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Fact or Fiction: Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths

The Martha Stewart Show, January 2008

New York Times columnist Anahad O'Connor ("Really?") thoroughly researches many of the common sayings we have all come to accept as fact. By asking experts and checking a database of medical studies and journals, Anahad finds research that is backed up and replicated to truly answer some age-old questions.

You risk being electrocuted if you shower in a thunderstorm.
Mom was right and here's why: If a bolt of lightning hits a building, it can travel through plumbing, into metal pipes and wiring, and shock anyone who comes into contact with a faucet or appliance. To be sure, the odds of this happening are minute, but it does happen. In fact, a couple of years ago, a young woman in Croatia was brushing her teeth when lightning struck her building and made its way to her faucet. As the woman was rinsing her teeth, the current entered her mouth and exited through her rear end. It turns out that the lightning may have failed to ground through her feet because she was wearing cheap rubber-soled shoes, which probably saved her life.

Chicken soup can cure a cold.
The first scientific study on this was conducted in 1978 by scientists at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, who discovered that chicken soup cleared up congestion and stuffiness better than hot or cold water. They figured this out after noticing first that the symptom of a runny nose isn't caused by the cold virus per se, but by the immune system. A runny nose is the body's way of removing invaders. So the scientist decided that by measuring nasal mucus velocity, they could determine the effectiveness of various treatments: A great mucus velocity meant a more effective treatment.

Years later, other scientists showed that the protein in chicken contained an amino acid called cysteine, which is similar to acetylcysteine, a medicine that dissolves mucus in the lungs, allowing it to be coughed up more easily. And in 2000, a group of scientists set out to discover precisely which brands and variety of chicken soup worked best. The results and their recipe, which was provided by the grandmother of one of the study's authors, were published in a prestigious scientific journal, "Chest." In the study, they found that in lab tests this particular recipe suppressed inflammatory white cells that produced coughing, congestion, malaise, and other symptoms of the common cold.

Eating carrots improves your eyesight.
This belief might have started in the 1940s when a British Air Force captain became the first pilot to shoot down an aircraft using a newfangled invention called radar. The British military was eager to keep its new invention a secret, so they attributed his ability to spot enemy aircraft at night to his odd love of carrots. It sounds ridiculous, but the British newspapers were soon reporting that the sudden increase in the number of downed German fighter planes was due to the huge amounts of carrots all Royal Air Force pilots were being fed.

Carrots are high in beta-carotene, which is a component of vitamin A, which is critical to normal vision. So in countries where carrots and other sources of the vitamin are scarce, poor vision is rampant. Although studies show that taking vitamin A can reverse poor vision due to a deficiency, it will not improve your vision or slow the decline of vision in people who are healthy. However, studies have shown that among smokers who are at greater risk to develop cataracts, taking beta-carotene can reduce the risk of getting cataracts by an eye-popping 25 percent.

Cutting your hair makes it grow back thicker.
This popular misconception has a very clear-cut answer: no. But the illusion that it grows back thicker is real. Many people started shaving when their hair was still lightly colored and not growing at the rate it's destined to reach. Since hair is darker and rougher at the roots, removing the tips gives the appearance of coarser hair. But the hair we see is already dead, which means there's no way cutting it can affect the living section hidden beneath the scalp.

Cracking your knuckles causes arthritis.
This one is pure fiction. The loud "pop" of a cracked knuckle is caused by synovial fluid, the thick lubricant that surrounds every joint. When you stretch or pull your fingers backward, the bones of the joint pull apart, creating a low-pressure environment that causes a bubble. The bubble doesn't actually explode, but rather implodes, or crashes in on itself, sending synovial fluid propelling inward. Once this big bubble is gone, a smaller one forms in its place. For about 10 minutes, it sticks around as the gas is completely absorbed back into the synovial fluid. This, by the way, is the reason a single knuckle cannot be cracked more than once in the span of a few minutes.

Special Thanks
Special thanks to Anahad O'Connor for sharing this information, and to Times Books for giving a copy of his book, "Never Shower in a Thunderstorm: Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths About Our Health and the World We Live In" to everyone in our studio audience.

Comments (2)

  • 5 Feb, 2008

    i didnt know chicken soup DOES cure a cold!
    WOW!!!

  • 1 Feb, 2008

    Allo like the show a lot's, keep the good work like to find out, where i coud get one of those book,about facts or myths. thank MIKE