Fact or Fiction? Traditionally Held Beliefs About Our Health Investigated
Sometimes, an idea or phrase is repeated so often that it gains the status of undisputed fact, even when it is not true. For example, did you know that:
• It is untrue that dropping a penny from a tall building is likely to kill anyone it hits. In fact, the terminal velocity of a penny dropped from a great height is less than 50mph; a speed unlikely to even crack someone’s skull (although it will hurt a lot!).
• Napoleon Bonaparte was not short. He was actually slightly taller than the average for his time.
• The Great Wall of China cannot be seen from the moon.
• Seasons are not caused by the Earth being nearer the Sun in the summer than the winter (instead, its got something to do with the planet’s axial tilt – during the Northern hemisphere summer, the Earth is actually at its furthest point from the sun!).
• In Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, Sherlock Holmes never utters the words “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
What if some of them are myths too?. And these are just a few amongst many misconceptions we cling to as we go about our lives. The good thing is, none of them are likely to hurt us. At least not the ones mentioned above. But what about those ‘facts’ we hold as true when it comes to our health? What if some of them are myths to? Then the capacity for harm exists.
In light of recent research and plain common sense, it’s worth exploring some commonly held beliefs regarding our health and see which of them actually hold up to scrutiny.
Stress is Bad for Us:
Given everything you are likely to have read and heard about stress, it might surprise you to learn that it is not entirely bad for us and that, in certain circumstances it actually does us good. We have developed our stress response over thousands of years. It has evolved to help us survive; to enable us to adapt to danger, uncertainty or change. It can tune our system to handle difficult circumstances and it can motivate us to do better at jobs we care about.
Of course, a lot depends on how we handle stress. If we react positively to pressure, then short-term stress can trigger the production of protective chemicals and increase activity in immune cells that boost the body’s defenses. In other words, a quick surge of stress can actually help to ward off illness and disease.
Long term stress however, is unlikely to bring such positive results. There comes a point (and it is different for each individual) when our stress hormones get tired of being overworked and positive effects become negative ones. At this point, our immune system will weaken and we will often turn to other – less successful – ways of coping, such as anger, smoking, over-eating or drinking too much. Eventually we become susceptible to disease and some will suffer serious illness which can take diverse forms, including heart problems, depression and Alzheimers.
When stress reaches this level, clearly it is bad for you. But if we can find a way to handle stress, and keep it under control (both exercise and meditation can help in this regard), then it is not necessarily the demon that it has been made out to be.
The Sun is Bad for Us:
The sun has had a lot of bad press in recent years. “Never go out in the sun without sun-block,” we’re told. “Always wear protective clothing when you’re out in the sun!”
It’s advice which holds true, if we intend to stay in the sun for a prolonged period of time. But it’s also advice which has led many of us to believe that the sun is bad for us; that it’s an agent for cancer with no redeeming features. Such a belief is not only ill-founded, it also has the potential to damage our long term health.
The truth is, in small doses, the sun is good for us. Being out in the sun not only induces a more relaxed, happier frame of mind, it also provides us with a natural, healthy dose of Vitamin D, which research indicates is an important component in maintaining our general well-being. Not only does Vitamin D assist with calcium absorption and bone health, but a deficiency of it has been identified as a major risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and some cancers.
So, try not to treat the sun as the enemy. If you take a common sense approach to sun-bathing, and you avoid burning your skin, then exposure to the sun can actually do you a power of good.
And try to remember too, if you are going to spend an extended amount of time in the sun, it is much better for you and your skin if you use a broad spectrum, all natural sunscreen, as opposed to one full of synthetic chemicals.
Alcohol is Bad for Us
A tricky one this. In a recent, widely publicized article, the highly respected New England Journal of Medicine released the findings of a study which tracked the drinking habits of 38,000 men – all healthy at the beginning of the study – over 12 years. The findings were many and varied, but what they boiled down to was this: Men who drank at least three or four days a week had fewer heart attacks than those who drank less. Not only that, but from the point of view of preventing heart attacks, drinking every day was better than drinking occasionally and three drinks were better than one.
Given other articles in recent years which have promoted the benefits of drinking red wine, these findings perhaps come as no surprise. But they need to be treated with caution. The study cited above (like many others centred around alcohol consumption) was observational. There has never yet been a large-scale, long-term, well-designed clinical trial testing the effect of alcohol. Not only that, but alcohol is associated with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of deaths a year world-wide, as a result of disease and injury. It can also be the source of social conflict and is the leading agent of death amongst the young.
Thus, the picture is clouded. In many ways, alcohol is a double-edged sword; capable of doing us both harm and good. Ultimately, it needs to be approached responsibly and in due moderation. Given the excessive binge drinking which prevails in modern day society, this is a lesson some of us still have to learn.
It Is Healthiest To Always Drink Water From A Bottle
In countries like Australia and New Zealand, this is a marketing myth, brought to you by advertising agencies keen to have you purchase something at great expense (gram for gram, water costs more than gasoline) which you can essentially source for free from your nearest tap.
There is no evidence to suggest that there are more chemical contaminants in our water supply than you will find in bottled water. Not only that, but water straight from the tap comes without plastic. Bottled water, on the other hand, produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste each year; waste which requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce. It is also shipped around the world at great expense and generally kept refrigerated.
Thus, there is nothing environmentally friendly about bottled water and, in our developed world, nothing which guarantees it as a healthier option for us than the water that comes out of our taps.
This is especially true should we buy a good quality filter for our taps; a filter which will allow us to taste our water in its pristine, natural state. With the right filter (carbon filters are good, reverse osmosis filters even better), we can drink from our taps secure in the knowledge that we are doing ourselves and the environment good and – should we so choose – give the money we might have spent on bottled water to water charities, allowing them to invest in clean water supplies for the developing world, where more than 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation.
For an outlay of approximately $2 billion (which is in the region of 2-4% of what we spend on bottled water annually), the International Water Management Institute states that clean water could be provided to everyone on earth. It’s something to think about when you crack the seal on your next bottle of plastic water.
Smoking is Bad for You
Of course it is. In fact, it’s really, really bad for you.