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So-Called Healthy Habits
That Make You Sick

Consumers receive a steady stream of advice to drink lots of water, stay out of the sun, wash hands religiously, exercise regularly and on and on. Might we actually do ourselves harm with some of these seemingly healthful habits?

Yes indeed, according to Kent Holtorf, MD, a leading physician in the fields of preventive medicine, endocrine dysfunction and immune disorders and founder of the National Academy for Hypothyroidism. He stated that well-meaning efforts to improve our health can and often do backfire, sometimes with dangerous results. Dr. Holtorf offered advice on how to walk the line between taking steps to stay healthy and going overboard...

Drink Plenty of Water?

Not so fast -- our water is not as safe as you think. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, as many as 19 million Americans are sickened each year by drinking water from the public supply. Not only has bacterial (and, though rarely, even viral) contamination been a problem, but traces of toxins including arsenic, uranium, radium, tetrachloroethylene and lead, along with minute amounts of pharmaceuticals and personal-care products, have been found. Bottled water isn’t the solution you might think, either. Most disposable plastic bottles contain bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical that has been linked with an increased risk for hormonal disturbances (especially thyroid), reproductive and fetal abnormalities, breast and prostate cancer, brain development issues and diseases, weight gain, neurological changes, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and liver disorders.

Best solution: Invest in a water filter for your home. Prices range from $20 for a basic water pitcher to hundreds of dollars for a home-wide filtration system. Shop at Web sites such as and Dr. Holtorf notes that reverse osmosis home-filtration systems are most effective in eliminating contaminants. Buy reusable, BPA-free bottles (e.g., from retailers such as to bring drinking water along when you’re away from home.

Stay Out of the Sun?

Rising skin cancer rates motivate many to avoid the midday sun and/or slather on layers of sunscreen... yet Dr. Holtorf points out that most Americans are deficient in vitamin D, a key nutrient that our bodies most efficiently synthesize through sun exposure. Inadequate vitamin D levels raise the risk for heart disease and certain cancers. As for sunscreen, many formulas contain chemicals such as para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), which can cause allergic reactions and, potentially, liver problems as well.

The smart way: Do spend 10 to 20 minutes each day outdoors in the sunshine without sunscreen. If you want to sunbathe longer, liberally apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays and has an SPF of 15. Sunscreen with a higher SPF won’t hurt you, Dr. Holtorf says, but he views the extra strength as a waste of money.

Wash Hands Frequently?

It’s important to wash your hands frequently to avoid cold and flu germs and prevent food-borne disease... but using antibacterial soap causes more problems than it solves. One antibacterial agent of particular concern is triclosan, a common ingredient in liquid hand soaps and dishwashing detergent. Triclosan may disrupt thyroid function and has been implicated in liver toxicity, Dr. Holtorf said. In addition, antibacterial soap is no better at getting your hands clean than regular soap -- but its use contributes to the development of drug-resistant "super-germs."

What to do: Keep washing your hands frequently with regular soap and warm water, but do not use antibacterial soaps -- especially those that contain triclosan. To view a list of triclosan-free personal products, visit

Fortifying Yourself Sick?

More and more packaged foods are fortified with supposedly good-for-you vitamins and other supplements, but these aren’t always the best choices for your health. For some nutrients, such as folic acid, intake may climb too high if you are also taking a multivitamin and, in fact, research now links excessive folic acid consumption with cancer.

Instead: Choose whole, unprocessed, fiber-rich foods, and aim for a balanced diet that naturally provides a multitude of nutrients. One very good way to boost your nutrient intake is to drink freshly made vegetable juices, which contain an ideal balance of trace minerals and antioxidants along with thousands of beneficial phytonutrients that are not available in pill form.

Fat-Phobic and Unhealthy?

Our fat-phobic society has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Trans fats should absolutely be avoided, but other fats -- even saturated ones -- are vital to our health. The benefits of unsaturated fats in fish and flax oil are well known, as are the benefits of monounsaturated fats found in nuts, avocado and olive oil -- which help balance cholesterol levels. Though saturated fats are generally considered to be unhealthy, they are an essential component of every single cell in our bodies, and there is some evidence that the kind of saturated fat in products such as coconut oil may aid in weight loss, digestion and cardiovascular health.

Try this: Rather than worrying too much about reducing fat intake, avoid simple and concentrated sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup, and avoid simple carbohydrates such as baked goods and white bread. Research shows that these are the worst culprits in weight gain, insulin resistance, high triglycerides and cardiovascular disease.

Fruits, Vegetables... and Food Poisoning?

In the past, food-borne illness was primarily associated with meat and seafood, but recent outbreaks have been traced to fresh produce. Many disease-causing bacteria -- such as E. coli, listeria and salmonella -- routinely reside on fruits and vegetables, and this is true whether the produce is grown conventionally or organically.

To stay safe: Wash your hands before handling produce. Avoid cross contamination (especially from uncooked meats) by storing produce and proteins in separate parts of the refrigerator -- also, use separate cutting boards. Don’t nibble on unwashed produce... and wait until just before preparation of fruits and vegetables to wash them, as washing removes their natural coating and makes them spoil faster. You do not need to use any special detergents, soap or bleach -- simple running tap water is effective. Rinse all parts of the fruit or vegetable that may come into contact with a paring knife (even parts that you don’t intend to eat), and remove and discard the outer leaves of lettuce, cabbage and other greens. Scrub firmer fruits and vegetables with a vegetable brush.

Getting Too Much Sleep?

It’s true that most American adults aren’t getting enough sleep -- and the trend is growing worse. Yet getting too much sleep is a problem, too. Excessive sleeping is a common symptom of depression and can indicate that something else is amiss -- research shows that getting too much sleep (more than eight hours a night) is associated with risk for premature death as much as getting too little sleep, and it also contributes to back pain and memory problems.

Dr. Holtorf suggests: An underactive thyroid is a common cause of daytime sleepiness or an excessive need for sleep. It’s a problem that often goes undiagnosed because the standard blood test for it -- the TSH test -- is inadequate. Having even "low normal" thyroid levels significantly increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, depression and fatigue. Other causes of oversleeping include depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, hypersomnia (a medical condition that causes sufferers to oversleep), alcohol and some medications. If you are suffering from excessive fatigue, discuss with your doctor what might be the cause.

So, as with everything else, it turns out that moderation is key. Maintaining perspective is important when following health advice -- or you will indeed end up taking "the bad with the good," as I’ve heard people say.

Kent Holtorf, MD, medical director, Holtorf Medical Group, Torrance and Foster City, California ( Dr. Holtorf is a leading physician in the fields of preventive medicine, endocrine dysfunction and immune disorders and the founder of the National Academy for Hypothyroidism, a nonprofit Web site that gives patients the latest information and studies on hypothyroidism (

April 6, 2010

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