Health Myths Debunked

Health adages and wives’ tales, such as “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” are often passed from generation to generation. But just because Mom swears by apples, starving a cold or not going outside with a wet head, that doesn’t mean the move warrants merit. In fact, many rituals and routines we rely on to stay - or get – healthy are just a bunch of hooey.

When it comes to apples, the jury is divided. An apple might not keep all doctors away, but several studies show that a daily apple can help promote health. Cornell researchers say apples may reduce the risk of breast cancer, and UC-Davis scientists say there’s a link between apples and heart health.

But not all advice from “Doctor Mom” is as reliable. Here’s the real deal on some common health-related beliefs.

Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight

Fact: According to a British Medical Journal report, even doctors are duped by this fallacy. And while reading by candlelight or in dim lighting can cause eyestrain, it won't cause any serious or lasting damage, ophthalmologists report.

Experts theorize that this belief arose because eyestrain can make it harder to focus, making it seem as if vision is being harmed. Dry eyes can also be an uncomfortable, but temporary result of straining to read in dim light.

Chicken soup cures a cold

Fact: While it isn’t technically a ‘cure,’ chicken soup may help lessen the length of a cold. The key to the power of soup is the ingredients; you need to team up carrots and chicken in soup (boneless, lean is the best for heart health and maintaining weight). 

“The zinc in chicken supports a healthy immune system and enhances absorption of the vitamin A in carrots which is needed for healthy bones, teeth and eyes,” explains Annie Neuendorf, MPH, a registered and licensed dietician at Northwestern Memorial’s Wellness Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

Frederick Southwick, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and project manager, Quality and Safety Pilot Programs, for the University of Florida & Shands Healthcare System says chicken soup is also a friend to painful sore throats, by bathing inflamed membranes in a salty solution that reduces discomfort.

You can scare away the hiccups

Fact: Actually, Amy Baxter MD, director of emergency research at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, says a little fear might help get rid of hiccups. “A hiccup is spasm in the diaphragm followed by closure of the vocal cords. Because these spasms are less likely to occur when your blood carbon dioxide rises, which happens when you breathe or hold your breath, you might be able to scare the hiccups away,” says Baxter.

And here’s a sweet relief trick that a 1975 study published in New England Journal of Medicine found effective: Swallowing one teaspoon of granulated sugar halted hiccups in 19 out 20 affected patients, the researchers reported.

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You’ll catch a cold if you go outside with wet hair

Fact: Letting the winter wind whip through your soggy tresses won’t increase risk for coming down with a cold,  according to research from the Common Cold Research Unit in Britain.

In the study, participants were exposed to the cold virus. One group was then asked to bathe and stand in a chilly hallway wearing wet socks and bathing suits “for as long as they could bear it.” Yet this group caught colds at the same rate as a control group who remained warm and dry.

Several subsequent studies confirmed these findings—and one even reported that getting cold may even boost the immune system. As I reported recently, the best way to ward off colds and other contagious diseases is by washing your hands frequently with soap and water.

Cracking your knuckles causes arthritis

Fact: It might be an annoying sound, but cracking your knuckles won’t lead to aching joints in your golden years, according to several studies conducted during the past 40 years. One researcher even tested the knuckle-cracking theory on himself. The scientist proudly reported his arthritis-free findings in a paper published in 1998.

Ironically, cracking your knuckles may even help prevent osteoarthritis (OA). Recently, a team of Defense Department-funded researchers reported that OA of the hands was slightly more common (18.1 percent versus 21.5 percent) in people who didn’t crack their knuckles, compared those who did.

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You lose 75 percent of your body heat through your head

Fact: In reality, you’d lose a lot more body heat by going outside without a coat. This myth is thought to have roots in a poorly designed military study from the 1950s, in which scientists put participants in arctic survival suits but omitted hats to measure heat loss.

Naturally when exposed to frigid temperatures, the subjects lost the most heat through their heads (versus the rest of their body). That’s because the head was the only part of their body that wasn’t insulated from the elements.

Experts estimate adults only lose about 10 percent of their body heat through the head, while babies have a greater heat loss because their heads are larger in proportion to the rest of their body,

Feed a fever; starve a cold

Fact: Experts say it’s a really bad idea to starve yourself when you’re sick. “If you can tolerate food when you have a cold or flu, you should eat a well-balanced meal to help rebuild your immune system,” says Dr. Southwick.

Aim for plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean protein to rebuild your immune system. “Drink water, tea or other mild beverages to help prevent dehydration,” Dr. Southwick adds.

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