Ten popular urban health myths revealed.
By Amy Selby
For the past 30-something years, I’ve catalogued a collection of health-based, old wives’ tales I learned from various friends, relatives and reading materials. As I’ve made my way through health, sickness and other biological events, I’ve often consulted this list of seemingly sage advice.
Any time a cold has clogged my sinuses and beaten my body until achy, I long for my Granny’s go-to remedy—homemade chicken noodle soup. Its broth was a tonic that soothed my scratchy throat and left me feeling warm all over by the time my spoon met the bottom of the bowl. There’s even a part of me that puts faith in the old “apple-a-day” saying, and I always think twice about jumping back into the pool after a meal—even though I’ve yet to experience swimming-induced stomach cramps.
Despite only containing a grain of truth, these well-intentioned nutritional and scientific tall tales and cures have achieved mythical and even legendary status. Here is a collection of 10 popular urban health myths accompanied by a healthy dose of the truth:
If you’re familiar with this little bit of health lore, you may have received an email citing research from Dr. Herbert Shelton or, in its most recent incarnation, celebrity doc, Dr. Mehmet Oz. The message explains that eating fruit on an empty stomach helps to detoxify your system and promises added energy and weight loss. The message warns that if you ingest fruits with your food, the meal ferments and begins to spoil as it makes its way through your digestive system. The email also lists bloating, graying hair, balding, nervous outbursts and dark circles under the eyes as symptoms of eating fruit with your meals.
As a matter of fact, fruit can be eaten at any time and with other foods—the body will absorb all of its nutritional offerings just the same. You can even make the argument that some people may benefit from eating fruit with other foods; such as in the case of diabetics, for example. And fructose-intolerant people should avoid eating fruit on an empty stomach, unless they enjoy the accompanying gastrointestinal issues.
This myth has been circulating around school playgrounds for decades. It’s anyone’s guess as to how this mistruth got started, but pinning it on worried mothers probably wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Like anything else that enters our mouths and our stomachs, chewing gum makes its way through the digestive system in about a day. Unlike food, gum makes its tour of our bodies relatively unchanged—it comes out in about the same form as it did going in.
Perhaps this myth gained such staying power because the act of chewing gum doesn’t break it down, and it isn’t meant to be swallowed. In case that stick of spearmint makes its way down your gullet, though, rest assured knowing it won’t be lingering in your intestines for the next seven years.
If we only use a small portion of our brains, then what part aren’t we using? That’s right, this just doesn’t make sense. Yet, many media outlets and psychics love to promote this mistruth. For the psychic community, the phrase, “humans only use 10 percent of their brains” is a helpful explanation for their intuitive powers. Folks like Uri Geller have used this myth to promote the idea that those with psychic powers are able to access more of their brains. In his book “Mind-Power,” Geller writes, “Our minds are capable of remarkable, incredible feats, yet we don’t use them to their full capacity. In fact, most of us only use about 10 percent of our brains, if that. The other 90 percent is full of untapped potential and undiscovered abilities…” And, various primetime news shows have devoted many segments to the mind’s mysteries, even stating that men only use 10 percent of their brains during promotions for “The Secret Lives of Men,” which aired on ABC in 1998.
This, however, is a linear misinterpretation of how the brain works; the human brain, in fact, functions holistically. Any brain scan will give you a visual of your full brain in action. The only thing lending even slight credence to this myth is the fact that humans access different parts of their brains for different functions. One part of the brain is engaged to read this article, while other parts of the brain are put into action to exercise, have a conversation or make a grocery list. Over the course of a day, you’ve likely used 100 percent of your brain to accomplish a variety of tasks.
Ah, yet another urban myth perpetuated by well-intentioned parents and grandparents. It’s probably safe to say everyone has been on the receiving end of this misguided piece of information. The idea is that you’ll “catch cold” without a jacket or appropriate winter gear, and if you brave the weather with wet hair, the warning of “you’ll catch cold” usually escalates to pneumonia.
The truth is the best way to catch a cold is to come in contact with someone who is infected with the cold virus when your immune system is compromised As for the wet hair argument, many have proposed that a chilled body (from the wet head) compromises the immune system. But studies have proven time and again this is anything but the case—only exposure to a virus plus a weakened immune response leads to a cold. And of course, this is the point where chiropractic care comes into play—a non-subluxated host will exhibit naturally higher resistances than a subluxated one.
Certainly manufacturers of Flintstones Vitamins and the ever-popular gummy vitamins would support the theory that multivitamins supplement or fill in the gaps of a toddler’s finicky diet. For parents, candy-like vitamins are an easy way to ensure ketchup- and cheese-loving kids don’t miss out on important nutrients. When a child refuses to eat vegetables or proteins, parents are concerned about their child’s physical and mental development.
Yet, such reputable authorities as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have found no evidence that multivitamins improve children’s health. Pediatricians are quick to reassure parents that the pickiest of eaters eventually get the nutrition they need to grow normally—just like all the other kids did before supplements made their way to our medicine cabinets.
This piece of advice is likely the most well-known path to dealing with the cold and flu. It’s too bad there’s simply no merit to it. In 2002, a team of Dutch scientists came close to giving this old wives’ tale some validity when they found eating a meal increases a type of immune response to fight off viruses causing the common cold. And they found the act of fasting stimulated an immune response to ward off fever-related infections. These findings hold little merit with the health care community, however. The study involved a small number of subjects and, to date, it hasn’t been replicated.
When it comes down to it, loss of appetite is a natural defense mechanism for fever. So, if you aren’t hungry and you have a fever, don’t eat. But, if you’re hungry—eat. Starvation is rarely, or if at all, a healthy route to take. Your best defense for a cold is chiropractic care, rest and fluids.
If our skin cells were replaced every seven years, it makes you wonder what becomes of scars and tattoos. And, if our skin cells are replaced by new ones every seven years, then why do we age? This myth comes in a variety of phrases: i.e. “humans regenerate cells for the entire body every seven years” or “the body’s chemistry changes every seven years.” Most often, the myth cites a seven-year time frame, but in some instances you’ll find claims that cell replacement takes a decade.
The answers are all over the board with this myth, but the most reliable answer comes from the “Ask a Biologist” section of the Arizona State University School of Life Sciences website. The site simply states, “Cells grow old and die. When old cells die, new ones replace them. For example, a blood cell in our body lives for about 120 days. Another example is our skin cells. We shed our skin cells about every 35 days … In human beings, only those that are old are shed, others are not.”
Considering how often we wash, style and fuss with our hair, we really don’t seem to know much about it. There’s an endless supply of hair-related myths: Plucking one gray hair causes two to grow back in its place; hair continues to grow after death; a sudden shock can turn hair grey overnight; brushing hair in 100-stroke increments is good for it; split ends can be repaired; and hair color is an indication of temperament.
Addressing the proposed myth of hair growing back thicker and darker, the answer is styling does not change the thickness or color of hair. When you shave body hair, the hair may feel coarse and thicker as it begins to grow back. It may appear darker in color at this stage of growth, as well. But once it’s fully grown, you’ll notice the strand of hair has its regular color and thickness. A popular related myth is that the more often you cut your hair, the more it stimulates new growth. If this were true, hair replacement treatments would have no place on the market.
Every holiday, we belly up to a glutinous spread of rich dishes to celebrate family traditions and togetherness. By the end of the feast, our clothes have reached a new snugness, and our eyelids feel a good bit heavier. And, of course, it’s the turkey that gets the blame. It’s widely reported that turkey contains tryptophan, an amino acid that’s a natural sedative. Thanks to the tryptophan, turkey is cited as the reason most of us seek the nearest La-Z-Boy after Thanksgiving dinner.
While turkey does indeed contain a natural sedative, other foods such as milk, beef, chicken and beans also contain comparable amounts of the “food-coma” inducing substance. Swiss cheese and pork actually contain more tryptophan. The drowsiness subsequent to a big meal is due to the meal’s components (proteins, carbohydrates, vegetables, etc.) and increased blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract.
This piece of advice is touted as one of the top ways to achieve health: eat a balanced diet, exercise, drink eight to 10 glasses of water a day and get sufficient rest. Eight 8-oz. glasses of water a day have long been the rule of thumb to stay healthy and hydrated. But all that water really isn’t necessary. You need to drink enough water to replace the fluids you lost through sweating, elimination and other bodily functions. The amount of water necessary depends on the amount lost and the person in question. Furthermore, drinking water isn’t the only fluid that can help you achieve your hydration needs.
Most scientists agree that the average person loses 10 cups of water in a day. Throughout the day, a person regains four cups of water through food intake. So, that leaves a six-cup deficit—a bit shy of the eight- to 10-glass-a-day recommendation. The majority of people nonetheless suffer from under-hydration as opposed to over-hydration, so when in doubt, be sure to err on the side of being overly hydrated.
With new spam email messages and issues reported by the National Enquirer debuting each week, the list of urban health myths and mistruths continues to grow. Here’s some more unsubstantiated advice:
- Dogs have the cleanest mouths and should be allowed to lick your wounds.
- Eating after 8 p.m. causes you to gain large amounts of weight.
- Soy relieves hot flashes.
- Flapping your arms when you cough or when choking is helpful.
- The best cure for hiccups is for someone to startle you.
- Eating sushi always causes you to get worms.
- Warm milk will help you fall asleep.
- If you buy a bb gun, you’ll inevitably “shoot your eye out.”