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—Illustrations by Mark Matcho

Health Myths, Busted!

Can you separate fact from fiction when it comes to everyday factors that influence your well-being? Test your savvy—and boost your wellness in the new year.

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Trail running is better for your body than jogging on asphalt.

FACT!

Sometimes common sense is the best medicine—but we asked an MD just to be sure. “Generally speaking, softer surfaces cause less impact,” says Dr. Josh Metzl, a foot and ankle orthopedic surgeon at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Denver who has also completed 13 marathons and five Ironmans. Concrete sidewalks are the most severe surfaces; repeatedly pounding the pavement could result in “overuse” injuries, including plantar fasciitis. While inside city limits, Metzl trains at Washington Park, where the crushed gravel path takes less of a toll on his joints. Once in the mountains, he suggests using ski-resort service roads as a convenient—and cushy—entrée into trail running. “I really believe trail running helps the longevity of a runner’s career,” Metzl says.


Eating genetically modified (GM) foods is a good way to get cancer (or maybe autism)

—iStock

MYTH!

The creepiest thing about Frankenstein is the fact that he was engineered in a lab. No wonder people are afraid of foods that have been genetically spliced, diced, or otherwise altered to be pest-resistant, vitamin-rich, or gluten-free (to list a few possibilities). And while Coloradans voted down a proposition in 2014 that would have required the labeling of GM foods, such designations are coming: In July 2016, Congress told the USDA to develop a national GM food labeling system within two years. (The federal government got involved after a few scared states passed labeling laws; Congress decided a standard, countrywide system would make labeling easier.) But just because they’ll bear their own scarlet letter, we shouldn’t shy away from GM foods, according to a new study from the National Academy of Sciences. “They could find no convincing difference between [GM] foods and conventional foods,” says Patrick Byrne, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Colorado State University. Hence, people who link the rise of autism, for example, with the rise of GM foods don’t have any science to support their claims. “Someone has recently shown a similar correlation in the rise in consumption of organic foods,” Byrne says. “Anecdotal information can be misleading.” His best advice for filling your plate? Opt for fresh foods, which are less likely to have added sugars or sodium, and diversify your picks to ensure adequate amounts of nutrients.


Craft beers are healthier for you than macrobrews.

—Courtesy of Great Divide Brewing Company

MYTH!

You can be excused for taking this as fact, what with some of the best athletes in Colorado endorsing craft brews and retired slouch Peyton Manning plugging Budweiser. But actually, says Jessica Crandall, a Denver registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, both offer the same (minimal) nutritional benefits—vitamin B and potassium—and (sadly) neither brew is great for your health. Furthermore, the only thing craft brews offer more of, other than taste, are calories. (A 12-ounce can of Coors Light contains 102 calories; Great Divide’s Titan IPA delivers more than 200.) When it comes to fitness, the difference between craft and macro beers might be the people who drink them: A recent survey from the Harris Poll and Nielsen found craft-beer imbibers think of themselves as more health-conscious. “They may be more aware of the amount they are consuming,” Crandall says. In summary, there’s no health virtue in choosing Denver Beer Co.’s Graham Cracker Porter—but we won’t blame you if you do.


Multiple sclerosis is diagnosed more in Colorado than in other states.

—iStock

FACT!

Yes, Colorado has more diagnosed cases of MS per capita (.18 percent of the population) compared with the country at large (.13 percent). That’s not to say location explains causation. Not exactly, anyway. “It’s the distance from the equator that’s associated with high risk,” says Dr. John Corboy, co-director of the Rocky Mountain Multiple Sclerosis Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. So why do higher-latitude places like Maine, Australia, and Colorado have more incidents of MS? The answer remains a mystery. Experts believe a combination of genetic and environmental factors are responsible. People living in a specific area share many of the same genes—perhaps even a genetic variation that causes MS. On the environmental side, residents of higher latitudes might carry or be exposed to an as-yet-undiscovered virus or environmental toxin that triggers MS—and doesn’t exist in places like Texas or New Mexico. “The hope is we’re able to identify some factor that’s preventable,” Corboy says. Stay tuned.


You don’t need to floss every day—or even, like, every month.

MYTH!

During the fervor of the 2016 presidential election, only one piece of news was big enough to cut through the political rhetoric: In August, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. government had removed flossing from its dietary guidelines because its effectiveness at fighting gum disease hadn’t been properly studied. We, as a people, exhaled—our collective guilt for a lifetime of lying to dental hygienists dissolved, giving us a natural nitrous oxide high. Now brace yourself because we have to break some bad news: “We advise patients to continue with their flossing,” says Dr. Charles Powell, chair of periodontics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus School of Dental Medicine. Why? Powell maintains that if left untouched, the plaque between your teeth will harden into tartar and lead to inflammation (and eventually gingivitis). Left untreated, gingivitis eventually causes bone loss around the teeth. The reason there’s not a study proving the value of flossing, Powell continues, is that the large toothbrush companies (what we like to call “Big Dental”) haven’t invested in studies with big enough sample sizes to draw conclusions about gum health over long periods of time. While flossing every day might be too much to expect of us, Powell recommends aiming for two to three times each week. And if you’re worried about that other flossing-related myth, the one about dentists knowing whether you’re actually doing it or not…Powell promises that legend isn’t a lie.


My cell phone probably causes cancer.

—iStock

FACT!

Sorry, Instagram addicts. An exhaustive 2016 study from the National Toxicology Program found increased incidence of cancer (over a control population) in rats exposed to nonionizing, radio-frequency radiation (RFR)—like the kind constantly bouncing from your phone to the closest cell tower. We’re well aware of the dangers presented by high-energy radiation, such as X-rays, which rip apart bonds at a molecular level. RFR might not be as destructive, but it emits enough energy to disrupt DNA—and that might lead to cancer. “We may not yet understand why these things are happening at the molecular level,” says Jerry Phillips, a biochemist at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, who has studied this issue for years, “but there’s sufficient evidence to indicate there are numerous biological changes caused by exposure to cell phones.” Aren’t you glad you’re reading this article in print? (Unless you’re reading it on your phone, in which case: You’ve been warned.)


Drinking coffee at high elevations will make me sick.

MYTH!

This little white lie most likely results from caffeine being a diuretic for infrequent coffee drinkers, according to Dr. Peter Hackett, director of the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride. In other words, coffee sends you running to the little boy’s room. So drinking coffee could lead to dehydration, which some people wrongly believe exacerbates acute mountain sickness (AMS). (Side note: To stay hydrated, drink an extra liter and a half a day at elevations higher than 6,000 feet.) However, Hackett’s research suggests caffeine’s tendency to constrict the blood vessels in the brain is likely helpful at elevation. That’s because it may offset a likely cause of AMS: blood vessels expanding in order to deliver more oxygen and, therefore, pressing against the skull. At the very least, coffee junkies shouldn’t kick the habit while on the mountain. Withdrawal would only make your AMS-related headache worse.


I really love pasta, but Gwyneth Paltrow says it’s evil, so I should ditch it.

—iStock

MYTH!

“Not true,” says Laura Bauer, an instructor within Colorado State University’s Food Science & Human Nutrition department. This is likely distressing for many Coloradans: Gluten-free is the most common cuisine in our restaurants, according to a Huffington Post survey of menus posted to Yelp. (Louisiana dines Cajun, Nebraska grills steak…and we prefer gluten-free. Get it together, Colorado.) Unless you have celiac disease or a gluten allergy/sensitivity, wheat only offers you fiber and protein. And opting for gluten-free might not be your best health move: When manufacturers remove wheat, they often replace it with sugar or fat to improve the taste and texture. “Just because it’s gluten-free, that doesn’t mean it’s low-fat, low-sugar, or nutrient-rich,” Bauer says. But if you’re a devoted Gwyneth disciple, just be sure to replace wheat with other whole grains, such as quinoa, rice, or (if you want to stay local) some yummy Colorado-grown millet.


Smoking marijuana (or eating it, or drinking it, or…ingesting pot some other new way that we haven’t heard about yet) makes you lazy.

—iStock

FACT!

“Lazy” calls to mind the picture of a pothead couch potato—perhaps for good reason. When it comes to inspiring you to take it easy, marijuana is a powerhouse, says Dr. Laura Borgelt, associate dean for administration and operations at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. While individual responses to the drug vary, scientists have determined that long-term cannabis users likely produce less dopamine, the magical neurotransmitter recently linked to motivation. New studies suggest that dopamine fires before we engage in activities that might give us rewards (such as getting a jump start on that big presentation for our boss). The bad news? A weed-induced lack of dopamine could lower your motivation to get ahead on said presentation. The good news? The results are likely reversible if a long-term pot user quits. So if you’re looking for a way to relax, maybe go for a natural runner’s high instead.


Colorado’s proximity to the sun is going to turn me into Keith Richards by the time I’m 60.

—Alamy Stock Photo

MYTH!

A few factors to consider: Do you smoke six packs of cigarettes a day? Chug vodka like it’s LaCroix? Or did you maybe play guitar for one of the greatest bands of all time during an era of wildly loose morals? No? Well then, you’re probably fine. It’s true that living in Denver means you soak up 26 percent more UV rays than people living at sea level. Using sunscreen properly, however, is more than enough to protect you from UVA rays, which cause photoaging (wrinkles, spotting, and leathery skin) and some types of cancer, and the more dangerous UVB rays, which burn your skin and also cause cancer. As long as you’re using a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher, applying it 10 to 15 minutes before heading outdoors, and reapplying every two hours, it doesn’t matter which brand of sunscreen you buy, says Neil Box, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus Department of Dermatology and Center for Regenerative Medicine. “Any sunscreen you feel good wearing is good sunscreen to wear,” Box says. Solid advice. Now follow it.


Playing in the South Platte River is an illness waiting to happen.

—iStock

FACT!

Here’s a sobering truth: There’s no way to know how dangerous the South Platte is, at least not in real time. The Denver Department of Environmental Health measures the amount of E. coli (an indicator of viruses, bacteria, and parasites such as giardia) in the water, but these test results aren’t delivered to health officials for 18 to 24 hours and often aren’t made public for days. For instance, on November 9, we could see that the amount of E. coli bacteria at the confluence of the South Platte and Lakewood Gulch was double the safety threshold—but that reading reflected conditions a week earlier. Nonetheless, the trends show levels are elevated almost every day. So whether you’re looking to river surf or just wade at Confluence Park, here’s solid advice from Rachel Hansgen of Groundwork Denver, an environmental nonprofit: Protect mouths, eyes, and wounds (bacteria’s doorway into the body) from the H2O, and douse yourself in hand sanitizer at every opportunity. Or maybe just enjoy the view from the land—and swim elsewhere.


—Illustrations by Mark Matcho

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