As a physician and a researcher, I always like to know the source of health advice. Just because something is published in a science journal or reported on the news doesn't mean it's true. You need to look at how a study is designed, as well as decide if it seems to make sense. There's a lot of ways statistics can be used to make information seem true, when in fact it may not be.
I just read a scientific study that claims separation anxiety from your iPhone can actually make you dumber. That's right -- test subjects got so anxious when separated from their iPhones their heart rate and blood pressure went up, and their ability to solve puzzles went down. Did this actually make them less smart? Were they forgetting dates and ways to add? No way. Maybe they briefly had trouble solving a complicated puzzle, but I don't think it really makes us stupid, despite what the headline might say.
Here's some other health advice that you should think twice about:
1. Hugs can cure the common cold.
With the flu rampant and cold symptoms abounding, it would be great it we could find a quick and easy way to either treat or prevent the cold. Well, a recent Carnegie Mellon study published just a month ago suggests that hugs can help protect against stress and thereby reduce infection. It even was supported by the federal government -- so it must be true, right?!
I wish this one were true but there is just not enough science to back it up. In theory, chronic stress reduces our body's ability to fight infection. But we still need much more research as to exactly how this happens. So before you go hugging strangers, be aware this study had many limitations. It was done in a few hundred people and involved surveys asking about social support, and then exposed participants to the common cold virus. I'm just not convinced by this type of study design. There are lots of reasons why people get the cold, and I'm not sure hugs change that. So personally, I'm trying to minimize hugs and close contact with anyone I think might transmit the cold or the flu.
2. Smelling farts can prevent cancer.
I'm not making this crap up, no pun intended! A recent press release from scientists at the University of Exeter went viral last year, prompting calls to cancer clinics. It was even published in a well-respected news magazine.
The study reported that although hydrogen sulfide is well known as a pungent, foul-smelling gas in rotten eggs and flatulence, it is naturally produced in the body and could in fact be a healthcare with significant implications for future therapies for a variety of diseases.
The belief is that hydrogen sulfide somehow protects the cell's mitochondria -- our body's workhorse. The problem I have with this study is that there are no real data here. No one has conducted a study specifically about flatulence. And it doesn't serve the public well for news magazines or universities to make these types of statements, which are pure hyperbole and misinform patients.
3. Baby urine can treat acne and treat skin rashes.
Having worked at Discovery Channel, I've been asked more than once (usually by viewers of "Man vs. Wild"), whether it's safe to drink your own urine. The short answer is it's fine because urine is sterile, but why do it unless you are truly stranded for more than a day with no source of clean water around?!
The more recent myth around baby urine is whether it can get rid of acne and treat skin rashes. A patient asked me about this a few months ago. Here's the fact -- Urine is mostly water, and babies' urine is composed of even more water than yours or mine. I've been hit by baby urine multiple times in the face, and I definitely don't think it improved my complexion. And my son's wet diaper seems to create rashes, not cure them! So for now, continue to wash your face with a good, mild cleanser, and try benzoyl peroxide for acne -- both have much stronger data than baby urine.
4. Chocolate can protect you from heart disease caused by air pollution.
Technically the study found it was a diet that included fruit and vegetables, wine as well as chocolate. Researchers found that elderly men were less likely to experience changes in heart function during heavy smog days if they ate foods loaded with antioxidants. Researchers seemed to be particularly excited about this finding since other than avoiding smog such as moving where we live, we don't have a way to protect ourselves from it.
We do know that smog impacts the heart's natural rhythm. And disrupting a heart rhythm can cause strokes and heat attacks. We also know that a food rich in antioxidants -- molecules that help prevent damage to blood vessels and nerves -- can protect our heart and brain. But connecting these two statements is not the way science works.
Although this study lasted over a decade, it was one of the lowest forms of scientific evidence -- an observational study. There is no true cause and effect.
The major problem I have with this study is that when we talk about what we eat, it is as important what we exclude as well as what we include. Simply including some healthy foods while still eating lots of fatty and high-carbs food will not be a magic pill. You just can't eat chocolate and think it's going to be good for your health.
5. If you're a woman with cats, you are more likely to commit suicide.
Now before you start writing a nasty email, there is science behind this fact. A common parasite, known as Toxoplasma gondii, is carried by cats. It is transmitted in their feces, so that's why it is found in cat litter. We know that pregnant woman need to be careful around cat litter, but it also turns out that women who become infected with the parasite may be more likely to develop mental health problems, including schizophrenia. It's all due to the parasite infecting the brain. The good news is that one can be tested for the parasite. At least in this study, researchers did promise to do additional studies.