Toxic Poinsettias? Hangover Cures? It May Be All Fiction

Researchers debunk common holiday and wintertime health myths

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By Serena Gordon
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Dec. 18 (HealthDay News) -- It's that magical time of year when people are willing to suspend disbelief just a little bit and hope that holiday miracles, like Santa delivering presents across the globe in a single evening, can actually happen.

It also appears to be a time of year when people might be willing to suspend critical thinking and buy into some common holiday and wintertime health myths, according to researchers from Indiana University School of Medicine.

In the Christmas issue of BMJ published online Dec. 18, the researchers pointed out six commonly believed myths that even some health professionals believe are true. But, when the researchers looked for evidence to back up the myths, they couldn't find it. The debunked myths include:

  • Suicide rates are higher during the holidays.
  • Poinsettias are toxic if eaten.
  • Hangovers are curable.
  • Sugar makes children hyperactive.
  • You lose most of your body heat through your head.
  • Eating at night makes you fat.

"We really don't know why some myths become so embedded," said one of the article's co-authors, Dr. Rachel Vreeman, an assistant professor of pediatrics.

"Sometimes you hear these myths from people you consider to be experts," suggested Vreeman's co-author, Dr. Aaron Carroll, director of the Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research. "And, often, there's a kernel of truth in some of these myths. For example, sugar gives us energy, so some people might leap to the conclusion that too much sugar gives you too much energy."

But, he added, that's not the case. At least 12 double-blind, randomized, controlled trials have looked at the effect of sugar on children, and none found evidence for the sugar-equals-hyperactivity myth. In one study, children weren't even given sugar, but their parents were told they had been -- and parents who thought their children had eaten sugar rated their behavior as more hyperactive.

Another pervasive myth is that more people try to commit suicide over the holidays, but numerous studies have failed to find a peak of suicides during the holidays, according to Vreeman and Carroll.

Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, said he wasn't surprised that there was not an increase in suicides during the holidays, because people tend to be surrounded by other people in December. He wondered, however, what happens after the holidays.

"There are such high expectations around the holidays," he said. "Holiday anxiety and depression are very common, so a better question might be whether or not people are more unhappy during the holidays."

Another common holiday myth surrounds hangover cures. Although most everyone has a favorite that they swear works for them, the only real cure for a hangover is not to drink excessively in the first place. Also, Siegel pointed out that some hangover cures, such as aspirin or acetaminophen, can actually create troubles, such as liver problems or stomach irritation, in people who've been drinking.

As for the other myths? Vreeman and Carroll said that poinsettias, even in large doses, appear to be safe, though they certainly don't recommend consuming them. Your head, like the rest of your body, releases heat, but it's no more important to shield your head than to protect other parts of your body against the cold.

And, finally, they said that eating at night won't make you fat as long as what you're eating doesn't put you over your normal daily calorie total. Generally, they said, people who eat at night tend to gain weight, because those calories consumed nocturnally are in addition to three regular meals and snacks.

So, Santa, if you've already had breakfast, lunch and dinner, maybe you'd better put down the milk and cookies.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information on other important health myths.

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