Thanks to hours spent looking up symptoms and health conditions on sites like WebMD and (God forbid) Google, many of us have become self-proclaimed medical experts, self-diagnosing and, perhaps somewhere along the way, acquiring incorrect information about common health conditions. Today, three Saint Thomas Health medical professionals from three different fields — sleep medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and gastroenterology — are here to set us straight by debunking some of the most common health myths they hear regularly.

Debunking healthcare myths

Are you guilty of believing medical “facts” that are all wrong? Let the health care professionals from Saint Thomas Health set you straight. Image: Saint Thomas Health

Commonly Heard Myths in Sleep Medicine

Zachary V. Coller, M.D., who is board-certified in pulmonary disease, sleep medicine, critical care and internal medicine, is here to share the top myths about sleep and sleep apnea and direct us toward the truth.

Myth: Sleep apnea only occurs in middle-aged, overweight men.

Truth: “Sleep apnea can occur in anyone — even children 1 or 2 years old. In most cases, the diagnosis is delayed for years because of the belief that it only occurs in middle-aged, overweight men. A classic example is a normal weight female in her 30s. She experiences tiredness during the day and waits until reaching the breaking point to get a diagnosis. Don’t let this be you!

“Symptoms of sleep apnea to look out for include: anytime sleepiness, fatigue, nonrestorative sleep, morning headaches, memory loss, trouble with concentration, mood disorders and snoring (gasping, choking during sleep).”

Myth: In order to treat sleep apnea, you must wear a Darth Vader-like CPAP mask.

Truth: “CPAP is comfortable. It is usually the size of your thumb and makes essentially no noise. Yes, CPAP is a strange sensation, and just like anything new (like say, reading glasses), it requires getting used to. But CPAP has changed. Sleep apnea can be comfortable. Also, you are not isolated. CPAP is very common, and you would be surprised to hear how many people are treated successfully and do well. As doctors, we want people to succeed, and in order to do so you need appropriate care and support from your doctor. ”

Myth: Everyone needs eight hours of sleep.

Truth: “Sleep is essential, not optional. Sleep requirements vary from person to person and can depend on age. You have to have adequate quality and quantity. If either is lacking, you are not going to feel rested, and you will preform poorly. Bottom line, if you don’t sleep well, your mind and body will pay the price. Plus, sleep deprivation is associated with obesity. When you are sleep deprived, there is a shift in chemicals in your body; you feel less full, you crave food that is worse for you and you eat more when you are awake.

“Sleep apnea and lack of sleep can be dangerous. It can result in exacerbated high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, memory loss, heartburn, depression, anxiety, productivity loss, stroke and more. Not to mention, marital issues due to ongoing snoring!”

Commonly Heard Myths in Obstetrics & Gynecology

A specialist in obstetrics and gynecology, Kristin Daniel, M.D., is a board-certified OB/GYN who made her way to Tennessee after working as medical director of labor and delivery, as well as chairperson of both the Perinatal Review and Hospital Infection Control committees for Mountain Home Air Force Base Hospital in Idaho. With a bit of experience under her belt, Dr. Daniel is well-positioned to give advice, and here she covers the three things she wants you to stop believing — and why. 

Myth: Vaginal discharge means something is wrong.

Truth: “Most women are going to have vaginal discharge — at least for part of the month, and some have it every day. Women experience discharge regularly, and it is nothing to set off the alarms. But if your discharge has changed, consult with your doctor.

“If discharge is in excess, or above the norm, or if it is itchy or has the wrong smell to it, it has the potential to be a yeast infection, an STD or bacterial vaginosis (the other end of the pH scale from yeast). With a yeast infection (something women are more familiar with), you experience a chunky white discharge and itching. Bacterial vaginosis is not as well known and can cause a change in your discharge, but the overwhelming symptom with BV is a bad, ammonia-like smell.”

Myth: You must get a prescription for an infection.

Truth: “Monistat works very well, and, in fact, Monistat kills more species of yeast than the pill I would give you. BV is a bit more frustrating because there is not an over-the-counter antibiotic for that. But there is a home remedy that will reset the pH: 25 percent vinegar dilution as a rinse. Do not use a douche, which is a short-term solution and a long-term culprit. This rinse (vinegar dilution) is very helpful with people who experience reoccurring BV.

“If you recognize the symptoms of a urinary tract infection (bladder spasms, a painful feeling at the end of you emptying your bladder and sometimes a burning sensation) early in the game, you can flush everything out with water and oftentimes will not need an antibiotic. Give it about 24 hours, drink a lot, pee a lot, and if you are still getting symptoms at the end of the 24 hours, consult with your doctor. Also, 100 percent cranberry juice can change the acidity of the urine, which will effectively kill the bacteria and change the vaginal pH to eradicate the infection.

“When to consult with your doctors? For UTIs, contact your doctor if symptoms do not alleviate within 24 hours. For yeast infections, if not better within a day or two, consult with your doctor. Other than the home remedy, there is nothing additional the patient can do on their own for BV, which is frustrating.”

Myth: There is a correlation between alcohol and sugar consumption and UTIs.

Truth: “Sugar feeds bacteria, it is a great food for bacteria, and you put more sugar in your urine when you have more sugar in your blood. But unless we are diabetic or pregnant, most of us are not going to spill large amounts of sugar into our urine. On the molecular level, sugar can change the pH of the urine in the bacteria’s favor. So if you are brewing a UTI, limiting your sugar intake (and other bladder irritants, such as spicy foods, acidic fruits, caffeine, alcohol and carbonated drinks) can be beneficial, but it is not a common cause of UTIs.

Commonly Heard Myths in Gastroenterology

Our go-to source for women’s gastrointestinal issues, gastrointestinal malignancies and endoscopic ultrasound, celiac sprue, pancreatic disorders and colorectal cancer screening, Elizabeth Lindsey, M.D., debunks the top myths in gastroenterology.

Myth: Abdominal pain is a symptom of colon cancer.

Truth: “Oftentimes, colon cancer presents silently, with rectal bleeding, blood in stool and iron deficiency. Many patients are frozen with fear due to worry of colon cancer. You don’t need a colonoscopy just because you are in pain! There are other ways to find why there is pain — and this is coming from someone who loves to give colonoscopies!

“No one should ever worry about their symptoms. If you are worried, if the pain is interfering with your life or if your abdominal pain is occurring in conjunction with other symptoms, visit a doctor to have your anxiety alleviated. I always tell my patients, ‘Let me do the worrying.'”

Myth: There is a quick fix to constipation.

Truth: “There are two types of constipation. The first is slow movement of the gastrointestinal tract, meaning the movement of the GI tract is not ‘normal,’ and as a result, you are not ‘regular.’ Despite common belief, eating a high-fiber diet does not impact movability. Fiber can actually make constipation worse.

“The second type is pelvic floor dysfunction. Certain women who have had children or injuries cannot relax that angle — physical therapy can help with this. Even water is not proven (in literature) as something that helps constipation. Anecdotally, exercise can help. Increased movement of the body increases movement of the GI tract.

“It is so subjective, so individualized. Your ‘regular’ is how often you have a bowel movement and how you feel in relation to that frequency. You don’t have to have a bowel movement every day unless it makes you uncomfortable [not to]. You are not hurting yourself by having one a week. Stay away from what is ‘regular.'”

Myth: The function of the colon is to cleanse or detoxify your body.

Truth: “The role of the liver and kidneys is to cleanse and detoxify the body, and the colon is a storage system — a luxury organ that stores waste. It assists in reabsorption of water and electrolytes but nothing about the colon serves to cleanse. Therefore, you do not need to have a bowel movement every day to cleanse. If you are in pain, that is one thing, but you are not hurting yourself or exposing your body to toxins by not having a bowel movement every day. I hear of so many people trying to cleanse their body of toxins with colonics. Think twice about colonics, they can be dangerous.”

Thank you to Zachary V. Coller, M.D.; Kristin Daniel, M.D.; and Elizabeth Lindsey, M.D. for taking the time to educate us and debunk common myths in your respective fields of medicine. For more health care resources, visit StHealth.com.

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Do you have health questions? Email them to [email protected], and the expert answers may appear in a future article!