The holiday season is a time of myth. There’s one about a big guy in a red suit who can travel faster than the speed of light to deliver millions of gifts down narrow chimneys in a few dark, cold hours. Ok, that one’s true, especially if the grandkids are reading this over your shoulder.
But other common holiday health myths are urban lore. You may already know that it wasn’t the turkey that made you sleepy over Thanksgiving, according to National Public Radio. Now it’s time to explode a few myths about Christmas and New Year’s. Just to make it interesting, we’ve included a few “myths” that are actually true:
Their large, velvety, red leaves bring a splash of color into homes over the holidays. Good thing they won’t kill you—or the grandkids.
“You’ve heard you have to be really careful, especially around children and pets, but the truth is poinsettias aren’t linked to any significant problems,” says Rachel Vreeman, MD, MS, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine and co-author of "Don’t Swallow Your Gum: Myths, Half Truths, and Downright Lies About Your Body and Health".
One review of 23,000 cases in which people called the Poison Control Center found no deaths and no significant poisoning. Studies show a child of 50 pounds would have to eat 500 leaves or so to get really sick. “Reportedly, the leaves don’t taste good, so that would limit consumption anyway,” says Dr. Vreeman. Similarly, mistletoe berries, while not really edible, aren’t particularly toxic to people, according to the New York Times. Both plants also have low toxicity for cats and dogs. However, cautions Dr. Vreeman, “any time a parent or grandparent or pet owner is concerned about something that a child or pet has eaten, it’s always a good to call the Poison Control Center.” (The number: 800-222-1222.)
Many people do gain weight over the six-week holiday period from Thanksgiving through New Year. But maybe not as much as you think. One recent study reports an average of a little less than two pounds, and even if the scale doesn’t change, you may put on more body fat. So it makes sense to watch what you eat over the holidays, but don’t fret too much about late-night eating, says Dr. Vreeman. While a recent study did find that people who ate a big meal at midday lost more weight than those who ate a big meal later at night, “in larger studies, eating at night is not associated with weight gain," says Dr. Vreeman. “Eating more than three times a day is, though, as is skipping breakfast.” To keep total calories in check, try to stay on your normal eating schedule as much as you can.
Suicides go up
In truth, the suicide rate in December is the lowest of any month of the year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “People actually have more emotional and social support during this time of year, and there are fewer psychiatric visits and fewer suicide attempts,” says Dr. Vreeman. It’s true around the world, too. “We don’t see suicide peaks in the cold, dark winter months—in fact, the rates peak in the warmer months.” Perhaps T.S. Eliot was right about April being the cruelest month…
All that sugar makes kids hyperactive
“Everyone refuses to believe that this one is not true,” says Dr. Vreeman. “They just believe that sugar makes kids crazy and hyper and prone to acting out.”
The evidence that sugar does not cause hyperactivity, though, “is extremely good,” she says. “Sugar has been studied better than many drugs. There are at least 12 randomized controlled studies, and in study after study, whether they look at juice or natural sugar or candy or chocolate, there is no effect on kids’ behavior.” However, research does show that if parents think their kids have had sugar, they’ll rate their children’s behavior as worse. They did so even with kids who were given sugar-free beverages. Meanwhile, when strangers were shown videotapes of the kids, they didn’t notice any behavioral changes in the sugar eaters.
Right you are! While not particularly common, falls from ladders and roofs, do go up over the holidays. So always be careful hanging those lights, stringing the top of the tree, and taking down all the lights. Fires from candles also spike—December is the peak time of the year for home fires caused by candles. Make sure you keep candles at least a foot from anything that could catch fire—and make sure you blow them all out well before bedtime.
Heart attacks are more common between Xmas and New Year's
This one may, unfortunately, be true. Heart attacks are more common in winter than summer, in part because cold weather can increase blood pressure and other risk factors in people with heart conditions. But there’s something about Christmas week that’s especially dangerous. Even in mild Los Angeles, heart attack deaths start rising after Thanksgiving, climb through Christmas, and peak around New Year’s Day—and then fall again in January and February.
So if you or someone you know has heart disease or significant risk factors, pay special attention to eating right, getting exercise, getting enough sleep, and keeping stress low. Big meals high in fat and salt can pose risks. Pay attention to side effects, too, since what may feel like heartburn or indigestion could be signs of a heart attack.
New Year's Eve is the most dangerous holiday to drive
Actually, the most dangerous day of the year for fatal car crashes used to be July 4th, although in some years Thanksgiving has surpassed it. Memorial Day and Labor Day are also more dangerous than Christmas and New Year’s Eve or Day. Still, it’s riskier to drive on New Year’s than on other days of the year, so it’s a good day to stay home if you can. And there are plenty of car crashes in the days leading up to Christmas, so be prudent at the malls.
You can cure a hangover
“Whatever has been studied doesn’t work,” says Dr. Vreeman. That includes artichokes, aspirin, bananas, Vegemite, various drugs and herbs, and many, many things. “You can avoid hangovers by not consuming large amounts of alcohol, but no one wants to hear that,” she says. There is a smidgeon of evidence that the cysteine in eggs – an amino acid — might help the body clear out toxic alcohol metabolites, though. “An egg sandwich might be a good way to go when you have a hangover, but it’s still a stretch,” she says. As for dropping a raw egg yolk into that mysterious tonic your brother recommends for the day after, skip it: Raw eggs can carry salmonella. And getting food poisoning is the last thing you want right now.
Happy holidays and be sure to leave cookies and milk for the big guy.