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Beware of Snake Oil Salesman

Debunking Health Myths


Thursday, March 20, 2008

If I told you juju berries would help you live to 100 and leave your mourners staring at a beautiful corpse, you would all be Googling it immediately, maybe even ordering a case from some pharmacy in India. Our intense desire to be healthy and beautiful is what has always made us vulnerable to the snake oil salesman, the scam artists, and every health fiction that comes down the pike.

But I think it is a shame for us to waste our time on juju berries if they deliver nothing but the runs. So, as a public service, I will explode some health myths that have probably wasted your time and your hope for a better tomorrow. Let me start with a controversial one.

Myth: Organic foods are safer to eat and pack more nutrition and therefore are worth the added expense.

We love our organic foods, especially here in Santa Barbara. We feel virtuous eating happy chickens who roamed free until they met up with our butcher. We love our asparagus with bugs because we eschew pesticides. Yet according to the New England Journal of Medicine’s Health News, there is “no convincing evidence that organic foods are safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced foods.” The extra cost doesn’t justify the health benefits, according to their review of the studies on organic foods.

Dr. George Blackburn, associate editor of Health News, points out that whatever nutritional edge that may be found in organic vegetables is destroyed with cooking the vegetables; up to 50 percent of water soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C, for example. Eating veggies and fruits is recommended by most nutritional experts in order to extend our healthspan, but according to Dr. Blackburn: “Personal health shouldn’t be your main motivation to pay more for organic food.”

Myth: You should drink eight glasses of water a day to stay healthy.

W.C. Fields didn’t like to drink water (“Fish swim in it.”) so he will appreciate this myth-buster, published in the December 2007 edition of the British Medical Journal. Recent studies point out that most of us get our healthy allotment of fluids from our daily intake of foods, milk, juice, coffee, and other beverages. The article also draws our attention to my new favorite vice to struggle with: “water intoxication.” There is such a thing as drinking too much water, it seems. When our bodies become over hydrated, a severe electrolyte imbalance can occur in which cells swell with excess fluid, and bad things can happen, including death.

Myth: Turkey makes you sleepy.

This enduring myth, which becomes very popular around Thanksgiving, has to do with the essential amino acid called tryptophan, which is widely know to promote sleep through its serotonin enhancing abilities. The weird thing is that although turkey gets all the good press when it comes to tryptophan, it really doesn’t have any more than all other meats, and even less than cheddar cheese. Tryptophan supplements remain controversial with some scientific evidence still supporting the auto-immune scare of the 1980s. Better to eat a banana and drink a glass of milk before bedtime.

Myth: We need “smart pills” because we only use 10 percent of our brains.

Again, there is a marketing advantage here if we believe that 90 percent of our brain is languishing, waiting to be tapped if only we had the right brain boost. According to a British Medical Journal study, this myth has been working on us since the early 20th century when tonics were being hawked with the promise of increasing brainpower. There is no scientific evidence for this myth. According to Drs. Carroll and Rachel Vreeman, authors of the study reported in the journal, “Numerous types of brain imaging studies show that no area of the brain is completely silent or inactive. Detailed probing of the brain has failed to identify the ‘nonfunctioning’ 90 percent.”

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Comment at healthspan@mac.com and visit his Web site/blog at HealthspanWeb.com for more information.

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