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Don't be fooled: six holiday health myths verified or debunked

Does the bulk of heat escape our bodies through our heads? Does eating more at night pack on the pounds? Does sugar really make kids hyper? ScientificAmerican.com talked to Indiana University School of Medicine pediatricians Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll to find out if these and three other popular health myths are true. The researchers recently scoured medical literature for the answers and published their findings in the British Medical Journal.


Myth #1: Sugar makes kids hyper.
Answer: FALSE

Most parents swear that too many sweets turn their kids into the Duracell bunny. But Vreeman and Carroll report they found no link between sugar and hyperactive behavior. "When parents think their children have been given a drink containing sugar (even if it's really sugar-free), they rate their children’s behavior as more hyperactive," the researchers found. "The differences in the children’s behavior were all in the parents’ minds."

Myth #2: Suicides spike during the holidays, and in the winter in general
Answer:  FALSE

Theories have long abounded that suicides spike during the winter, particularly during the holidays, because the weather is gloomy, the skies are gray and people tend to get the blues if reminded during family events of sad occasions or relatives and friends who have died or are ailing. But the scientists did not find any evidence of this. "Studies from all over the world [suggest that] during the sunniest, warmest times of year, there are the highest suicide rates," Vreeman told us. She says they have no clue why but that some experts speculate, at least among teens, that the rates are higher in the summer when they have fewer social interactions and less support than they do while in school.

Myth #3: Poinsettias are poisonous
Answer: FALSE

Many people believe the leaves and petals of this holiday plant are toxic. So many, in fact, that in 2006, poison control centers in the U.S. received 1,615 phone calls from people concerned about exposure to them, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers in Alexandria, Va. But it turns out they had nothing to fear. "Most [scientists] agree that it can cause some GI [gastrointestinal] upset, but it's not toxic," if children or pets ingest them, Carroll says, adding quickly that "we are not advocating that people eat them."

Myth #4: Most of our body heat escapes through the tops of our heads
Answer: FALSE

How many times has your mom told you to wear a hat to keep heat from escaping your body on a cold, wintry day? Well, guess what? Some heat does escape through the head but certainly not the bulk of it, according to the researchers. "Heat loss is proportional to the body's surface area that is exposed. Your head has a decent amount of surface area," she says, but notes that the arms, legs and torso do, too. "By all means wear a hat, but there is nothing special about the head."

Myth #5: Snacking at bedtime causes more weight gain than earlier in the day
Answer:  FALSE
When it comes to managing weight, one simple rule trumps all others: If you take in more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. "It doesn't matter when calories are consumed," Vreeman says. One could eat all his or her daily calories before bedtime without putting on pounds—as long as the number of calories consumed does not exceed those burned.

Myth #6: Hangovers can be cured
ANSWER: FALSE

If you imbibe, you no doubt have your own special hangover remedy – be it a bloody Mary, prickly pears, or blood pressure meds. Alas, say Vreeman and Carroll, there are no known hangover treatments, because nobody knows the exact physiological mechanism that causes the post-binge blahs, though dehydration and accumulation of toxins from alcohol metabolism are suspected culprits.  Some things may alleviate symptoms—ibuprofen for a headache, for example—but there is currently only one proven cure for a hangover, Carroll says: "Don’t drink so much."

Image credit ©iStockphoto.com/Artis & Szelmek

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