day. They look like dried-out, gross onions regardless of whether they've been on a foot or a cutting board all night.


[caption id="attachment_3349" align="aligncenter" width="513"]onions on lined paper If you say you can tell these apart, you are either extremely perceptive or a great big fibber.[/caption]

The Ugly.

Again, these organosulfur compounds function as defense mechanisms. Prolonged skin contact with alluims can cause burns, blistering, and peeling. I ended up having to cut this short because it became really, really uncomfortable. So not only does this probably not do anything for you healthwise, it can actually do more harm than good.

That said, if you have fungus? Onion away. Organosulfur compounds have been shown to be effective against some fungi, and you're likely to have way more success applying onions directly to a topical condition than putting them on your skin and hoping they'll fix an upper-respiratory problem.


Eat lots of onions. Don't waste perfectly good food by wearing it on your feet. If you want to absorb something healthy through your feet, go for a nice epsom soak instead.

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