When Healthy Habits Backfire

Some Healthy Habits Can Cause Trouble; Find Out What to Do

From the WebMD Archives

When it comes to healthy habits, can there be too much of a good thing? Absolutely. Eating wholesome foods helps keep you healthy, but overeating will make you fat and prone to illness. Exercise helps keep you fit, but working out too hard or too often can cause injury and fatigue.

Of course, these are only two of the most obvious examples of how healthy habits can backfire. Here are seven more:

1. Cleaning your kitchen. No doubt about it -- a dirty kitchen can raise the risk of contracting a food-borne illness. But the way many people clean sinks, countertops, and other surfaces in the kitchen -- wiping with a damp sponge or dishcloth and then leaving it around for next time -- can increase rather than reduce exposure to E. coli, salmonella, and other disease-causing microbes. “The sponge or cloth you’re using can actually spread virulent bacteria around the kitchen,” says Margaret Lewin, MD, clinical assistant professor of medicine at Weil Medical College in New York City and chief medical director of Cinergy Health, a Florida-based insurance company. To keep that from happening, she recommends giving the sponge or cloth a daily 60-second blast in the microwave. “Imagine all the bacteria dividing and happily munching on spoiled food since the sponge’s last use, and then decide if it’s time,” she says. Because of fire risk, don't put a dry cloth or sponge in the microwave; wet it first.

2. Using ergonomic products. These days all sorts of products are being marketed as “ergonomic,” from chairs and computer mice and keyboards to tools and sporting goods. But just because a product is labeled ergonomic doesn’t mean it will prevent or relieve aches and pains. Experts say that many so-called ergonomic products (including the biggest-selling office chair) actually cause pain. “People often assume that if they buy an ergonomic device, it will magically solve their problem,” says Alan Hedge, PhD, professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “But many of these products don’t put you in a safer position. It’s a crazy situation.” Before buying any ergonomic product, it’s wise to examine it carefully and, if possible, try it out. “You have to use a modicum of common sense,” Hedge says. “If it looks weird and feels awful, for goodness sake, don’t buy it.”

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3. Getting a “base tan.” Despite all the negative publicity they’ve gotten in recent years, tanning salons remain popular -- especially with young people. Some people schedule a few sessions of indoor tanning prior to leaving for a sun-filled vacation, believing that a base tan will enable them to avoid sunburn and to tan deeply with less damage to their skin. Not so. “The pigmentation in tanned skin amounts only to an SPF of about 4, so getting a base tan provides almost no additional protection from the sun,” says June Robinson, MD, professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. More to the point, she says, any degree of tanning damages the skin, causing premature aging and raising the risk for skin cancer. So forget about tanning salons, and heed the familiar advice when venturing outdoors in sunny climes: avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when solar radiation is strongest; at other times, wear sun-protective clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat, pants, and a long-sleeved shirt, and make liberal use of sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher).

4. Drinking water. From constipation to kidney failure, the risks of dehydration are well known. But drinking more water than your body needs can cause a perilous drop in the concentration of sodium in the bloodstream. This condition, known as hyponatremia, can trigger fatigue, headache, nausea, and vomiting; severe cases can be fatal. Hyponatremia is more common in people with kidney disease and congestive heart failure, but it also affects athletes -- who, mindful of the need to replace water lost through perspiration, often gulp water during endurance events. In 2002, researchers at Harvard University Medical School tested participants in the Boston Marathon and found that 13% were suffering from hyponatremia. Experts say healthy people should drink according to thirst, ignoring the familiar admonition to consume eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. “The eight-by-8-ounce rule can potentially lead to diluting the kidneys and impair kidney function,” says Joseph Stubbs, MD, president of the American College of Physicians and an internist in private practice in Albany, Ga. What if you’re running a marathon or competing in another endurance event? “Guidelines generally recommend [consuming] no more than eight ounces every 45 to 60 minutes of exercise,” Stubbs says. “But that can vary according to how much sweating one does.”

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5. Brushing your teeth. Good dental hygiene is essential for keeping teeth and gums healthy. But brushing too often or with too much pressure can thin the enamel, darkening teeth and giving them a “sandblasted” look. What’s more, aggressive brushing can cause gum recession, making the teeth painfully sensitive and raising the specter of tooth decay and loss. To avoid these problems, brush (and floss) gently twice a day. Make sure your brush has soft synthetic bristles with rounded tips.

6. Taking vitamin supplements. For most people, there’s little risk in following federal guidelines regarding the intake of vitamins and minerals. But some people far exceed the guidelines, assuming that bigger dosages will bring bigger health benefits. In fact, vitamin overdoses can trigger serious health problems. Hypervitaminosis A, for instance, can cause nausea, diarrhea, rashes, and metabolic disturbances, among other things. “I’ve seen people literally turn yellow from consuming too much vitamin A,” Stubbs says. The bottom line: If you're going to take vitamins, don't overdo it -- too much can be risky.

7. Sleeping late. Especially for people whose busy schedules leave them sleep deprived during the week, getting a little extra shuteye on weekends sounds like the responsible thing to do. After all, adequate sleep not only curbs fatigue and mental fogginess but also cuts the risk for serious medical conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, and autoimmune disorders. Problem is, varying one's sleep patterns -- sleeping late on weekends or napping during the day -- can trigger headaches in some people. Doctors say that it’s best to stick to the same sleep schedule all week long -- especially if you’re prone to migraines. Better to make your sleep schedule healthier all week long than to count on weekends to make up for it.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 25, 2009

Sources

SOURCES:

Margaret Lewin, MD, clinical assistant professor of medicine, Weil Medical College, New York; chief medical director, Synergy Health.

Alan Hedge, PhD, professor of design and environmental analysis, Cornell University.

June Robinson, MD, professor of clinical dermatology, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Joseph Stubbs, MD, president, American College of Physicians.

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: "Constipation."

Penn State College Milton S. Hershey Medical Center: "Acute Renal Failure."

Almond, C. The New England Journal of Medicine, April 14, 2005; vol 352: pp 1550-1556.

Abrahamsen, International Dental Journal, August 2005; vol 55: pp 268-276.

Richard Price, spokesman, American Dental Association.

WebMD Feature: "Sleep Habits: More Important Than You Think."

Michigan Headache & Neurological Institute: "Headache and Sleep Disorders: Frequently Asked Questions."

FDA.

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