The winter holidays are rife with mythology and symbolism. Kiss under the mistletoe for love. Eat the right food on New Year’s Day to draw in good luck for the remainder of the year. Burn a Yule Log to protect your home from lightning, fire, or bad intentions. However, not all of the myths surrounding the holidays have to do with whether or not a person has good or bad luck.
There are almost as many health myths swirling around the holidays as there are myths about changing your luck. Turkey makes you tired; eating or drinking the right ingredient will shorten your hangover and so many others. Today, we explore four of those myths to see how much truth is involved.
Poinsettias are beautiful, dark green shrubs with brilliant red floral bracts in the winter that look like large flowers. These traditional holiday plants have long been regarded as beautiful but dangerous, and they are considered too toxic to have anywhere around kids or pets. This is due to irritating chemicals in the sap, known as saponins.
While there is some truth to these claims, the toxicity of these pretty holiday plants is severely overblown. The mild irritants found in poinsettia plants trigger an itchy rash if the sap comes into contact with the skin, but it usually doesn’t last long. The saponins can also cause distress as they travel through the gastrointestinal tract, leading to drooling, nausea, vomiting, and even diarrhea. However, the symptoms are usually manageable without further medical treatment.
For many people, turkey is the centerpiece of their holiday feasts, and their winter holidays just wouldn’t feel the same without a huge roast turkey. Turkey meat, which contains the amino acid tryptophan, has long taken the blame for that sleepy feeling we all get after one of these hearty holiday meals. This is because tryptophan plays a major role in creating several hormones critical for sleep, including serotonin and melatonin.
This popular piece of folk wisdom isn’t entirely true, however. While turkey does contain a large amount of tryptophan, steak, pork, and chicken all have more, and it typically isn’t enough to trigger sleepiness in most people. In addition, the effects of tryptophan are blunted when it’s combined with the other amino acids naturally present in turkey and other meats.
If it isn’t the turkey, what does cause the postprandial fatigue that so many of us experience? The sheer volume of food is a large part of the equation, especially the volume of high-carbohydrate foods. Big holiday meals are also frequently planned in the late afternoon, a time when many people naturally have a dip in alertness, adding to the effect.
Prevailing folk wisdom claims that we lose anywhere from 50 to 80% of our body heat through our heads, despite the fact that the skin covering the head represents just 10% of the body’s surface area. This myth was published in several official documents, including this outdated army survival guide that gave the amount of body heat lost through the head as 40-50%.
Military researchers in the 50s likely came up with these numbers using experiments that exposed soldiers to frigid weather. The experiment didn’t take into account that while their heads were uncovered, the rest of their bodies were protected from the cold, and this left very little skin exposed besides that on their heads. More recent studies show that we actually lose around 7-10% percent of our body heat through our heads.
Sunscreen is typically associated with protecting skin from hot, sun-filled summer days. As the days become colder and more overcast, this essential product often gets stored and forgotten. Dermatologists recommend applying sunscreen to exposed skin on a daily basis year-round and for a good reason.
UVB rays, the UV rays responsible for skin burns, are most prevalent in the summer. Fewer UVB rays are present in the winter, especially on overcast days, reducing the possibility of burning and inflammation. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean your skin is safe. While there are fewer UVB rays in the winter, they often reflect off of snow and other frozen surfaces. This exposes skin to UVB rays both directly and indirectly. In addition, UVA rays, responsible for wrinkles and age spots, aren’t phased in the least by cold weather, clouds, or even window glass. And both types of UV rays can lead to dangerous skin cancers.
There are many different traditions, symbols, and signs that are associated with the end-of-the-year holidays, from Halloween in October all the way to the final day of the year, New Year’s Eve. Myths about magical beings are typically harmless and easy to dismiss. Believing untrue statements about your health can be detrimental. Being aware of the truth behind these holiday myths, particularly holiday claims relating to your health, can help alleviate stress and may prevent malaise in the future.