10 Summer Health Myths, Explained

It’s just before 9 a.m. You’re on your way to work, which is bad enough to begin with. Then there are the beads of salty-sticky moisture accumulating like thunderstorm clouds right where your hair meets your forehead. You suck your iced coffee down as fast as you can in an effort to lower your body temperature, but it’s a futile exercise. You know it’s just a matter of time before the sweat content of your hairline surpasses its crucial equilibrium point, tipping your morning irrevocably into "hot, drippy mess" territory.

Some people hate puppies, others hate brunch. I happen to hate summer. Yes, the days are longer, and the opportunities for beach drinking and water-centric shenanigans are plentiful. But, there’s something about being constantly damp that really just bums me out.

And, it’s not just the sweating. When you think about it, summer seems to present a wide array of health risks that would make even the most reasonable among us rethink our collective obsession with the sunny season. Ok, so summer’s not normally associated with sniffles and strep. But, what about skin cancer, or heatstroke — or shark attacks?!? In search of the real story on summer’s most widespread (and wackiest) health myths, I sought the opinions of medical doctors, nutritionists, and, yes, even shark experts. Click through for some good, old-fashioned myth busting — so you can go forth into the blinding, oppressive days ahead fully prepared (popsicles and and central air not included).

The Myth: Your air conditioner is making you sick.

The Verdict: You’ve heard this one before. Many believe that too much time spent in air-conditioned spaces — particularly those that use central air-conditioning systems — increase your risk of catching a cold or another airborne pathogen. The concern, presumably, is that constant exposure to temperatures below 65 degrees makes you more vulnerable to sickness. While more research is needed, there may be some truth to it: Some studies have found that those who work in air-conditioned offices get sick more often than those who don’t.

But, some of this risk might be attributable to poor maintenance practices, rather than air conditioning alone. As New York-based physician Frank Lipman, MD, points out, “Although the colder temperature that air conditioning provides isn’t likely to make you sick in itself, not properly maintaining your air conditioning unit can. It is important to change the filter on a regular basis and to avoid excess moisture around the unit, as it can lead to overgrowth of fungi and bacteria, eventually sending them directly into your airways.” He continues, “If you use an air conditioner throughout the summer, make sure to open your windows often to let some fresh air in,” particularly with central air systems. And, if you’re still worried about freezing your way to a cold, think about turning up the thermostat just a little bit; it’s better for the planet (and your wallet) that way.
Myth: Sharks are attracted to menstruating women.

The Verdict: If you’re at all familiar with the terror-and-carnage porn that is Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, you’ll have heard the old adage (on which, incidentally, the jury appears to be out) that sharks are attracted to blood in the water. But, what about menstrual blood? Does having your period make a shark attack more likely?

The short answer: Probably not. While myths have endured for years about a wide range of animals being attracted to menstruating women, many of them have been debunked. As for sharks, the general consensus is that (while they do have demonstrably prodigious sensory ability) there’s no data supporting the idea that they’re particularly sensitive to menstruating women.

In fact, according to Marie Levine, a well-known shark expert, research on this topic by pioneer Dr. Albert Tester in the 1970s found that menstrual blood was not attractive to sharks. Levine also points out that analyses of data reported in the Global Shark Attack File have yielded little reason to believe this is any more than a myth. And, for what it’s worth: “I dived with sharks many, many times when I had my period — and they weren't interested," Levine says.

It bears mentioning here that any apparent “danger” associated with menstruation should be taken with a big pinch of salt. Myths like this smell an awful lot like the sort of beliefs that once led to menstruating women being quarantined for being “impure” or “polluted.” If you can function as a productive member of society (and are not bleeding from a gaping wound elsewhere on your body), you’re probably all clear to get your scuba on.
The Myth: Your electric fan can kill you.

The Verdict: Ok, this is a weird one. For many of us (particularly those for whom air conditioning is just a little bit too big a splurge), an electric fan can be a life-saver on balmy nights. But, if South Korean urban legend is to be believed, that fan is essentially a rapidly-spinning wheel of death.

Many South Koreans believe that electric fans can kill you in one of two ways: First, it could cause a significant drop in the temperature of the room, which, coupled with the body’s lowered metabolic rate at night, could theoretically cause hypothermia. Second, and more commonly, many fear that using a fan for a long period of time in an unventilated room would speed up the displacement of oxygen as a person breathes, thereby leading to asphyxiation when oxygen levels in the room fall too low.

Dr. Lipman points out that none of the reported incidents of either of these phenomena have been definitively linked to the victims’ use of electric fans. Which is no surprise — the myth has been thoroughly debunked over and over again. Still, the fear remains very real in South Korea, where mainstream media report on dozens of cases of “fan death” every summer. It’s so deeply ingrained that most fans sold in South Korea come with a timer that prevents the user from running the appliance for more than a few hours. Which, especially if you’re watching your electric bill, is probably not a bad thing.
The Myth: Your body needs more than eight glasses of water a day in the summer.

The Verdict: First of all, it seems that whole eight-glasses rule is a myth unto itself. As Julie Wilcox, certified yoga instructor and founder of the Julie Wilcox Method, points out, that recommendation doesn’t account for the size of your water glass — let alone the size of your body. After all, some of us may well need more than eight glasses, while others can probably make do with less.

According to Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a board-certified cardiologist, most doctors recommend 2.2 liters of total liquid intake per day for women (three liters for men). That works out to about 75 ounces, or 9.5 (eight-ounce) glasses. But, Dr. Lipman points out that this number still doesn’t account for differences in body type. “A more customized approach,” he says, “is to calculate half your body weight in pounds and drink that amount of water, in ounces. For example, a person weighing 150 lbs should aim for 75 ounces of water each day.”

Of course, the more time and energy you devote to fun in the sun, the greater your hydration needs. And, it’s easy to fall behind on your liquid intake — so a preventative approach to hydration is probably your best bet, especially in the summertime. As Lipman points out, “If you're feeling thirsty, you are already dehydrated.”
The Myth: Eating spicy foods helps you beat the heat.

The Verdict: As it turns out, this one might have some truth to it. Traditionally, the use of chile peppers and other “hot” spices in cooking has tended to correlate with the high temperatures faced by the culture using these spices. Hot-climate cultures — such as India, Mexico, Southern Italy, and Southern China — are all more likely to like their food spicy.

Scientists have a number of theories for why this is so. First, it’s believed that these cultures evolved cuisines that take advantage of spices’ innate antimicrobial function in order to combat the unique bacteria found in hot climates. Second (although in a rather roundabout way) spicy foods do help enhance your body’s ability to cool itself off. As Dr. Lipman explains, because spice improves circulation, “Eating a spicy meal often raises our internal temperature, which makes us sweat. This helps us feel cooler, faster.” So, adding a bit of jalapeño to your lemonade margarita might be more than a tasty trend; spicing things up could help you feel at least a little bit cooler.
The Myth: Hot weather helps your body to sweat out toxins.

The Verdict: This one’s definitely a myth, and stems from a more problematic collective misunderstanding on the concept of “toxins.” As Andrea Maxim, ND points out, “A toxin is anything that could cause damage to the body in one way or another.” This includes everything from endocrine disruptors in cleaning products to excess amounts of any substance — sugar, vitamins, even water. As such, "toxins," along with everything else your body ingests, are processed and removed from the body by the liver and kidneys, says internist Patricia Salber, MD.

In fact, as Dr. Steinbaum points out, hot summer weather can actually have a negative, if indirect, impact on your body’s ability to eliminate toxins: Dehydration can interfere with the all-important process of metabolising and removing what your body doesn’t need. “Sweating is the body's mechanism to help prevent overheating," she explains. "But, with the loss of body fluids, the most important issue is making sure that you stay hydrated, so your liver and kidneys can do their job of getting rid of the toxins in the bloodstream.”

However, while sweating won’t do anything to help your liver get rid of those terrible toxins, there is one organ that receives a net benefit from balmy weather: your skin. Sweating opens your pores, giving them an opportunity to dispose of excess oil, dirt, and impurities that can cause infection and/or congestion (read: acne). Of course, once these “toxins” make it out of your pores, it’s important to remove them from your skin's surface, to prevent the clogging process from beginning again.
The Myth: Hot weather makes your metabolism work faster.

The Verdict: During the Polar Vortex earlier this year, a number of seemingly reputable media outlets reported on a Dr. Oz weight-loss “trick” that took “too good to be true” to a whole new level. Apparently (they said), cold weather helps speed up metabolism, allowing people to “shiver their way to weight loss!” Citing a study by the University of Maastrict, numerous outlets reported something to the effect of the following: “Finally, an upside to the frigid temperatures that have gripped much of the nation.” But, as is often the case, the science said something considerably different. The study in question found that maintaining an ambient temperature of 62 to 77 degrees activates brown fat, which is believed to burn calories directly in order to maintain a constant body temperature.

In theory, elevated body temperatures would seem to incinerate calories faster — but, according to medical weight-loss specialist Dr. Sue Decotiis, that effect is mostly counteracted by our bodies’ instinct to keep cool by sweating. As Dr. Lipman points out, it’s important not to overestimate any possible benefits caused by anything as passive as environmental factors. “The effect that the external temperature may have on the speed of our metabolism is probably extremely small compared to the effects that our diet, eating patterns, exercise, sleep schedule, and water intake can have,” he says.
The Myth: Sunscreen must be applied long before sun exposure, and reapplied regularly throughout the day — especially after contact with water.

The Verdict: Turns out Mom was right about this one. Doctors agree that there is a set of best practices that determine whether your SPF arsenal will actually protect you from the worst of the sun’s radiation. Dr. Decotiis says sunscreen should be applied at least 15-20 minutes before heading out into the light; according to the American Academy of Dermatology, sunscreen takes at least 15 minutes to be absorbed effectively by your skin. As for reapplication, Dr. Decotiis recommends a new coat every two hours, as well as after taking a dip (or excessive sweating). When choosing among the countless sunscreen options, she stresses the importance of avoiding products containing oxybenzone, which is known to wreak havoc on human metabolism.

While most of us accept sunscreen as a vital part of our summer routines, some argue that skin needs a bit of SPF-free sun exposure in order to make the vitamin D it needs to function properly. However, most of the available research suggests that sunscreen’s role in inhibiting vitamin D production is minimal at most — and should not factor into your decision on whether or not to slather on the SPF. After all, a sunburn is a pretty big price to pay for something you can just as easily get in capsule form.
The Myth: You need a base tan before you go out in the sun.

The Verdict: This is a surprisingly durable myth that comes around every beach season. The idea is that you’re less likely to burn if your skin is already tan. Theoretically, it makes sense: The mechanism behind your skin turning darker is actually a defensive measure, as your skin releases melanin (pigment) in order to minimize the damage caused by UV rays. But, the science doesn’t really hold up. According to the Mayo Clinic, a tan only provides the equivalent of SPF-4-level protection — which won’t go very far in preventing sunburn, let alone skin cancer.

As Dr Lipman points out, “You don’t need a tan to reap the benefits of natural sun exposure.” But, having one doesn’t eliminate the need for serious sunscreen, either.
The Myth: Your body needs less sleep in the summer.

The Verdict: One of the inescapable (wonderful) side-effects of summer is a preponderance of long, lazy days with seemingly endless hours of sunlight. But, do shorter nights mean that your body can function on less sleep than usual? Well, it depends: Not only is each person’s sleep requirement unique, but it’s constantly subject to change. “The amount of [sleep] a person needs to feel completely rested and rejuvenated can be determined by a number of factors, such as exercise, diet, and stress — all things that can all change over time," Dr. Lipman explains. "Although some people might find they are sleeping less during the summer months, it is not something that everyone will benefit from.” Of course, when beer-induced beach naps are on the table, “sleeping less” somehow sounds less appealing.
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