Medicinal Benefits of Wool

Could wool really be medicinal?  When I was studying at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto I was surprised to learn I wasn’t the only one who thought wool must have special medicinal value.  In fact there is a large body of research on the physical properties of wool that create the foundation for the clinical applications of wool.  Wool is made of mostly of keratin, the same kind of protein that our hair is made from. It has three layers and one of the especially unique characteristics of wool is that its inner layer, called the medulla, is made of spindle fibres that have a lot of space around them.  In fact these spindle fibres are crimped imparting to wool a crinkly nature.  It is also very resilient meaning it returns to its original shape after being used.  These properties allow a large amount of air to be trapped within the wool, and because of its springiness it doesn’t adhere to the body creating another layer of air; the extra layers of air increase its insulation capacity.  Wool also slightly changes shape with heat and moisture which further allows air to flow within and around it allowing for increased comfort and breathability. 

So as we mostly all know, you never go to Scotland or Ireland  without a wool sweater, and I would wholeheartedly argue our climate requires the same.  Why is wool so great in damp climates?  It is because wool is the most hygroscopic of all known fibres.  Hygroscopic properties refer to how much moisture a material can absorb.  Wool can absorb up to 35% its weight in moisture and its highly hygroscopic nature allows it to keep a constant temperature and keep you feeling warm even when it’s really damp around you.  In fact, the fibres in wool actually undergo a chemical reaction when they absorb water creating heat in the process.  That is pretty amazing. This quality of wool also makes wool the original ‘wick-away’ material, and since lanolin (the waxy substance that coats wool) prevents dirt from penetrating it, it’s really hard to ruin wool or make it stink, unlike its synthetic counter part polyester. 

You may wonder why I initially started researching the benefits of wool.   I have always had a rather passionate love of wool.  I have a beautiful woollen comforter that was made outside Truro which I have slept either under or on top of for the last 15 years or so.  There is nothing that can compare to this comforter for ensuring a good night’s sleep!  I have also found only my woollen clothing can keep me truly warm on a cool day, especially when damp.  From my perspective I was always quite amazed at the superior quality and wondered what could be contributing to this phenomenon; happily many others have wondered and we have great insight into how wool can improve health and well being. 

Traditional knowledge from around the world also indicates wool has long been revered for its special qualities.  Wool is an extension of an animal’s skin therefore when we wear wool we are wearing the hair of a sentient being that was once alive and hopefully well.  I personally think this has an esoteric or mystical affect on our health; knowing somehow that animals can survive usually completely outside living in contact with the Earth their whole lives imparts something special to us.  And, a beautiful part of wool is the animals do not have to be killed for humans to enjoy these many benefits of wool.  I could go on!  Interested in the clinical and medicinal applications of wool? Read on....    In a couple very interesting studies synthetic fibres have been shown to cause problems in animals.  In dogs that had part of their skin shaved and covered with either polyester, cotton or wool, the hair under the polyester grew back significantly slower than the uncovered and covered in wool or cotton skin. The author hypothesize the effect is due to the electrostatic environment created next to the skin. The same author found similar negative effects on reproduction in dogs who wore polyester underpants vs wool or cotton underpants.  Since the whole of the human body functions on electrical impulses and there is evidence of harm from geothermic stress and electromagnetic radiation, anything that supports a healthy electric microenvironment will be helpful for us too.    
    Many people suffer with rheumatism and almost everyone who does feels better with heat.  This may be in part because many people who have this problem have poor circulation.  Wool has the ability to keep you warm but is also fantastic to use for heat packs because it creates a damp heat next to the skin which has a dramatically greater affect on blood flow in the affected area than dry heat.  Even when not using wool as a heat pack, having it next to your skin will increase circulation.  This is really important if you have pain because pain decreases blood circulation which in turn exacerbates conditions of pain.  Due to these properties and wool’s high moisture absorbing nature, bedsores are another medical condition with well documented evidence supporting the use of sheepskin mattress pads for prevention; in fact in 1964 the New Zealand Wool Board published a paper on this very subject.     

Pain in general also improves from having wool next to the skin.  This is due to the increase in circulation that wool causes as described above. In addition wool also causes gentle stimulation to the skin through the richly varied textures and number of fibres per squared unit of the wool.  This gentle stimulation activates mechanorecptors in the skin which further increases the surface skin temperature, and has a similar effect as rubbing your skin and causing a calming effect.  In a 2012 study of people with non specific low back pain, 48 people were randomly assigned to wear either wool long underwear (treatment group) or not (control group).  At the end of 2 months there was a significant improvement in pain, disability rating and flexibility in the 24 people in the treatment group.  In a study from 2009 people with Fibromyalgia all reported improvements with the regular use of woollen long underwear.

Wool bedding also improves sleep through helping achieving optimal thermoregulation through the night; a constant core temperature improves sleep maintenance. A study done in 1984 by Peter K. Dickon and published in the Medical Journal of Australia found the use of woollen fleece underlay significantly improved objective sleep parameters in 10 people.  Other conditions that would likely benefit from using wool clothing and or bedding include Raynaud’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, peripheral vascular disease, complex pain syndromes, arthritic conditions, insomnia, and generally any condition where circulation is impaired.  Consider that while wool will clearly benefit many, it’s also possible synthetic fibres aggravate chronic conditions as noted above.  If you’re allergic or aggravated by wool consider covering woollen bedding with cotton to still experience the benefits.  Wishing you the baaaah baaah best of health ;)

Dr Erin.