Fiction and health make good bedfellows in novels only.
So to tackle some fables about wellness that endure in the real
world, we’ve recruited some medical


By Allan Richter

January 2010

Health myths have been around as long as granite monuments but with a much wider reach. They take flight in part because of some underlying truth, typically for only a small percentage of the population—people who are less than healthy to begin with, for instance. We’ve reached out to doctors and other healthcare practitioners to help debunk some of these misconceptions. So while mom may have told you to down that glass of milk to get big and strong, you’ll find a different view on the pages ahead.


Myth #1

We lose brain power as we age.

If you’re forgetting where you’re leaving your car keys or drawing a blank on phone numbers that ought to be secondhand, don’t shrug it off as an unmanageable natural decline in brain power brought on by aging. Contrary to conventional wisdom, our brains continue to develop through our life spans. Because of this neuroplasticity, there’s a lot to be said for the old adage that it’s never too late—to learn to write, paint or play a musical instrument.

We can also put to use this ability to remodel brain structure to handle stress, says Don Goewey, co-founder of ProAttitude, a stress reduction consultancy and author of Mystic Cool (Atria Books). “If you had the misfortune of having a brain wired for fear and stress, you can rewire your brain,” says Goewey. In addition to the brain foods and supplementation like gingko available, Goewey offers exercises to find peace and “collapse anxious thinking at the point of inception”—before stress-induced emotions go into a tailspin.

“A tool that’s often used to do ths is one I call the clear button,” Goewey says. “You imagine that in your left hand there’s a button in the center of your palm, and it sends a biofeedback signal to that primitive part of your brain that creates these stress reactions and it calms you down. You distract it even further by counting to three, and then you distract it even further by seeing each number as a color. Most people at the end of that can’t remember all the anxious thinking they were doing.”

And with the ability to shape our brains, achieving peace and so much more is far more possible than once thought.

Myth #2

We need the protein of meat to stay healthy.


In the 1950s, the FDA determined that the average healthy person consumed 1 gram of protein for every two pounds of body weight, setting in motion the increasingly excessive consumption of animal products, says Michael Finkelstein, MD, FACP, ABHM, who practices at SunRaven, a holistic health center in Bedford, New York. Animal products are the most accessible way to get
that much protein but that can lead to immense health consequences.

Instead, Finkelstein says, the average person needs about a third of that early recommendation daily. “The basis for that is that populations through the world who are mostly vegetarian or who eat animal products sparingly live in greater health than we do in the West. They have fewer of the chronic diseases that people in the West suffer from, including coronary artery disease, cancer, arthritis and Alzhemier’s,” he says.

“The best sources in general are legumes, nuts and seeds. But since you don’t have to consume such a great quantity, the sources aren’t quite that important. Many fruits and vegetables contain enough protein if you eat well-balanced meals.”

Myth #3

It is essential to consume dairy to get the
calcium you need.

The prospect of developing osteoporosis, while something to be aware of, doesn’t have to drive you to the dairy aisle for your calcium intake, Finkelstein says. “Women think they’re going to get osteoporosis if they don’t consume dairy,” he says. “They’ve been brainwashed. Here’s the truth: In population studies throughout the world, the greatest incidence of osteoporosis is the greatest in those countries where the per capita consumption of dairy is the greatest.”

It turns out the protein in dairy, not the fat, just like the protein in meat, Finkelstein says, causes an acidification of the body. “What makes protein? Amino acids. So now if you eat a lot more protein than you need, you have all these amino acids that need to get broken down.”

Those acids leach calcium from the bones, he adds. In addition, the acid can lead to inflammation and conditions such as heart disease and cancer. “If you’re eating a lot of dairy, paradoxically the more dairy you consume the more likely you’re going to develop osteoporosis,” Finkelstein says, adding that quality vegetables are one of the best sources.

In addition to supplements, “broccoli has a lot of calcium in it; not as much as in an 8 oz. container of yogurt, but the net gain of calcium is greater because you’re not losing as much calcium as a result of the protein in the yogurt.”

Myth #4

Severe back pain comes only from a noticeable injury.

Some 80% of Americans suffer some back pain and most don’t remember having an accident or injury as a precursor, says Jack Stern, MD, PhD, a Yale University School of Medicine associate professor and founding member of Brain and Spine Surgeons of New York.

“It’s probably related to doing an activity and not being conditioned or preparing for it, like shoveling snow,” Stern says, adding that the range of possible causes is vast and can include a bad mattress or wearing unsuitable shoes. “If you wear high heel shoes you put the center of your gravity forward of where it should be,” Stern says. It’s also a myth that a firm mattress is an automatic pass to a pain-free back. “Everybody’s different,” he says.

Further, rest and heat can be enemies of a hurt back. “Inactivity may make your back worse,” he says. As for heat, “You only use a hot pack for an injury that’s chronic. For an acute injury, you put ice on it to decrease inflammation.”

Myth #5

We need at least eight glasses of water a day.

With all those water bottles we carry around, you’d think we were on the verge of a drought. You may merely be sending yourself on unnecessary trips to the bathroom, doctors say.

“There have been no studies I know of that say eight glasses of water helps with weight loss. And if you’re trying to keep your stomach full so you’re not as hungry, it’s theoretically valid, and a lot of people have commented on it, but there’s never been any real study to say that,” says Joseph Stubbs, MD, FACP, who practices in Albany, Georgia and is president of the American College of Physicians.

Robert Shmerling, MD, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, agrees. “If you drink when you’re thirsty and have some common sense about exercise, humidity and hydrating in those situations, most people will be fine,” Shmerling says. “It’s supposed to help you feel full and not eat as much. There’s an intuitiveness to it, but I don’t really think its supported by data.”

Shmerling says he traces the belief that we need eight glasses of water to a mid-20th century study which looked at how much water soldiers needed to carry to keep them hydrated but without weighing them down on the battlefield.

“I think eight glasses a day were viewed as the minimum that would be useful,” Shmerling says. “But you don’t need to force it when you’re not thirsty. That’s perfectly compatible with good health.”

Myth #6

The flu shot will give you the flu.

This is one of those myths that probably got started because of an underlying truth, says Shmerling. Some people rarely get reactions that feel like the flu, and some vaccinations include live viruses, he says, meaning you can “conceivably get the illness.” But these instances are so rare, they amount to a myth.

Unlike the flu nasal spray, the seasonal flu injection has no live virus in it. “You cannot get the flu from either the seasonal flu vaccination or the H1N1 injection vaccination,” Shmerling says.
Getting the flu after receiving the flu shot is probably coincidence, he says. “We give the flu vaccination near the time of flu season so some people get the flu shot and then they get sick right after the shot. The flu shot hasn’t had time to work yet.”

One qualifier: “The nasal spray does have the live virus, and people should not get that if their immune systems are impaired by illness or medications,” he adds.

Myth #7

We get all the vitamin D we need from the sun.

The Life Extension Foundation found less-than-optimal levels of vitamin D in more than 80% of the blood tests of 10,000 health-conscious people it studied, says Steven Joyal, MD, vice president of science and medical affairs with the non-profit organization. “Most people think of vitamin D for bone health and calcium metabolism, but we also know that vitamin D is very important for cardiac health and the immune system,” says Joyal, who recommends supplements. “They’re not aware of the very important aspects of health that are supported by vitamin D. Vitamin D receptors are all over the body. They’re in the blood vessels. They’re in immune cells, and we know there is a correlation between low levels of sunlight and the incidence of colds and the flu.” If you live in northern climates in particular, consider vitamin D supplementation.

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