9 Exaggerated Health Myths We Need To Stop Worrying About

Photographed by Brayden Olsen.
Whether you're thinking about paying bills or just picking a lunch place, there's a lot to worry about out there. And when it comes to your health, freaking out every once in a while is totally justified. Luckily, there's also plenty of nonsense out there to stop worrying about. So we're here to finally clear the air.

Although many health scares started out with a tiny kernel of something worth scrutinizing, the vast army of internet "doctors" loves to spin those kernels into exponentially greater fears. Usually, that's done with the hope of selling you some pseudoscientific "cure" or "protection." In many cases, that initially concerning finding is debunked under subsequent investigation. The pseudoscience, however, never really seems to die out.

Of course, you can feel free to continue to spend your money on whatever makes you feel better — even if that's a daily $12 bottle of unnecessarily alkaline, organic, non-GMO green juice. But we're here to tell you that, in these cases at least, you really don't need to spend your time (or effort or money) on worrying.
Advertisement
1 of 9
Photographed by Brayden Olsen.
1. Artificial Sweeteners

The myth: Artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame, will give you cancer.

The truth: Our bodies break aspartame down into several chemical compounds, including formaldehyde, which is definitely a carcinogen. But our bodies also get rid of that formaldehyde far too quickly for it to build up in an amount great enough to actually be harmful. Unless you have phenylketonuria, a rare but serious condition in which your body is unable to break down a certain amino acid found in aspartame (among other common foods, such as eggs), eating or drinking this artificial sweetener isn't dangerous.

The hard truth: Although it might not be as scary as cancer, there is other evidence to suggest that artificial sweeteners can alter the way your gut works. For one thing, you have sweet taste receptors in your gut. Normal sugar activates these receptors and triggers your intestine to extract that glucose so it can be used elsewhere in the body. Somewhat surprisingly, artificial sweeteners like aspartame also activate this process, which some scientists speculate may be a bit confusing for your body.

Other research in mice has found that artificial sweeteners can alter the population of bacteria in your gut. However, the science here isn't conclusive yet, so we're not sure how big of a deal this actually is. That means that drinks with artificial sweeteners may be a good idea if you're substituting them for less healthy options (full-sugar sodas, for example), but they should still be thought of as treats. And, as always, your best option is still good ol' water.
2 of 9
Photographed by Brayden Olsen.
2. Deodorant

The myth: Using deodorant can give you breast cancer.

The truth: To start, breast cancer is multifactorial, which means that no one thing is ever going to be solely responsible for giving someone breast cancer. But does deodorant add to the risks? According to more than a decade of research, there is no conclusive evidence that using aluminum- or paraben-containing deodorant increases your risk for breast cancer.

The hard truth: It's actually been pretty difficult for researchers to do large, long-term studies about deodorant use because it's tough to find a big enough sample of people who don't use it to function as your control. So, technically, the research looking at a potential link between deodorant and breast cancer is inconclusive. That said, experts will tell you that you're much better off thinking about (and actually doing) the things we know lower your breast-cancer risk. That includes eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet as well as getting regular exercise, keeping your alcohol consumption moderate, and sticking with the screening that's recommended based on your other risk factors (e.g. family history).
Advertisement
3 of 9
Photographed by Brayden Olsen.
3. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

The myth: MSG causes headaches. And maybe kills babies?

The truth: Restaurant-goers, including researchers, have been captivated by MSG for decades now. But the chemical, which is used as a flavor enhancer in many Japanese and Chinese dishes, has never conclusively been linked to any serious health issues. It does seem like some people can develop headaches after eating MSG-containing food, but those reactions are far less predictable than you'd think. So it's been tough to really pin down the root cause.

The hard truth: Although research hasn't found any conclusive link between MSG and headaches, some people do report that their migraines are triggered by eating MSG. That may be because each individual can have his or her own unique set of migraine triggers — and we're just not sure why yet.
4 of 9
Photographed by Brayden Olsen.
4. Coffee

The myth: Coffee causes cancer.

The truth: For years now, we've had contradictory evidence about coffee. For every study that linked it to an increased risk for cancer, there was another one around the corner suggesting the opposite. But recently evidence has been weighing steadily on one side of the scale. And earlier this year, we finally got a little clarity in the form of the government's new dietary guidelines: As long as we keep our daily intake below 400 mg (about four cups of coffee), they say, the good outweighs the bad.

Then, earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) finally reversed its stance on coffee's possible link to cancer. After reviewing more than 1,000 studies on the link, the group of researchers found that the confusion stemmed from the fact that drinking extremely hot coffee (as is the custom in many countries) may still pose a slight risk because it can burn the esophagus. That allows cancer-causing damage to occur over time. But the way most people drink it here in the U.S. (at or around 140ºF) is totally safe.

The hard truth: There's no denying that caffeine, including coffee, can be addictive. You'll slowly build up a tolerance, and eventually it'll take more and more coffee to get you to the same energized state. If you're a daily java drinker, you've probably already noticed the symptoms of withdrawal — headaches, irritability, lethargy — when you don't get your cup on time.

So, in that sense, drinking coffee every day isn't exactly harmless. Some people have a harder time with the tolerance-addiction cycle than others, possibly due to their genes. But if you're concerned, it might be a good idea to notice when you feel like reaching for that extra cup — and take a break for a few days instead.
5 of 9
Photographed by Brayden Olsen.
5. Inflammation

The myth: You don't feel well because you have inflammation, and if you don't do something about it, you're going to get a chronic disease.

The truth: Inflammation is a natural process that your body goes through in order to protect you. For instance, the runny nose you get when you have a cold is a product of inflammation, and it's actually one of the ways your body is trying to get rid of the virus or bacteria that's infected you. So inflammation on its own isn't necessarily a bad thing, even if it doesn't feel great.

The real problem is that when we talk about "inflammation," it's not always clear what we actually mean. When researchers study inflammation, they're usually looking at compounds your body produces as part of this immune response, such as cytokines or C-reactive protein.

But if you're just diagnosing yourself, it'll be a little harder because the effects of inflammation are different in different parts of your body. If you have plantar fasciitis, for instance, you'll feel pain in the heel of your foot caused by an inflamed piece of connective fascia in your foot. But if you're dealing with a rough bout of Crohn's disease, you'll have some unpredictable bowel movements.

But, as with the common cold, these different types of inflammation are symptoms of actual diagnoses — not the diagnoses themselves. It's not as though eating an anti-inflammation diet or taking supplements that supposedly reduce inflammation is going to make your foot feel better.

The hard truth:
Researchers have traced a fair number of issues back (potentially) to inflammation. That includes depression, PMS, and even hangovers. But that doesn't mean that treating inflammation is the key to solving those things, or that it's even a viable option. The science just isn't far along enough there.
6 of 9
Photographed by Brayden Olsen.
6. Gluten

The myth: Gluten sensitivity is the root of depression, anxiety, indigestion, etc.

The truth: Unless you have celiac disease, it's unlikely that gluten is causing your symptoms. Although there is some evidence that some people may have a gluten sensitivity (outside of an allergy), researchers have found that the far more likely culprit is something called fermentable, poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates (called FODMAPs), which also happen to be found in gluten-heavy foods like pasta, breads, and beer.

The hard truth: You should not cut gluten out of your diet without working with your doctor. For one thing, if you cut gluten out before you're tested for celiac, the tests will be inconclusive and you'll have to start eating it again to get an accurate diagnosis. But also, researchers suspect that those who do feel better after removing gluten from their diets are actually responding to the absence of something else. That something else might be FODMAPs, preservatives, added sugars, or it may even be the root of an eating disorder, so it's much better to work with a professional who can help you figure out what's really going on.
7 of 9
Photographed by Brayden Olsen.
7. Acidity/Alkalinity

The myth:
The pH of our bodies is out of whack, so getting more alkaline food and water in our diets will cure us of pretty much everything.

The truth: Your body's pH is a very finely calibrated system. In fact, different parts of your body need to be kept at different pH levels in order to function. If your blood was at your stomach's pH, you'd be dead. On top of that, nothing you eat or drink will change your body's pH. So not only is trying to be "more alkaline" a bad idea, it's also impossible.

The hard truth: Many people who go on alkaline diets do report feeling "better." But that's almost certainly because alkaline-diet-friendly foods tend to be very healthy fruits and vegetables. So those foods are good for you, but not because they're alkalizing.
8 of 9
Photographed by Brayden Olsen.
8. Electromagnetic Fields (EMF)

The myth: EMFs, like those produced by your cell phone, will give you cancer.

The truth: There is currently no conclusive evidence that cell phones cause cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, the radio frequency that's produced by phones does not lead to the DNA damage that's responsible for cancer.

The hard truth: Although we'd like to say this case is closed, there is still controversy. The World Health Organization recently classified cell-phone-related EMFs as "possibly carcinogenic," but that still doesn't mean you need to stop using your phone. That category also contains caffeic acid, a compound in coffee, so that classification isn't as worrying as it sounds. "While we can’t prove zero risk, at some point the probable remaining risk becomes too small to worry about," concludes Steven Novell, MD, at Science-Based Medicine. "At some point, you are more likely to die because you did not have access to a cell phone than from the radiation from cell phone use."
9 of 9
Photographed by Brayden Olsen.
9. "Toxins"

The myth: Toxins are everywhere, and you need to get rid of them.

The truth: The short answer? We've all forgotten what toxins actually are.

As for the long answer, a toxin is simply any substance that's poisonous to humans. If that substance isn't produced by a plant or animal (i.e. it's synthetic), it's actually more correct to call it a toxicant. But colloquially, they're all just "toxins." However, what people often forget is that the dose of that substance is usually just as important as the substance itself.

Many things that can be toxic — arsenic, cyanide, caffeine — are naturally occurring in food, the environment, or our bodies at low levels. There are reports of licorice being toxic when eaten in extremely high amounts. Even vitamin A, which is something you need, can make you feel like crap at high doses. Other compounds (such as oxycodone) are safely used as medical drugs at low levels but can be harmful at higher levels. Plus, totally nontoxic things (e.g. grapefruit juice) can interact with medicines and cause a toxic effect.

By all means, be worried about too much lead in your water or too much vitamin A in your diet. But all of this means that getting worked up about the general concept of "toxins" is just unproductive. We all encounter many of these things every day without any problems. And, luckily, your body is pretty great at getting rid of them already.

The hard truth:
Because you don't need to worry about toxins, you also don't need to worry about detoxing or cleansing. In fact, all of those words should be treated as red flags. If someone is trying to convince you that a fancy new product is going to "detox" you, that's a good sign that they're selling snake oil.
Advertisement