You know you’ve struck a sensitive cord with the medical profession when you’re forced to take out a restraining order against an abusive and threatening doctor. Such is the price for debunking myths, half-truths and outright lies about our health.
When American paediatricians Aaron Carroll and Rachel Vreeman published their book ‘Don't Swallow Your Gum!’ last year, which tackles commonly held medical beliefs, laying out the science that proves or disproves them, they were somewhat prepared for the negative backlash that ensued. Apparently, their earlier British Medical Journal article in 2007, which set the record straight on the top ten medical myths, triggered a bombardment of criticism from doctors who simply refused to let go of their long-held beliefs.
"We were shocked at how many people had strong reactions to the beliefs we debunked in the BMJ studies. These myths may be things people have heard since childhood, like 'you lose most of your body heat through your head.' Some people have a hard time letting these beliefs go," offers Dr Rachel Vreeman, Assistant Professor of Paediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM) in Indianapolis.
Dr Aaron Carroll, who is Associate Professor of Paediatrics at IUSM, told Scope: “People believe these things incredibly strongly. We were just hit hard. There were a lot of complaints. On the BMJ website, for the first paper, they allowed people to post comments and some of them were really very angry, you know, personally attacking us. We were not expecting that,” he laughs. “We had one gentleman here in the United States, who was so angry about our conclusions about the recommended eight glasses of water a day that he phoned repeatedly and was so abusive to our staff they had to get a police restraining order against him to get him to stop calling back!”
The fact is there is no scientific proof stating that you need to drink anywhere near eight glasses of water. One doctor who made this his research focus, Dr Heinz Valtin, searched through many electronic databases and also consulted nutritionists and colleagues who specialise in water balance in the body. In all of his research, and in all of the research Drs Carroll and Vreeman conducted to double check his work, no scientific evidence could be found to back up the daily requirement of eight glasses of water.
“The water in coffee is water, and the water in fruits and vegetables is water. The body doesn’t know the molecule difference, water is water and it’s all good. Actually people should be careful not to drink too much water,” Aaron cautions, referring to a recent and much publicised death of a young woman who participated in a water drinking contest hosted by her local radio station in the US. Too much water dilutes the normal level of sodium in the blood, causing hyponatremia, in which the brain cells can swell and die.
In their book, ‘Don't Swallow Your Gum! And Other Medical Myths Debunked”, Drs Carroll and Vreeman take on all those weird and worrisome things we think about our body and expose them for what they are. The authors blend authoritative research with a breezy sense of humour, providing the ultimate myth-busting collection of more than eighty enlightening, practical, and quirky facts about health and wellbeing.
Aaron, who is Director of the Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research at IUSM, admits that he had assumed most doctors, armed with their medical training, might have been less inclined to entertain some of the commonly held myths about health.
“I don’t think you can generalise too much but doctors are just as guilty, we are all human beings and most of these myths are things you’ve heard from your parents back in the day so you just believe it’s true.
“And you’d be shocked at how much in medicine is ‘best guess’. As doctors, we are use to taking what we’ve been told or taught or using experience to decide how to actually practice medicine, and unfortunately some of the stuff we’ve been told is not correct. Doctors are often the most difficult to change minds because they are just so convinced that not only are they correct personally but professionally as well. It is very difficult to change their minds,’ he observes.
Aaron readily confesses that he was just as misguided in some of his long-held beliefs as the next person.
“The really fun part of writing this book was that we had believed so many of these myths - but upon reflection, we weren't sure whether they were true or not. As health services researchers, we couldn't resist the temptation to be myth busters.
“I’m a paediatrician and I can tell you that I spend hours talking about the myths that concern kids, such as teething doesn’t cause a fever – lots of paediatricians believe that – the truth is teething doesn’t cause a fever but I hear doctors say it does all the time. And I still hear people who really believe that sugar makes kids hyper and that is absolutely not true. In fact that was one myth I firmly and absolutely believed. It blows my mind to this day! I have three kids and I was convinced that giving them sugar made them hyper but it simply isn’t true.
“Another one is that Turkey makes you sleepy, I mean, I just believed that. Everybody knows it’s the tryptophan. The sleep-inducing effects of tryptophan in turkey are common currency in America, I just absolutely knew that was true, but then to find out that, first of all, Turkey isn’t high in tryptophan, and then that tryptophan needs to be taken on an empty stomach - the worst way to get it is a big meal - that was just mind blowing.
“But I can rattle off others too. I thought a dog’s mouth was cleaner than a human’s. I thought you needed eight glasses of water - I assumed that was proven science. There were just lots and lots of them. I absolutely believed as many of these as anyone else who’s reading them. Like eating at night, I totally believed that eating at night made you fat. Every weight loss programme in the United States says that, so I assumed it was true. If you eat and go straight to bed it turn right to fat but that is totally not true.
“My favourite two are probably sugar makes kids hyper and turkey makes you sleepy, those are probably the two that I believed the most strongly and they have the most unbelievable solid evidence showing that they’re just not true,”
Their book, which was published by Penguin in Europe in November 2009, is divided into six sections:
"Look at the size of his feet!" Myths about your body
"Do you want to catch pneumonia out there?" Myths about how we contract and treat diseases
"But I was on the pill!" Myths about sex and pregnancy
"He won't get into Harvard without Baby Einstein" Myths about babies and children
"Don't swallow your gum!" Myths about what we eat and drink
"Shots made my baby autistic" Myths that spark controversy and debate.
Already on its fourth reprint in the USA – an impressive result for a paperback – the concept for this quirky book of endlessly fascinating and occasionally disgusting facts (aren’t they the best?) actually began as a conference paper. Aaron and his then Fellow, Rachel, delivered a hugely popular talk exposing the top ten medical myths to a meeting of paediatricians in the US several years ago. Their paper was later published in the BMJ and ever since both doctors have been contacted by email, text and casual conversation about a myriad of health-related myths.
Ranging from the curious to the seriously bizarre, they began compiling a list of myths that would provide the bones of a book for which they would fill in the flesh through a fact-finding trawl of medical and scientific research.
Although co-authoring a book can be notoriously problematical, the two colleagues fell easily into pace not only with each other’s writing styles but also with proportioning the workload.
“It was pretty easy for us. Perhaps that’s because, in writing medical research, you’re a little more use to collaboration. Papers have multiple authors almost every single time and so you get use to one person taking the lead and another person doing serious editing.
“For this book, we would divide up chapters and divide up responsibilities. Sometimes I’d be responsible for doing the research and then hand it off to Rachel to write up that chapter, and sometimes we’d do the opposite. In fact, we got so use to working and writing together that we will have arguments to this day over who wrote which chapter so I guess that speaks well of the fact that our writing merges well.
“We’re from the same division in the same department in the same hospital (Riley Hospital for Children). We’ve been colleagues and worked together for such a long that it wasn’t that big a deal. There wasn’t any competition between us either, we were both doing this for fun and it was exciting. Neither one of us expected it to go this far,” Aaron admits happily.
Their extensive research has secured a large fan-base, along with the inevitable detractors of course, and their work has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, Scientific American, Newsweek, and many other publications. They have also appeared on Good Morning America, CBS Evening News, and ABC News NOW, as well as attracting a host of the international media.
When Aaron reveals that he and his myth-busting partner are now talking to their agent and editor about writing a sequel to their runaway success, it requires a true feat of will power not to blurt out some myths of my own.
Eventually, I relent – joining the many before me proffering their myths - and I suggest that they research whether ‘sea air’ is the appetite stimulating, sleep inducing constituent my mother has long claimed it to be.
Aaron graciously appears interested, almost fascinated. He has never heard that one, and will certainly look it up. If the scientific research is available on the miracles of ‘sea air’, he assures me it will make the cut for their next book. I tell him my mum would be delighted “But you realise,” I hasten to add. “You’re going to have to prove her right.”
During his daily clinic, paediatrician Aaron Carroll hears many myths from mothers concerning their baby’s health and wellbeing. “There are some that come into play that are just really strange,” he confides.
“Like there’s a group of mothers who believe that breast milk can be used for everything, including curing ear infections. They think if you put it into someone’s ear it’ll cure their ear infection. They also recommend breast milk in the eye for eye infections or pink eye. Some of their other suggestions for any spare breast milk you might have around the house include clearing up a stuffed-nose or easing a sore throat, removing make-up and healing mosquito bites. It’s crazy.
“I remember I met one set of parents who believed that if they blew tobacco smoke into a child’s ear it would prevent ear infections. Oh my God! Why would you ever want to blow tobacco smoke at a child’s face? But people believe crazy things all the time.”
In this book “Don’t Swallow Your Gum”, Aaron and his co-author Dr Rachel Vreeman select several other bizarre myths and the peculiar individuals who believe them.
In exposing the myth that you can beat a breathalyser test by, for example, sucking on cough drops, onions, peanuts and pennies; they recount the true story of one intoxicated man who even thought that a mouthful of his own faeces would stump the breathalyser. His blood alcohol level was found to be twice the legal limit.
“We think that most people would have to be more drunk than that to lean over, poo in their own hand and then stuff it in their mouth,” the writers remark.
The truth is hard to swallow
The next time you are at a party and considering a plunge into the dip bowl, perhaps you should take a look at the people around you. Would you kiss them or lick the insides of their mouths, ask the two medical scribes of “Don’t Swallow Your Gum”.
Apparently, one intrepid group of microbiologists, led by Dr Paul Dawson, studied whether or not bacteria were really transferred from mouth to chip to dip (the double-dipping scenario). Their findings revealed that on average three to six double dips transferred about 10,000 bacteria from the eater’s mouth to the dip.
And another group of food scientists and microbiologists decided to put the ‘five second’ rule to the test to find out what happens when this myth comes up against Salmonella typhimurium, a fairy common but nasty bacterium.
They found that bacteria were still alive after four weeks on a variety of floor surfaces, although the rate of transfer varied. The worst offender of the five-second rule was tile, from which over 99 percent of the bacteria cells transferred to the dropped food after just five seconds.
As for the book’s title myth of swallowing chewing gum, does it actually stay in your stomach for seven years? The reality is, even though gum is sticky, it is no match for your gut and like all indigestible foods will eventually be “pooed out by the power of peristalsis”.