Negative air ionizers — a type of air purification device — are widely used in personal and commercial spaces to improve air quality and health. Ionizers have been shown to significantly reduce the presence of fungi, bacteria, and viruses, among other particulate matter, with higher ion density better able to rid a space of smaller contaminants like viruses. By removing particulates from the circulation and attaching an electron charge to oxygen molecules they serve to increase blood oxygenation, which can lead to improved mood, increased energy, lowered symptoms of depression, and other positive effects. Additionally, the CDC and EPA suggest that when combined with well-established measures such as mask wearing, social distancing and disinfecting surfaces, negative air ionizers are one of several air cleaning products that may be able to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Mood improvement can be seen with short daily exposures of as little as 30 minutes, while air purification requires hours or even continuous use of the devices.

Effects on mood and depression

Behavioral scientists have been increasingly interested in understanding the effects of negative air ionization on mood and depression. For example, one study by the Columbia group compared daily exposure to ionized air with bright light therapy for chronic depression, a severe condition that persists for years at a time, and is often resistant to antidepressant medication. Participants were randomly placed into three groups using: (a) a high-density negative air ionizer; (b) bright light therapy, the well-established for treatment of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but previously unexplored for chronic depression; or (c) a low density negative air ionizer to serve as a placebo control. Although bright light therapy showed marginally greater improvement than high density negative air ionization, both significantly exceeded the response to placebo. These results suggest that high density ionizers have promise for the treatment chronic depression, either as an alternative to bright light therapy, or as an additional treatment tool to enhance the response to light therapy.

The effect of negative air ionization on mood and depression can indeed have similar effects as antidepressant medication. One study divided college students experiencing a range of typical mood states for their age group (both depressed and non-depressed) into four groups: bright light, auditory stimuli, and high- or low-density negative air ionization. Except for the low-density placebo group, all three active treatment groups experienced reduced symptoms of depression, as well as other mood disturbances and feelings of anger, after as little as 15 to 30 minutes of exposure.

An overview of 33 trials of negative air ionization surveyed research published between 1957 and 2012. It concluded that negative air ionization improved symptoms of both seasonal and chronic depression — more-so, when the ionizers produced higher output, also better to purify the air of smaller particles. This study also suggested that even lower density ionizers could provide some benefit for participants with SAD, though the placebo response rate should be considered.

Negative air ionization and seasonal affective disorder           

A study combining bright light therapy at different times of the day with low or high density negative air ionization found that those in the group that used morning bright light therapy paired with high density negative air ionization showed the greatest improvement in SAD symptoms. Interestingly, another study found that those with a morning chronotype benefited the most from high density negative air ionization. As a further study concluded, “Treatment with a high-density negative ionizer appears to act as a specific antidepressant for patients with seasonal affective disorder. The method may be useful as an alternative or supplement to light therapy and medications.”. A comparison of antidepressant response to naturalistic dawn simulation and negative air ionization for the treatment of SAD, using light therapy as the reference condition, concluded that both tools have antidepressant effects which could be considered as potential “alternatives to bright light or medication.”

Our takeaway

Negative air ionizers have been around for many years, and scientists have long assumed that they provide general health benefit. With the rise of high-density ionizers, and a focus on well-defined seasonal and non-seasonal symptom patterns, there is even stronger basis to assert mental and physical health benefits. Adding or substituting this method for conventional treatment has become a realistic possibility, especially when conventional treatment has fallen short. Since many clinicians are not yet experienced with these new interventions, you should be sure to discuss with your provider when and how to apply these techniques in order to best evaluate your responses and make intelligent adjustments to maximize benefit for your individual case.

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Marwan Hamed is a research scientist, public health practitioner, and freelance writer for CET.