All day long I provide education on health care to my patients. I want my patients not to waste their time with snake oil products, or do something useless or (worse) detrimental to their well-being.  Always the scientist, I hope I provide reason and information on well researched data.

Leeches and blood letting were recommended because there were ‘time honored’ and ‘always done’ until someone actually did some experiments to prove neither works. So they are no longer prescribed as the panacea for all ills.

Alas, there are a lot of false beliefs out there about what is ‘good for you’. I blame the internet, where anyone can find rumors, falsities and personal testimonies (good and bad). I see more and more people preferring to trust ‘something I read on the internet‘ than their physician.

A Spo- fan asked me to write out some ‘medical myths’.  I’ve been avoiding this request for I know it will raise a fuss.  Three matters to keep in mind when dealing with medical myths:

#1  The “Aunt Edna” phenomena. Everyone knows someone who can testify something bogus worked for them – or their Aunt Edna.  “Aunt Edna was never helped until she did X”.  As a scientist I have to look at the literature and research, not individual testimonies.

#2 The placebo effect. One of the chief problems with holistic or complimentary treatments is they are taken people who believe in them. They do herbals, or EMDR or acupuncture or prayer based medicine because they believe it can be useful. Not surprising,  this often turns out to be so. The true test of efficacy lies in giving “neutrals” the same treatment and see what happens.

#3  People don’t have ‘beliefs’; they have ‘convictions’. They KNOW what is right, and to question this with science or logic does no good. It is like trying to win over a Creationist to evolution, or the Birthers to the acceptance Mr. Obama was born in Hawaii.

Bottom line : people believe what they want to believe. They dismiss data that disagrees with them; they gather data that supports them.

I remember a study to establish any correlation between sugar and ADHD.  The researchers purposely got together a group of mothers who believed sugar made their children worse.  It was a good study. The conclusion: there was no correlation between sugar and ADHD exacerbation. True, there were plenty of reasons why the kiddies should avoid sugar, but ‘making their ADD worse’  was not demonstrated.

In follow up, none of the mothers had changed their beliefs despite the data.

For each of the medical myths I write I will be accused of being part of the great conspiracy cover-up, big bad Medicine doesn’t want you to know this stuff really works etc.  Please keep this all in mind before you send off the angry e-mails.

What are my favorite ‘medical myths’?  Here are some –

Colon Cleansers – There are millions (perhaps billions) of dollars spent on products for to detoxify your colon from alleged accumulated toxins or waste products somehow ‘stuck’ in there. Truth is our GI system has evolved over time to be a remarkable system to cleanse itself. The lining of the colon is continually shed and replaced by new cells.  I have no real evidence you need to ‘cleanse yourself’ either from above or below.

Homeopathy – The basis of this notion is the less you take the more powerful the material. This is like saying if you have a bad headache or infection, taking less aspirin or antibiotic is better than taking more. Common sense – and all double blind studies – are against this approach.  Homeopathy remedies have only a microgram of material, so they present no harm (other than to your wallet). When a patient says they are eager to try one or are taking one, I don’t object, given #2.

Vitamins – what I mean by this is people have the belief if vitamins are good, more must be better.  (often done by the same people who believe in homeopathy). People often end up taking way too much vitamins,  and paying a lot for allegedly ‘healthier’ versions. At one level this is a waste of money, you merely excrete the water based vitamins.  There can be an actual hazard to your health (the accumulation of fat soluble vitamins).  With a few exceptions, most vitamins can be hazardous if taken in excess amounts.   An excess of one mineral usually makes the body depleted in others.

About Vitamin C and the common cold: When I put the research together, what I find is : when you get a cold, if you start taking 1000mg Vitamin C, it will bring down the duration – but not the intensity – of the cold by 10%.  This seems hardly worth doing, when high doses of Vitamin C can cause diarrhea and kidney stones.

Diet pills – bottom line: they don’t work. Even the FDA approved weight loss medications only have to prove they beat placebo for 15lb weight loss by 6 months. There are no long term studies that show diet pills are correlated to losing weight AND KEEPING IT OFF.

A lot of my female patients announce they heard from a TV celebrity if they take this or that (this week it is green coffee grounds) they will loose weight. I see the pattern – the takers will spend a lot of money, not alter their diet/portions,  do no  exercise, take the supplement for a few weeks or so, get bored, stop it, loose no weight and then go for the newest supplement.

I could write a lot more, things even more likely to evoke angry e-mails.

As I edit this list I see a common theme: people want to take a pill to deal with long time problems.

It’s boring but it works: proper eating, regular exercise, and temperate living keeps us healthy, lean, and well-functioning.