Common Holiday Health Myths Revealed

Every holiday season it seems I get asked to comment on the same concerns, some which have become urban legends. Here are 5 holiday health myths revealed:Are poinsettia plants are toxic?

Posted on | Leigh Vinocur, MD FACEP | Comments ()

Every holiday season it seems I get asked to comment on the same concerns, some which have become urban legends. Here are 5 holiday health myths revealed:

Are poinsettia plants are toxic?

The answer is a resounding no! Every year, kids or pets are rushed to their respective ERs and countless calls come into Poison Control Centers around the country for ingestion of some part of the popular holiday plant. However, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, a study released in 2000 found that out of nearly 23,000 poinsettia exposures reported nationwide, there was essentially no significant toxicity of any kind. Prior animal studies found no toxicity in rats.

Do the number of suicides go up during the holidays?

The answer is no. However, it is true that for some people all this holiday cheer magnifies feelings of loneliness caused by the loss of loved ones or feelings of stress from too-high expectations and disappointments. There are also those who have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where decreased sunlight during the winter months triggers chemicals in the brain to cause depression. There are even those who joke that spending too much time with their families during the holidays makes them feel suicidal. However, in actuality, according to the CDC and the National Center for Health Statistics, suicide rates don’t spike in the winter months; in fact, they actually drop slightly. There is some speculation that being with friends and family during this time of the year actually acts as a support system.

Does sugar make my child hyper?

If anything, sugar should have a calming effect. That's because foods high in carbohydrates, including sugar, temporarily produce a high concentration of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is the biochemical messenger of the brain that has soothing anti-anxiety effects. Even studies done on children with Attention Deficit Disorder did not find increased hyperactivity after sugar consumption. Any wildness you think your child may have from a “sugar buzz" is probably more from the excitement of Christmas rather than the Christmas cookie itself. The 2 legitimate complaints against sugar are that it can cause tooth decay and it takes the place of more nutritious foods. With the obesity epidemic, it’s wise to teach your children moderation when it comes to sweets.

Do you lose all your body heat from your head?

It’s the reason why your mother always made you wear a hat when you went outside in the winter, but the answer is no. This urban legend probably has its origins in the arctic experiments conducted by the United States military in the 1950s. Volunteers in those trials donned survival suits (no hats) and were tested for their tolerance to extremely cold temperatures. Today's researchers assert that the only reason the volunteers lost so much heat through their heads is that their heads were the only body part exposed in those experiments. They also assert that, although our head and chest are particularly sensitive to temperature changes, no single body part loses more heat than others. New studies find only about 10% of the body's heat escapes from an uncovered head, much lower than the 40% to 80% claimed by the army in their original survival manual.

Does eating late at night make you fat?

While some studies show those who skip breakfast are heavier, it is probably not that they are eating later in the day but that they are overeating later in the day. Researchers carried out experiments on female monkeys and found no link between when the animals ate and whether or not they put on weight. For the monkeys and for us, it really boils down to calories consumed versus calories burned. However, beware: late-night eating can lead to extra pounds, but it’s not because of the time of day. It’s because eating late at night is likely to involve alcohol and socializing, two factors that often lead us to overeat! As long as your overall calorie intake is in line with your needs, eating a light meal even with a beer or glass of wine to wind down late at night should be fine.

Blog written by Leigh Vinocur, MD FACEP
Dr. Leigh Vinocur is a board certified emergency physician and national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency...