Claim: Kombucha is good for you.
If you know anyone who does their shopping at Whole Foods, you've surely been assured of the health benefits of kombucha, a fermented tea drink that the ancient Chinese called an "immortal health elixir." With seemingly magical properties from its high density of live cultures, microorganisms such as probiotics, and yeast—basically good-for-you bacteria—the carbonated vinegary drink has a growing number of enthusiasts who say that drinking the stuff can help digestion, boost immunity and increase energy levels. Over the last few years the kombucha craze has escalated, even inspiring a cookbook using the drink as brazing liquid, salad dressing and mixer for cocktails and countless companies across the country producing kombucha commercially.
But what is in kombucha, really? And how could it possibly be good to drink fungus?
"It has probiotics, B vitamins and special acids; good stuff for your body," said Jamie Danek, owner of the local business Kombucha Mama. "It's a live raw detoxifier, that helps balance your pH. When your pH is balanced you feel better."
Organic raw kombucha, basically what you can brew with a SCOBY (a colony of bacteria and yeast) starter, has the highest concentration of these live cultures, but is also the most likely to be contaminated with not-so-good stuff for the body when fermented in a non-sterile environment.
Web MD confirms our suspicions, that there is no verifiable evidence that any of the health claims of kombucha-lovers are scientifically definitive and suggests that if you're looking to introduce live cultures, yogurt is a better source as it also contains calcium.
However, there's also no proof that kombucha is bad for the body, and commercially fermented batches, brewed in a sterile environment (just like a beer brewery) make a more consistent product than what you can make at home with a SCOBY starter.
Verdict: If you like kombucha, keep on drinking in moderation. (BB)
Claim: Chicken soup is a cold cure-all.
My grandma Betty certainly stood behind chicken soup's healing powers, but then again, grandma also stood behind four gin drinks a day, starting at 2 pm. Grandma Betty was a wise and wonderful woman, but she wasn't exactly the pinnacle of health.
She was, however, right about the chicken soup thing, at least according to Dr. Stephen Rennard, a University of Nebraska Medical Center physician/researcher.
In 2000, Dr. Rennard set out find if there was any truth to the centuries-old folk remedy and he used his Lithuanian grandmother's chicken soup recipe as the test variable. What he found, according to a report in the New York Times and a number of other magazines and journals, was that the soup inhibited the movement of neutrophils, the white blood cells that cause congestion. After rigorously analyzing the data, Dr. Rennard concluded that the soup did indeed retard the neutrophils' ability to cause inflammation.
Still not convinced?
The Mayo Clinic reports that chicken soup "temporarily speeds up the movement of mucus, possibly helping relieve congestion and limiting the amount of time viruses are in contact with the nose lining." Also, chicken soup just plain tastes good and it provides hydration and nutrients. Plus, it's safe for young kids, unlike some over-the-counter cold remedies.
By the way, Dr. Rennard's grandmother's chicken soup included chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery stems, parsley, salt and pepper. The complete recipe is available at unmc.edu.
Verdict: True. (JW)
Claim: Fish is brain food.
It has been an Old Wives' Tale for generations, perhaps starting up with the moms of Vikings and other seafaring cultures trying to encourage the consumption of fish. Over the past decade this claim has been proven—or, more precisely, that omega-3 fatty acids, which are prevalent in many oily fish do, in fact, strengthen brain cells and protect them from disease. Salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel lead the list for this brain food.
In fact, low levels of one acid (DHA) has been associated with a greater risk of Alzheimer's disease in later years. A study published in the journal Alzheimer's and Dementia found that older people eating two 6-ounce servings a week of these fish enjoy a benefit roughly equivalent to having the learning and memory skills of someone three years younger.
Another recent study, published in The Archives of Neurology, found that elderly people who ate fish at least once a week did better on tests of memory and mental acuity than their peers who did not, and had a 10 percent slower decline in mental skills each year.
And, one study at Harvard considered mothers and their infants, and found that the more fish the moms ate during their second trimesters, the better their infants did on tests when they were 6 months old. Of course, the study also cautioned against mercury-laden fish, which inhibit brain development. Oi vey! Damned if you do, damned if you don't! (PB)
Verdict: Yes, omega-3 fatty acids do strengthen brain cells and help prevent diseases. (PB)
Claim: Office jobs are bad for your health.
Common sense would seem to dictate that not-sitting is better for you than sitting, but is the posture so many of us take on the job (and while eating, drinking and relaxing) worthy of such a strong reprimand?
Yes! There are an increasing number of studies showing that sitting is not only not ideal, but that it may be as dangerous as smoking cigarettes. A February 2013 study of Australian men showed that those who sat for more than four hours a day (i.e., anyone with a full-time office job) were more likely to have a chronic illness such as cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. Worse, these impacts have been shown in multiple studies and appear to be independent of body mass index or level of physical activity when not sitting.
Most people are familiar with the relationship between a sedentary lifestyle and obesity, what's new is the realization that the phrase "sedentary lifestyle" doesn't just apply to couch potatoes. Even if you get an hour of vigorous exercise each day and spend your weekends outdoors, chances are you're still spending a good 10 hours each weekday sitting—eating, commuting, working, and decompressing in front of a television of computer screen at the end of a long day. Verdict: Our bodies were made to move. Consider walking or biking to work, getting a standing or treadmill desk (or at least taking frequent breaks to move around), or investing in less comfortable chairs. (ER)
Claim: Flu Shots—more harm than good.
There is perhaps no other preventative health measure more divisive than vaccinations.
Alternative doctors and skeptics say the risks associated with flu shots, such as their high levels of mercury, make them not worth it. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Mayo Clinic and plenty of other more traditional sources, however, say that even healthy people need a flu vaccine and that it's perfectly safe. A recent study published in The Washington Post shows that flu vaccines can actually help reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems, particularly in those 67 and older (it's thought that the flu can, in some people, dislodge arterial plaque and cause heart problems—a flu shot could prevent this).
So what to do? Depends.
If you're healthy, active, get plenty of sunshine and don't live a high-risk lifestyle (i.e. no gyms, tight work spaces, public places, etc.), you might be fine foregoing the annual vaccine. Basically, if you're a hermit, work from home, never go out (except to exercise) and are generally healthy you MIGHT dodge the virus. But if, like most people, you eat out, work in an office, pick up the kids, exercise with others and then go for a drink, you'd probably be better off getting a flu shot. The CDC claims that if researchers are correct and target the right strains, a flu vaccine can be anywhere from 70 to 90 percent effective. Plus, vaccinated folks help prevent the virus from proliferating.
Verdict: False (probably). Get a flu shot. (JW)
Claim: Vaccinations cause disease and sickness.
There is an entire storm of myths and complaints about vaccinations, from concerns that they are unnecessary to worries that they actually cause sickness or other diseases (like a relatively wide-spread concern that the MMR vaccine—given for measles, mumps and rubella—is linked to cases of autism).
These are not small concerns, nor completely reserved for Scientologists and back-to-earth hippies. With an increasing number of parents balking at the entire menu of recommended vaccinations, it is worth considering the cause of this hesitancy.
That said, most of the common arguments against and fears about vaccinations are bunk.
The notion that the measles vaccine causes autism was stirred up several years ago. Those fears have largely been discredited, with the Institute of Medicine officially pointing out that the link is simply that autism tends to emerge at the same development stage as when those vaccines are given.
Another persisting myth is that a vaccine could actually trigger the disease it is meant to prevent, largely predicated on the idea that some vaccines contain small, weakened doses of a live virus—like the original polio vaccines.
That form of vaccination was phased out for polio in 1994—and even at that time, only one in 2.4 million contracted the disease. Today, polio vaccinations in the United States are strictly dead virus, which present zero risk.
Likewise, flu shots contain inactive viral proteins, which cannot trigger symptoms. But the vaccination does take time (usually two weeks) to do its magic; meaning, any sickness in the weeks after the flu shot is merely coincidental. (PB)
Verdict: No! Vaccinations are an important part of the routine to keep children healthy.
Claim: Whiskey cures the common cold.
As long as it has brewed, whiskey has been touted by Irish moms and dads as a snake oil to cure coughs or soothe sore throats.
There are plenty of derivations on the basic home recipes—hot tea, honey, gulp of whiskey, lemon juice—that are offered as simply hot toddy remedies, with the emphasis on whiskey.
But does it work?
According to LiveStrong.com, for whatever legitimacy that quasi-medical source provides, "(h)ome remedies for colds, particularly those that hearken back several generations, often contain whiskey as a primary ingredient. The alcoholic beverage soothes sore throats, quiets coughs, clears stuffy noses and encourages sleep. Though these whiskey-based cold remedies can be helpful for adults, they are not recommended for children or teens." The site goes on to provide its hot toddy recipe, and then provides more specifics: "(t)he type of whiskey you should use depends on your symptoms. Use bourbon if you're just treating congestion or a sore throat. If you have a persistent cough, use Irish whiskey."
Verdict: Yes, drink whiskey! (PB)
Claim: When sick, rest is better than exercise.
Conventional wisdom says, when sick, rest.
But area athletes tend to disagree—it shouldn't be that cut and dried, they say.
Bend's Stephanie Howe, one of the nation's best ultra runners, says if a head cold is what ails you, get out there.
"Some exercise can actually be good—it gets the blood flowing." But, Howe, who not only runs more hours a week than some of us work and who is also a doctoral candidate in nutrition and exercise, says to be sure to take it easy—no intervals, no PRs—and recover well. That means immediately changing into warm dry clothes and following up the workout with nutritious foods.
Max King, another Bend running superstar, agrees—choosing whether or not to exercise when sick should be a case-by-case thing.
"Sometimes I go out and run when I'm sick and I'll feel better, but sometimes I'll feel worse," admits King, who's worn more national and international trail running titles than you can shake a minimalist running shoe at.
When trying to decide whether to lace up or not, consider the much touted "neck rule." Runner's World defines it thusly: "Symptoms below the neck (chest cold, bronchial infection, body ache) require time off, while symptoms above the neck (runny nose, stuffiness, sneezing) don't pose a risk to runners' continuing workouts." It's an old truism, but one that's supported by Dr. David Nieman, a researcher who heads a sports laboratory at Appalachian State University and has completed 58 marathons and ultras.
Verdict: It depends. Listen to your body and consider the "neck rule." (JW)
Claim: If you don't get eight hours of sleep a night your health will deteriorate.
The importance of getting good night's sleep is well established. But how much do we really need—and can you have too much? According to the National Sleep Foundation, not getting enough of it has been linked to traffic accidents; health risks like heart disease and diabetes; obesity; even depression and substance abuse. While some studies have suggested that too much sleep (a tempting prospect as the days get shorter and the nights get longer) is correlated with increased morbidity, other researchers argue that the relationship has more to do with the reasons people over-sleep, namely depression and poverty.
While there is no consensus on a universal number of hours of sleep for optimum health, many studies suggest that adults have a baseline sleep need of 7-8 hours per night, while acknowledging that many people have a sleep debt they could pay down. Researchers also say that it's difficult for a healthy person to sleep more than they need.
Verdict: It probably won't kill you to skimp on sleep now and then, but regularly getting only 4-5 hours a night will likely take a toll on your health and wellness in the short and long term. Maybe there's something to that "early to bed, early to rise" adage. (ER)
Claim: Brief, high intensity exercise is at least as effective as a longer, daily fitness regimen.
As the winter steals our daylight hours and, with it, our fitness motivation, the promise of a hyper-efficient workout plan is especially appealing. A recent study by scientists at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom suggest that the often recommended 30 minutes a day, five times per week may not be necessary to maintain good health. Professor Jamie Timmons, a professor of systems biology and one of the study's authors, tells the Independent that people can get fit by doing three bursts of exercise at maximum effort for 20 seconds, followed by two minutes of rest. Timmons adds that the model mimics the activity of animals in the wild, who spend most of their time resting and are only active for short periods.
And the research seems to support Timmons' claim. The study team conducted 10 clinical studies and found that this high intensity approach improved aerobic fitness, toned muscles, increased metabolism and improved insulin sensitivity (thereby reducing diabetes risk
Verdict: If done correctly, short intense bursts of exercise may be as effective as longer daily workouts. But that doesn't mean you can spend the rest of your time lounging around eating potato chips. It is as much what you do with your downtime that matters. (ER)
Claim: A glass of red wine a day is good for your heart.
Who wouldn't want this to be true? Doctors aren't encouraging anyone to start drinking, but could a drink a day really keep your ticker in good shape?
Research over the last decade has proven, time and again, that moderate alcohol consumption can help improve cardiovascular health. (Harvard researchers confirmed it as one of eight ways to reduce coronary heart disease risk.) Alcohol has been proven to raise high-density cholesterol—that's the good kind—that helps to prevent artery damage and reduce blood clots.
Studies at the Yale-New Haven Hospital have shown that resveratrol—an antioxidant present in the skin and seeds of red grapes—aids in the formation of nerve cells which can be beneficial in the treatment of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and can even inhibit tumor development in some cancers. But there's not much linked proof that red wine is better than beer or white wine or other types of alcohol for heart health.
Don't get too crazy here, nobody is saying down a bottle every night under the guise of preventing heart disease. But almost all signs point to yes, alcohol in moderation and red wine specifically have some health benefits. Woo hoo!
Verdict: Drink up! (BB)
Claim: Eating and drinking abrasive foods like garlic and apple cider vinegar helps cure sickness.
Grandma's cures may sound crazy: Nobody wants to force down a glass of diluted vinegar, but housewife lore has its roots in scientific fact.
These types of abrasive foods are natural forms of antibiotics, anti-microbial and antioxidant. Basically, anti-all-the-bad-stuff. Garlic has a long history as a cure-all, dating back to the ancient Chinese and spread around the world to the Greeks, Romans, Hindus and Babylonians. A study by the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy found that garlic is 100 times more effective than antibiotics at fighting sources of food-borne illness and killing bacteria.
In the 1950s, apple cider vinegar gained popularity as a household cure from its endorsement in the book "Folk Medicine: A Vermont Doctor's Guide to Good Health," by D. C. Jarvis. The effect on diabetes patients has been studied and vinegar has been shown to lower glucose levels. At least, drinking some diluted viniger clears up your sinuses and soothes a sore throat by killing germs with extreme acidity, which can be helpful when you're feeling dumpy and stuffy.
Verdict: Household food cures might not be FDA approved, but we like them. (BB)