Seven Medical Mythteries

If you want to know the fastest way to spread BS, disguise it as medical advice.  The following memes were produced by a website called myhealthtips.in and featured on the Facebook page Library of Most Controversial Files, whose interests include “popular conspiracy theories”.  I’m not sure what constitutes a popular conspiracy theory, but make of that what you will.

SleepyTime

It’s hard to find scientific information about human sleep cycles.  Googling the question is next to pointless, because there are thousands of websites that purport to be “experts on healthy sleep”, and which nevertheless parrot information that was probably generated by somebody without a medical degree.  It can be difficult to determine what constitutes expert advice and what doesn’t.

In any case, the idea that there is a best time for sleep is contentious and is by no means established scientific wisdom.  Historians tell us that in olden days, people slept in two chunks of about 4 hours each, separated by a 1-2 hour period of wakefulness in the middle of the night.  People would routinely use this wakeful period to visit the john, read, pray, or ahem, perpetuate the species, if you catch my meaning.

The advent of modern technology – in particular lighting – may have contributed to the decline of the 4-2-4 sleep cycle, but it did not quell people’s need for sleep.  In modern times, doctors recommend that a healthy adult should get between 7 and 8 hours of quality sleep a night.  Some people claim to get by on fewer than 7 hours, but in general neurologists find that prolonged periods of inadequate sleep can lead to a decline in mental functioning.  In case you need help with the math (perhaps because you haven’t been getting sufficient sleep); 10:00 pm to 4:00 am is only six hours.  As far as I can tell, no scientists are advocating a six-hour sleep schedule.

The important thing to take away is that each person is different, and needs different amounts of sleep in different increments.  You should sleep the number of hours that allows you to wake up feeling refreshed and ready to function.  Don’t base your sleep schedule on a meme.

WarmMedicine

This almost sounds like one of those “fake advice” memes produced by mean-spirited people to dupe gullible folks into ruining their own health and/or property.  Most medical websites I consulted recommended taking medicine – especially gel capsules – with cool water (not cold or hot).  Water is important to help the medicine go down, but using hot water can apparently accelerate the rate at which the pill’s protective coating dissolves.  This might prematurely expose the medicine to digestive enzymes, which can abate its effectiveness.

If you’re concerned about the proper temperature of water to use when swallowing a pill, ask your doctor or contact the medicine’s manufacturer directly.  Either of those sources will be much more valuable than advice from a meme.

MedicineWalk

There may be a kernal of truth to this one, but it’s still misguided.  According to the Johns Hopkins Medicine website, lying down after taking a pill may slow the pill’s progress through the esophagus, which might lead to irritation of the esophagus.  However, I couldn’t find a source that corroborated this meme’s advice to do physical activity after taking medicine.  Some medications alter heart rate and blood pressure, both of which are also affected by exercise.  Depending on the medicine you took, a post-dose workout might be unwise.

As always, ask your doctor.

HeavyMeals

Overeating in general is not a good idea, but there’s no merit to the idea that you shouldn’t have a large dinner after 5:00 pm.  In fact, a search of more than 4800 scientific journals failed to turn up even a single article backing up this claim.

It is true that eating a hearty, healthy breakfast will make you less prone to overeating later in the day; however, you shouldn’t feel guilty about sitting down at 8:00 pm for a reasonably-portioned meal with family or friends.  As always, moderation is key.

WaterMorning

I’ve already written a post about how ridiculous it is to claim that one’s hydration schedule significantly affects one’s health, so I’ll just link to that post and move on.

I will say this: for crying out loud, stop using plastic water bottles (unless you live in a region with a tainted water system, that is).

BrainPhone

Um, your brain is pretty much dead-center in your skull.  It’s not significantly closer to one ear or the other.  And why would that matter anyway, unless you think that… oh lord, you’re one of those cell phone/radiation/cancer theorists, aren’t you?

PhoneBattery

Yep.

Okay, there’s just so much wrong here that I’m at a loss for where to start.

Radiation often gets a bad rap, but radiation isn’t always harmful.  Radiation is a catch-all term for the waves and particles that are given off by an energetic source.  Yes, cell phones give off radiation, but so do light bulbs, human bodies, and bananas.  And yes, nuclear waste gives off radiation as well, but don’t let that scare you.  When you’re talking about radiation and health concerns, there are two questions you have to ask yourself: what kind of radiation are you dealing with, and how much are you receiving?

Cell phone radiation is sometimes placed into the microwave category, which gives lots of people pause.  Microwave radiation – isn’t that the same kind of radiation that’s used to cook food?  Well, yes and no.   A microwave oven focuses radiation with a frequency of 2450 Megahertz into a relatively small space.  That particular frequency causes water molecules inside the food to spin and dance around, which generates heat and cooks the food from the inside out.  A typical microwave oven expends about 1200 watts of power while cooking.

A cell phone, on the other hand, can operate at a range of frequencies from 1850 to 1990 MHz, or from 824 to 894 MHz.  All of these frequencies are lower than the microwave oven’s frequency of 2450 MHz, which means that cell phone waves carry less energy per photon than cooking microwaves do.  Also, water doesn’t respond as strongly to the frequencies given off by cell phones, which means that cell phones cannot possibly be used to cook popcorn (despite the hoax videos you might have seen).

Furthermore, the power output of a cell phone is much smaller than the power output of a microwave.  Although sources vary, the average number is about 1 watt.  So let’s put that into perspective; the average cell phone’s radiation power output is about 1200 times less than the power produced by an operating microwave oven.  In other words, it takes a cell phone about 20 minutes of continuous usage to output the same amount of energy that a microwave oven puts out in one second.  Also, since cell phones typically don’t have directional antennas, about half of that energy is going away from the user’s head, which further mitigates the risk.

Of course, you might argue that the danger of a cell phone’s radiation is due to something other than thermal damage.  Perhaps you believe that a cell phone’s radiation will screw up your DNA and cause tumors to grow out of control.

At least one major study refutes this notion.  The INTERPHONE study, conducted in 13 nations, was unable to establish a causal link between cell phone usage and brain tumors.

Now I’m reasonably certain that somebody will comment with a link to a study showing that cell phone radiation does negatively impact human tissue.  I understand that even among scientists, there are opposing camps regarding to what extent cell phone radiation affects humans, and what we ought to do about it.

Whichever side you fall on, the notion that cell phone radiation is 1000 times stronger when the battery dips below ten percent is utter rubbish.  Batteries do not work that way.  The power output of your cell phone varies with signal strength; when signal strength is low, the cell phone beefs up its transmission power in order to compensate.  I suppose it could be true that if you’ve been in a signal dead zone for several hours, your battery could have drained due to your phone’s persistent efforts to maintain a link.  In that case, a prematurely drained battery could be a warning sign (in addition to the low-bars symbol helpfully offered by your cell phone) that your cell phone will be transmitting with more power.

But…and this is important, so pay careful attention…there are lots of other things that can cause a cell phone’s battery to drain, so a low battery does not necessarily mean your cell phone will fry your noodle.  And even if the cell phone is transmitting with more power, all cell phone manufacturers design their products with built-in power output limit.

So what’s the bottom line?  Are cell phones killing us, or aren’t they?  Well, there’s no good evidence that they are, but if it concerns you that much, then you should stop using your cell phone altogether, and not just when the battery is low.

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If It’s On The Internet…

Total BS

If you’ve spent any time around humans, you’ve probably noticed that we’re not a rational bunch. We tend to draw conclusions based on our personal prejudices rather than empirical evidence. When confronted with conflicting evidence, we often reject it out of hand. I’m as guilty of this as everybody else; I think it’s a defense mechanism meant to keep our minds from having to reconstruct our worldviews on a daily basis. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s good for us to have a consistent image of how the world works.

Fortunately, we’ve recognized this shortcoming and invented science as a means of by-passing it. We humans use science to know about the natural world, but also to improve the quality of our lives. One of the greatest practical achievements of science is medicine, that vast branch that helps determine what’s good and bad for us.

Of course, not everybody accepts the findings of science/medicine, because – as I pointed out – it’s a lot more comfortable to stick to your ideological guns. Every now and then you’ll come across a meme like this one, which seems to fly in the face of established science. It’s tempting to dismiss this meme as so much bollocks, but let’s take the time to see what evidence is available to confirm or refute each of the author’s claims.

Exposure to the sun generates vitamin D which will protect you from cancer.

If you want to stir up a poop-storm of controversy, nothing stirs faster than the topic of cancer (not the Tropic of Cancer, which to the best of my knowledge is not controversial at all). Claim that something causes or prevents cancer, and soon you’ll have a multitude of angry self-proclaimed medical experts beating down your door to tell you why you’re wrong. Unfortunately these armchair physicians seldom come armed with peer-reviewed studies. What do the real experts have to say about the Sun, vitamin D, and cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute, an arm of the National Institute of Health, the link between vitamin D and cancer is not well-understood. Here’s what we do know:

Vitamin D helps the human body process calcium and phosphorus, which are essential for healthy teeth and bones. Your skin does indeed produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, but you also get vitamin D in your food. What’s the connection between vitamin D and cancer? Early studies indicated that certain types of cancer were less common – and less often fatal – in people living close to the equator than in people living at higher latitudes. One proposed hypothesis was that since equatorial inhabitants receive more direct sunlight, their bodies produce more vitamin D. Vitamin D does seem to inhibit cancer growth in mice; perhaps something similar is happening in people? Sadly, further studies have been inconclusive. At present, there is little data to indicate what benefit, if any, vitamin D has in keeping people cancer-free.

Furthermore, there are many types of cancer: the NCI never mentions a specific link between vitamin D and skin cancer, which is the kind of cancer most often associated with excessive exposure to sunlight. So, even if vitamin D does protect you from some types of cancer, it might not protect you from skin cancer; ergo, you should probably stock up on sunscreen if you’re going to be outdoors a lot, right? Right?


Sunscreen contains chemicals that actually give you skin cancer.

Ah, so this is the author’s angle. Silly people: the Sun doesn’t cause cancer – the cream you rub on your skin to protect yourself from cancer causes cancer! What cruel irony!

Well, not so fast. Dr Ronald Siegle, writing for the Skin Cancer Foundation, debunks rumors regarding the potential carcinogenic properties of sunscreen. According to Dr Siegle, there is no compelling evidence that the ingredients in sunscreen present a cancer risk to humans. So why do some folks think otherwise?

Probably because some sunscreens contain titanium dioxide nanoparticles. Titanium dioxide in powder form is highly toxic when inhaled, and a possible carcinogen to humans. Some people are concerned that the tiny titanium dioxide particles in commercial sunscreens could penetrate through the skin and enter the bloodstream. Dr Kenneth Portier, writing for the American Cancer Society, says that scientists have been unable to determine what amount of TiO2 actually makes it through the outer layer of skin cells, and to what depth. Dr Portier also points out that not every brand of sunscreen contains titanium dioxide, and echoes Dr Siegle in saying that overall, applying sunscreen is still a smart idea if you’re going to be outdoors. Despite what some people say, sunscreen helps reduce the risk of skin cancer, so slather up.


Al Qaeda is the CIA and your government is the major threat.

This statement opens many cans of worms.

It has certainly been rumored that the United States armed and supported Al Qaeda during the latter operation’s formative years. Is there any truth to these rumors? Predictably, that depends on who you ask. The supposed link between the CIA and Al Qaeda goes back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The United States, in an effort to stymie the Soviets, provided support to the local Afghan mujahideen (Islamic guerilla fighters), but denies ever having been intimately connected with so-called foreign, or Arab, mujahideen who laid the foundation of Al Qaeda. United States government officials argue that there were plenty of indigenous mujahideen invested in repelling the Soviet invasion force; ergo it was unnecessary to bring in foreign fighters, particularly those who were already well-funded by Muslim sources and openly hostile to Americans.

Remarkably, Osama bin Laden, a co-founder of Al Qaeda, agreed with the United States government’s portrayal of the U.S./Al Qaeda relationship in those early years; i.e. that there was none. And yet…

Other sources, notably Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, have claimed that Osama bin Laden expressed gratitude toward the United States of America for its role in helping the Afghan mujahideen. This seems to contradict most other depictions of Osama bin Laden, who was never portrayed as being a fan of the United States.

Flash forward to September 11, 2001, when terrorists linked to Al Qaeda hijacked four airplanes and intentionally crashed three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Despite an extensive investigation showing that the 9/11 attacks were in fact the act of a radical Islamic terrorist organization, many conspiracy theorists leapt headfirst into the conclusion that the United States government either orchestrated the attacks themselves, or knew about them beforehand and was complicit in allowing them to happen.

The conspiracy theorists point to what they perceive as inconsistencies and physical impossibilities in the events leading up to the attacks. I don’t have the time or energy to review and debunk every conspiracy theory that has popped up in the wake of 9/11 (nor do I need to, as many sources, Popular Mechanics, e.g., have already done so). I don’t expect the diehards to be convinced; conspiracy theories are born of a need to have an explanation that fits one’s prejudices, regardless of whether the explanation is true or even plausible.

So where does that leave us? Is Al Qaeda the CIA? Is our government a major threat? There’s no evidence to support a positive answer to the first question, and I don’t think the second question even has a defensible answer. Sure, the government has done some shady stuff; in fact, it continues to do so. But just because our government has done some bad things doesn’t mean it has done every bad thing. We must be careful when leveling such accusations.


Diet products contain aspartame and aspartame causes brain cancer.

Some diet products contain aspartame, but aspartame has never been scientifically linked to an increased risk of brain cancer in humans. Many of the misconceptions about aspartame are probably connected to a hoax email that has been circulating since at least 1998. The Food & Drug Administration has responded to the email, saying that it is full of pseudoscientific nonsense. Both the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society attest to the safety of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners.

“But wait a minute,” you might say, “What about that study showing that aspartame increased cancer risks in men who drink diet sodas?” People who already wanted backing for their pre-formed conclusions that aspartame was dangerous leapt on the report like a lion on a gazelle. They seemingly had their smoking gun. Nevermind that the report’s authors – who pre-maturely promoted it – recanted their support almost immediately when the report was finally released. They called their own findings weak and untenable; in other words, they no longer felt comfortable hanging their confidence on it. Similar studies purporting to show hidden dangers in aspartame have likewise been called methodologically unsound by the international scientific community. Aspartame is one of the best-tested food additives in existence, and the available evidence – from laboratories all over the world – shows that it is safe.


Mammograms expose you to ionizing radiation which will give you cancer.

Life exposes you to ionizing radiation. Every day, every second, your body is being bombarded by charged particles and high-energy photons moving at fantastic speeds. Although these particles are sub-microscopic, they pack quite a wallop on the molecular scale; in fact, they can damage your sensitive genetic code.

In many cases your cells are able to catch the damage and repair it before it can spread. In other cases the cell is sacrificed to save its host: you. Your body has myriad ways to protect itself from the effects of ionizing radiation.

In very rare situations, a cell suffers a mutation that shuts off the mechanism that tells it when to stop growing. If your body’s defense system fails to identify and destroy the cancerous cell, it will grow and divide out of control, threatening the survival of tissues, organ systems, and eventually its own host. It’s a testament to the power of our immune systems that these aggressive cancers seldom get beyond the single-stage cell, but when they do, the results can be devastating.

If we increase our exposure to ionizing radiation, we increase the likelihood of developing cancer. Scientists have made careful measurements and estimates of the amount of radiation received in various situations, and these measurements inform dosage recommendations. Check out this website to learn about how much radiation is too much. While you’re there, be sure to click on the diagram for a closer look; it’s really informative.

As you can see, the average radiation dose from a mammogram is 3 milliSieverts. The maximum yearly dose permitted for U.S. radiation workers is 50 milliSieverts, so you could have sixteen mammograms in a one-year period without exceeding the recommended maximum dose for people who routinely work in high-radiation environments.

You would have to receive a yearly dose of 100 milliSieverts (about 33 mammograms) before you had an increased risk of cancer. I don’t think too many people will receive 33 mammograms in a year. Bottom line: the radiation you receive during a typical mammogram is far below the level needed to increase your risk for developing cancer.

To be fair, it takes only one radiation particle to get the cancer ball rolling. The longer you live, the more likely you are to take a critical hit in your DNA. Ironically, that makes it more important that women over 50 get regular mammograms. It’s a measured risk: the microscopic impact in your yearly radiation budget is more than countered by the likelihood that you’ll detect breast cancer in its early stages.


Most vaccines contain thimerosal (mercury) that will kill you.

In a word, no. Thimerosal is not mercury; it is an organic compound that contains mercury. That’s an important distinction, because it changes how the chemical is absorbed and processed inside the body. Many vaccines used to contain thimerosal as a preservative because it would prevent the growth of harmful bacteria in the vaccine medium. According to the USFDA, thimerosal was eliminated or reduced to trace amounts in most vaccines in response to growing concerns about its safety. Today, most of the vaccines recommended for children under 6 are thimerosal-free, with the exception of flu vaccines (and you can even request a thimerosal-free flu vaccine). Contrary to this meme’s assertion, most vaccines do not contain thimerosal.

Now let’s address the second part of the statement: can thimerosal kill you? Well, it’s no secret that mercury is exceedingly bad for you, but different compounds of mercury behave in different ways. Thimerosal is a derivative of a compound called ethylmercury. The Center for Disease Control explains that ethylmercury, unlike elemental mercury and methylmercury, is broken down and eliminated by the body. It doesn’t slowly accumulate to dangerous levels; furthermore, the few vaccines that still contain thimerosal have it in exceedingly low concentrations.

You’ve no doubt heard stories of people who claim that they or their children were made ill by a vaccine. There will always be people who react badly to certain vaccines, but it almost certainly has nothing to do with mercury. As with mammograms, vaccines represent a miniscule risk, and the benefits far outweigh it.

One more question needs answering: if thimerosal is so harmless, why did the FDA request that vaccine manufacturers remove it from most of their products? The FDA and its European cousin, the AAP, followed a better-safe-than-sorry approach. They opted out of thimerosal in the remote chance that it was harmful, reasoning that there was little harm in being overly cautious. Unfortunately, the destructive and now discredited ex-Dr Andrew Wakefield confused the issue by releasing a study supposedly establishing a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. To the conspiracy-minded, the timing was too good to ignore: of course the FDA knew that vaccines cause autism; that’s why they rushed to eliminate thimerosal. By the time the dust settled on the Wakefield scandal, the damage was done. Too many parents still refuse important vaccines for their children in the mistaken belief that they pose a health risk. Subsequently, dangerous diseases that were once under control are making a roaring comeback.


Fluoride is poison and it will give you cancer and kill you and cause dental fluorosis.

It tickles me that dental fluorosis is thrown in almost as an afterthought. Fluoride will kill you…and your teeth will be ugly at your funeral!

At any rate, I’ve written about the “dangers” of fluoride before. To summarize: the fluoride levels in toothpaste and drinking water are far below dangerous levels. You would have to gobble down many tubes of toothpaste (at once) before you stood a better-than-average chance of being harmed by fluoride. There is no credible evidence to suggest that our health is being jeopardized by the fluoride we regularly consume. Warnings on toothpaste tubes are put there to protect the companies, not because their product is actually dangerous.


So that’s it. This meme was a whole lot of nonsense, but I think we’ve gained a valuable insight into the mind of its author. The author hates and distrusts the medical establishment and the government, and is willing to accept anything as long as it confirms his beliefs. Let’s consider this a cautionary tale…not of the evils of Big Government, but of the evils of uncritical thinking.

The One Thing Baking Soda Doesn’t Do

Baking Soda Cures Cancer

No doubt about it: baking soda is some pretty versatile stuff. It can be used as an extinguisher for small fires or as a leavening agent for bread. It can neutralize both acids and bases and is very handy when you’re wracked by vicious heartburn. It can slow the progress of late stage chronic kidney disease. You can use baking soda to treat aspirin overdoses or to relieve some of the discomfort from insect bites and stings. It increases the whitening and plaque removal power of toothpaste. You can use it in your homemade deodorants and shampoos, you hippie. Use baking soda to help remove tarnish from your silverware, then spray it on your plants to control that troublesome fungus. And when you’re done, don’t forget to put it back into your refrigerator, because it really reeks in there. Seriously…what died?

You might be saying to yourself: Wow, baking soda is really amazing! Is there anything it can’t do?

As a matter of fact, there is one thing. Baking soda absolutely cannot cure cancer. Not even a little bit.

This horrible bit of wrongness comes from one former Dr. Tullio Simoncini (and others, perhaps). His claim is that many – if not all – forms of cancer are caused by various yeast infections. Whereas yeast is a fungus, and whereas baking soda kills yeast, ergo baking soda cures cancer, or so says the good doctor. Q.E.D., right? Well, not so fast.

First of all, the American Cancer Society says that there’s no evidence at all to suggest that any type of cancer is caused by a yeast infection. If you were hoping to persuade your insurance company to pay for a lifetime supply of Arm & Hammer, I’m afraid your case is without merit. There’s really nothing else to say about it. Baking soda does not cure cancer. Period.

The complete lack of accuracy in this meme makes it a prime candidate for snarky dissection, but there’s more. Let’s ask ourselves a question: why would somebody want to pass this meme along? What motivates the sharer?

I think the most insidious part of this meme is what it doesn’t say. By advocating the use of cheap, easily-obtainable baking soda for cancer treatment, the memer implies that the mainstream medical community’s expensive cancer treatments are unnecessary – possibly even ineffective. The baking soda cancer cure myth plays nicely into the worldview of people who distrust Big Pharma (i.e. the people who make a habit of using the words Big Pharma). You probably know somebody in this camp: their core belief is that all diseases are ultimately treatable by the simplest, most innocuous home-brewed concoctions, and that the medical industry is pervaded by greedy capitalists seeking to line their own pockets by pushing artificially expensive drugs down the throat of the helpless populace. No amount of logic can persuade them otherwise. If you show them the numerous studies that soundly debunk their beliefs about alternative remedies, they are almost contractually bound to argue that the studies themselves were bought and paid for by the evil masterminds trying to sell you the blue pill.

Here’s what troubles me the most: some people do buy into this crap, especially when they are sick and desperate. If a person wants to swallow a spoonful of baking soda between chemo treatments, I suppose it won’t do him much harm. But what about the person who decides to try baking soda instead of chemo? What about the person who is so sold on the idea of Evil Big Pharma that he’s willing to bet his life on it?

There’s an excellent but troubling website called What’s the Harm? The site addresses the far-too-numerous cases of people who were harmed or killed because they failed to think critically. People who create and pass along memes like this one fall squarely into this category: they may not have been hurt yet, but their mentality makes them dangerous. Ironically, in their desire to perform some kind of public service, they have actually done a disservice. They need to be convinced of their mistake – and I’ll admit I have no idea how to do that – before an annoyingly inaccurate idea leads to somebody’s unnecessary demise.