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Nov.-Dec. 2011, Vol. XXVI, No. 6
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'Don't Cross Your Eyes... They'll Get Stuck That Way!'
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'Don't Cross Your Eyes...They'll Get Stuck That Way!'

Are you at risk?Review of:
Don’t Cross Your Eyes...They’ll Get Stuck That Way!
by Dr. Aaron E. Carroll and Dr. Rachel C. Vreeman
(St. Martin’s Griffin, 289 pages paperbound, $13.99)

Do you swear by vitamin C for warding off colds? When insomnia strikes, do you heat up some milk? Do you avoid touching bathroom door handles because they’re supposedly super-germy?

Plenty of people do. Chances are you’ve heard countless times that vitamin C can help prevent colds, drinking warm milk promotes sleep and door handles are the dirtiest things in a public washroom—to mention just a few commonly held health beliefs.

“Without even realizing it, many of us follow all kinds of rules for keeping our bodies healthy,” physicians Aaron Carroll and Rachel Vreeman note in “Don’t Cross Your Eyes.” And, they add, the constant stream of wellness information available today means the list of things to worry about keeps growing and changing.

But how much of this conventional (or occasionally unconventional) wisdom is supported by scientific research? Not much, according to Carroll and Vreeman, who previously explored health misconceptions in 2009’s “Don’t Swallow Your Gum!” Written in a similarly down-to-earth style, this entertaining follow-up tackles 75 more examples of purported wellness wisdom, with a few pages devoted to each belief. A detailed bibliography cites specific research studies referenced by the authors.

Cold comfort
More than a dozen entries deal with popular panaceas for preventing colds or lessening their misery. In addition to vitamin C, Carroll and Vreeman look at cold-fighting strategies involving acupuncture, the herb echinacea, garlic, zinc, chicken soup, honey and vinegar and hot steam and wind up debunking many of them.

“Just because many people use something faithfully and swear by it does not mean that it works,” they write.

In the case of vitamin C, for example, the authors cite multiple studies involving a total of more than 17,000 people who took between 200 mg and 4,000 mg of the supplement daily. Most showed no scientific evidence it helped prevent colds or lessen severity of symptoms.

Carroll and Vreeman stop short of dismissing all popular cold remedies as useless. For example, they write that some studies on echinacea found a small improvement in the duration of cold symptoms when the herbal product was used by adults. But, they stress, more rigorous studies did not duplicate these findings.

They also acknowledge the jury is still out on garlic and zinc. However, they caution that while some studies have suggested zinc nasal gel may help with cold symptoms, the gel has been tied to damaged senses of smell and taste in some users.

As for chicken soup, research has been less than rigorous and there’s no evidence it can help cure colds. But the authors report some studies suggest both homemade and store-bought versions might possess anti-inflammatory properties—and could pack a powerful placebo effect.

“Having soup prepared for you by a loved one, or associating chicken soup with memories of someone taking good care of you, may play a powerful role in how much better chicken soup helps you to feel,” they argue.

Warm milk and washrooms
What about warm milk as a cure for insomnia? According to the authors, there is no scientific evidence it works. However, Carroll and Vreeman acknowledge that if someone strongly believes warm milk makes them sleepy, the mental association between the drink and dozing off can help bring about the desired result. But the behavioral association, not the milk itself, promotes sleep.

As for public washroom door handles, “One thing we hear all the time from friends and family is the lengths they will go to not touch things in the restroom. One of the most common strategies involves using a paper towel to open the bathroom door.” But all that worry may be misplaced, because studies show most public washroom door handles are nowhere near as germy as the floor. (If you’re concerned about germs, never set your purse or briefcase on a public washroom floor.)

“Faucets and sinks are also worse than the door handles or toilets,” they add. “That’s because people don’t wash their hands before touching those.” In fact, they say, “the door handle seems to be one of the cleanest things in the bathroom.”

There’s also no need to worry crossing the eyes can result in them getting stuck that way.

“If someone has crossed eyes without trying to cross them, this is a medical condition that merits further investigation,” the authors say.

Otherwise, opthalmologists conclude “crossing your eyes voluntarily is absolutely not going to hurt them permanently.”

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