Acne, Chocolate, Shaving and Hair – Medical Truth Behind the Myths

One of the small joys of medical school is finding out a bunch of the stuff you’ve been told is wrong.

That may not be the noblest of intentions, but joy nonetheless. My first startling discovery of this type was on the health of your eyeballs and the illumination of your reading material. Who doesn’t have memories of Mom turning on lights with the exclamation: “Quit reading in the dark; you’ll ruin your eyes!” Few of us questioned the wisdom of the advice, even if the lesson didn’t seem to stick.

I still remember cheerfully calling home and explaining to my parents the workings of the eye and the complete lack of damage from reading in poor light. Just like a camera, poor light gives bad pictures, but it doesn’t damage the camera. Yes, these were the same parents that were paying for medical school.

Another bit of mistaken medical folklore involves swimming after eating.

I remember dutifully waiting a good 30 minutes, which seemed like three hours, before swimming after eating, as advised by all sensible adults.

Living in California I heard countless stories of careless people going for a dip too soon after eating, only to be incapacitated by a cramp, and sinking like a stone into the murky depths – that would be the 8-foot end of the pool. I spent months going through every last organ in my cadaver specimen and assure you there is no cramp organ. Swim 10 seconds after your last bite, and use pool water to wash it down and you still won’t get a cramp.

Moving on to teenage years there were lots of well intentioned dietary advice for a teenager with pimples. Chocolate was the favorite food to blame for acne. This myth is so pervasive in society that one of my medical school professors specifically addressed this mistaken notion.

She told us to please find some chocolate that really caused acne (good luck, there isn’t any). She theorized that if it could be found, with a little analysis we could find the specific culprit, and remove it. That would allow us to make acne free chocolate. Think of the sales, I could pay off medical school. This perhaps takes some of the guilty pleasure out of chocolate, even more so now that we know a little dark chocolate is good for you.

About the time we were getting over the worst of our acne, we were giving our young livers a work-out with the new found joys of alcohol. I have vague memories of getting drunk on the most ridiculous beverages, cheap wine, sloe gin or anything else we could get our hands on.

Who has not poured coffee into a drunk friend expecting to sober him up enough to not be killed by his parents? Perhaps you have tried the coffee cure on yourself. Alas, coffee will not speed up the metabolism of alcohol even a little bit. You are just as drunk after 5 cups of coffee – and you have to go to the bathroom even more. The caffeine might wake you up enough to do something stupid, like drink more, or call your ex.

Getting a little older, arthritis seems more like reality, and colds are not shrugged off with the vigor of youth.

If you do get some hand arthritis, don’t blame it on cracking knuckles. Cracking knuckles causes zero joint damage, and produces no increased risk of arthritis. It’s harmless, although quite irritating to most of the people around you, which may be the point.

What about wet hair and colds? Colds are caused by viruses and not cold air or a wet scalp. Wet hair doesn’t even weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to the first germ that passes by. The dangers of wet hair are clearly overstated.

Shaving causes hair to grow back thicker and darker. Everybody knows that. This also is medical fantasy. Bunches of studies have been done on this very subject. Shave or grow a beard, the whiskers stay the same. Same goes for legs.

How about the healthy glow from 8 glasses of water a day? Another medical myth. The origins of this belief are obscure, but the evidence is clear. Drink when you are thirsty, a little more if you are exercising.

Medical myths are common in society, and always have been. Partly it’s magical thinking, partly American pragmatism. We have only recently started making decisions based on evidence. As that gathers speed, it may spell the end for sewer dwelling alligators, or maybe not.

Take care,

Dr B (aka Dr Don Bucklin)


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