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Some of the most often-repeated health myths have a basis in fact, but sometimes they obscure important truths about health. Here are twelve of the best known health myths and the facts and fallacies behind them.

1. If you cross your eyes, they'll stay that way

Ophthalmologists confirm that the muscles strained to cross eyes return to normal as soon as the eye-crossing child (or adult) moves on to other activities. Children who often cross their eyes, however, may suffer eye conditions that require treatment, such as "lazy eye," also known as amblyopia.

2. Don't cut the crust off bread. It's the most nutritious part of the bread.

There are certain combinations of proteins that are up to 150 times more abundant in bread crust than they are in raw dough. Once those proteins reach your stomach, however, they are digested right back into the same individual amino acids found in flour.  Sourdough bread, crust and all, contains carbohydrates in a form that raise blood sugars more slowly than other kinds of white bread.

3. If you go outside in cold weather with wet hair, you will catch a cold.

For centuries, the common cold was believed to be caused by evil spirits that traveled on winter winds. Nowadays colds are known to be caused by viruses, but the idea that exposure to cold causes colds has persisted.

This idea is wrong. The Common Cold Research Unit in the UK recruited a group of volunteers to be inoculated with colds viruses spritzed up their noses with a syringe. Half of the volunteers stayed in a warm room. The other half of the volunteers took a bath and stood dripping wet in a hall for 30 minutes. Then they got dressed but wore wet socks for three more hours. Both groups got colds at the same rate. The real weather risk in cold weather is dry sinuses, which develop tiny cracks that are more easily infected by colds viruses.

4.  Feed a cold, starve a fever.

Actually, you need to "water" either a cold or a fever. Staying hydrated makes it easier for your body to generate the phlegm that flushes colds viruses out of your system. When you have a cold, it's a good idea to eat more fats and sugar. As your body burns them for fuel, you will generate more carbon dioxide, and you'll breathe deeper. This counteracts congestion and also prevents head and muscle pain.

5. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

In Scotland, where fruit is not a traditional part of the menu, studies have found that taking up the practice of eating an apple a week (compared to eating no fruit at all) greatly reduces asthma and allergies. Apples and onions both contain quercetin, a natural antihistamine that does not cause allergies. If you do not have allergies, however, blueberries, blackberries, plums, and prunes are better sources of antioxidants. Both blueberries and cranberries help fight bladder infections.

6. In cold weather, you lose 75 per cent of your body heat through your head, but you are cooler if you wear a hat in summer weather.

Babies have relatively bigger heads than adults, and lose more of their body heat to cold air when their heads are not covered. In adults, however, both feet and hands lose as much heat as adults, and wearing good socks and warm gloves are just as important as wearing a head covering.

7. Eating fish makes you smart.

There are several medical studies that have found that women who eat fish while they are pregnant have children of higher intelligence and lower rates of attention deficit disorder. In adults, however, the important ingredient is a fatty acid called DHA, which is found not just in fish but also in vegan microalgae supplements.

8. You should not swim for an hour after eating.

Splash away! The food in your stomach will not cause your muscles to cramp. Drinking cold water, however, can cause dangerous muscle cramping before, during, or after any kind of vigorous exercise, in water or on land.

9. Every child needs a multivitamin.

Fred and Wilma Flintstone (cartoon characters used as images for a popular brand of children's chewable vitamins) are not really the patron saints of child development. There is no need to add chewable vitamins to any child's diet, and it's actually dangerous to keep any kind of flavored vitamin that contains iron within a child's reach. Children who eat vitamin and mineral supplements that contain iron can quickly overdose and may even need chelation therapy to survive. The one exception to this rule is that children who do not get sunlight may benefit from a vitamin D supplement, but no more than 200 IU a day.

10. Gum stays in your stomach for the rest of your life.

Millions of people have colonoscopies every year. Doctors never find chewing gum inside. Gum may take up to a week digest, but it breaks down as passes out of the body with stool. Only eating very large amounts of gum, several ounces (100 to 200 g) for a child or about a pound (450 g) for adult, will actually cause problem.

11. The best way to get rid of hiccups is to have somebody startle you.

The problem with having somebody startle you is that you know you are going to be startled. A better method, verified in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1971, is to eat a spoonful of white sugar. In the study, taking a spoon of sugar worked in 19 out of 20 cases. Other methods that work include:
  • Bearing down on your belly muscles while holding your breath.
  • Breathing in and out of a paper bag.
  • Rubbing your soft palate (the roof of your mouth) with a clean finger or with a cotton swab until you almost gag.
  • Sprinkling a lemon wedge with Angostura bitters. Bite the lemon and swallow the Angostura bitters.
  • Stimulating your soft palate by letting a sugar cube dissolve on the tip of your tongue or by drinking ice water.

12. Warm milk helps you sleep.

There is no biological explanation of why drinking warm milk helps people get to sleep. But if it works for you, there's probably no reason to stop the practice.

  • Rister, R. Healing without Medication (Laguna Beach, California: Basic Health Publications, 2003).