Kate Moss is a fan, Penelope Cruz has been pictured wearing them and it goes without saying that Gwyneth Paltrow is a devotee. I’m talking about ear seeds, tiny beads that are said to help heal the body when placed on pressure points in your ears.
A huge hit with A-listers, ear seeds are used in auriculotherapy treatments — a branch of alternative medicine based on the belief that the ear is a powerful microsystem that reflects the entire body. It’s a little like reflexology , in which pressure points on the feet are massaged to heal ailments elsewhere. So far, so Gwyneth. But is there anything in it?
‘Ear seeds are really having their moment,’ says Olivia Inge, a model and It-girl turned alternative therapist who is about to place the first seed — actually an adhesive-backed gold bead — on to my right ear. ‘I’m going for the heart point, keep still,’ she says. I hold my breath as she advances with a pair of poised tweezers. I’ve come to see Olivia as I have been struggling with insomnia and anxiety, which I can usually manage by getting fresh air and exercise. Yet recently I’ve been waking up in the night and finding I’m unable to get back to sleep.
It’s making me moody and groggy and I can’t focus. Reluctant to go down the sleeping pill route if I can help it, I’ve been casting around for something — anything — else that might help. Could these dainty little beads hold the key to inner calm and a good night’s sleep? I’m feeling slightly nervous as I arrive at Urban Retreat, the upmarket wellness clinic in Knightsbridge, West london, where Olivia adorns clients with ear seeds for £120 (including an hour’s consultation). She instantly puts me at ease with her surprisingly down-to-earth manner. Having once strutted the catwalk for the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, she went on to study at the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine.
‘The ear is an extraordinary nexus of energy through which the entire body can be treated,’ she says. ‘It’s a complete microsystem and all the organs and body parts are represented within its folds.’ So, says Olivia, compressing key points of the ear by applying seeds (or needles, in acupuncture) can alleviate all manner of ailments, from headaches to back pain.
Auricular acupuncture, while rooted in Chinese medicine, was developed by French neurologist dr Paul Nogier in the Fifties. But GP Dr Diana Gall is sceptical. ‘There’s a lack of scientific evidence on the success rate or effectiveness of many forms of auriculotherapy, including ear seeds,’ she says. Nevertheless, studies have suggested there could be something in it. Research from Sao Paulo, in Brazil, for example, found that giving nurses auriculotherapy — via needles, seeds or plain old sticky tape — reduced anxiety levels. Even the U.S military uses the technique in ‘battlefield acupuncture’ to treat eat pain in troops.
Olivia uses tiny, 24 ct gold beads, but in theory they can be made de from anything (traditionally seeds from the vaccaria plant). ‘I like gold because it has a warming and strengthening effect,’ she says, before pressing seeds on ‘Shen Men’, ‘Point Zero’, ‘insomnia point’ and ‘heart point’.
Shen Men, aka the ‘divine gate’, is supposedly linked to general wellbeing, and Point Zero, like a tiny reset button, is meant to balance my energy levels and hormones. The insomnia point and heart point promote sleep and soothe emotions. Olivia says she can also ‘read’ ears for indications of problems throughout the body. ‘There’s redness in your upper ear in a spot which might indicate sciatica,’ she says, genuinely throwing me. I have two bulging, torn discs in my back which occasionally give me torturous sciatica.
For Olivia, it’s all about energy flows. ‘Every living phenomenon is about vibrations, the flow of energy. With any illness or pain there’s a blockage in that energy,’ she tells me. ‘So you unblock that by applying pressure to the right points.’ For the more practically minded, it’s worth considering the vagus nerve, which controls our parasympathetic nervous system, overseeing ‘rest-and- digest’ functions and helping to regulate everything from blood pressure to sweating. ‘The ear is the only place with access to the vagus nerve through the skin,’ says olivia. ‘So by stimulating it at key points I can boost the relaxation response and help you feel much calmer.’
A small study at the University of Leeds found that stimulating the vagus nerve through the ear using electrical currents led participants to report better moods, more sleep and an improved quality of life. Olivia fell in love with ear seeds in the run-up to her final exams. ‘I was stressed, and one of the lecturers offered to put a silver seed on Shen Men, an all-round stress relieving point,’ she says. ‘I calmed down, found my focus and was able to hold my pen without shaking!’ She tells me to keep the seeds on for at least five days. ‘They should stay on in the shower — just don’t scrub them,’ she says.‘They’ll give you a low dose of stimulation, and whenever you’re feeling imbalanced, just give them a squeeze.’
I diligently keep my seeds on for five days, and they cling on like blingy barnacles through shampoos and swimming trips (under a cap). But I have to say I don’t experience the dramatic effect Olivia did. I have a terrible night’s sleep straight after the treatment — but, slowly, night by night, I do start to sleep more soundly.
I feel calmer, too. Whether this is down to the ear seeds, hormones, ‘just one of those things’ or a combination of factors, it’s hard to say. But apparently it’s best to have at least two or three treatments to fully feel the benefits.
Dr Gall suggests there’s little harm in using ear seeds alongside any treatments prescribed by your doctor if you think they might help. ‘They’re generally safe to use and don’t have any known side effects. Just ensure you use a trained therapist.’
Would I try it again? I think it might be worth giving it a go, at least to see if the effects are any stronger the second or third time around. After all, if it’s good enough for Penelope and Kate . . .