Based on interviews with dozens of doctors and reviews of hundreds of studies, here are fads to watch out for, fails to avoid and fixes that really work to improve your health.
Which of these will give you a happy stomach?
Eating Gluten Free ‘Just Because’
Fad: A 2013 survey showed that nearly 30 percent of U.S. adults were trying to minimize or avoid gluten. That makes sense if you have celiac disease or other symptoms of gluten sensitivity. Not for everyone else. A study published in 2017 of more than 110,000 people found that going gluten free could raise the risk of heart disease. “Cereals and grains have important health benefits,” says Shajan P. Sugandha, a gastroenterologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Getting a Colon Cleanse
Fail: This involves putting large volumes of liquid into the rectum to detoxify the body, enhance immunity and fight disease. “It’s based off misinformation that things sit in your colon for years, which is ridiculous,” says John Pandolfino, chief of gastroenterology and hepatology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. Risks include cramping, pain, nausea, potentially fatal electrolyte imbalance, renal failure and gut perforations.
Fail: These nondigestible fiber compounds promise to decrease inflammation and lower your risk of disease. Save your money, says Stacy Sims, a senior research fellow at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. The supplements are expensive — about $20 a bottle. And, she says, “You may not need to promote the growth of the bacteria they’re promising to promote.” Instead, eat foods that are rich in prebiotics, such as garlic, onions, asparagus, bananas, dandelion greens and Jerusalem artichokes.
Fail: Stores sell bacteria-spiked foods like dark chocolate and muffin mixes, not to mention probiotic pills. Don’t buy in. “Though supplements have large numbers of bacteria, they’re often not diverse — and the gut biome is extremely diverse,” Sims says. You should consume naturally probiotic-rich, unpasteurized fermented foods and drinks like yogurt, sauerkraut and kombucha.
Fix: A review of 121 trials found that peppermint oil is effective at treating irritable bowel syndrome. “The menthol, its main constituent, has a very relaxing effect on the GI tract,” says Rosario Ligresti, M.D., director of the Pancreas Center at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.
Fix: Donor stool with healthy bacteria is inserted into a patient’s colon to alter the flora and treat ailments such as lupus and diabetes. “People have pooh-poohed this idea for years,” Ligresti says. “But we now know that, for certain conditions, it can change your life almost overnight.” In a study of 30 people (average age 67) with inflamed colons from C. difficile infections, 29 recovered through this therapy.
What trends can truly give you smoother skin?
Fad: This beauty trend involves poking tiny holes in your skin, using a device that looks like a lint roller covered in short needles. The procedure stimulates the production of collagen, the skin’s main structural protein, and purports to firm your face and give it a more youthful appearance. “This is a fad that actually works,” says Tina Alster, a clinical professor of dermatology at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington. The procedure has come to rival the use of lasers in dermatologists’ offices, but Alster, founding director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, says home devices can also be effective. Such dermal rollers commonly sell for about $25 and up. Makers claim the procedure is painless; reports can vary.
Fail: Collagen does work as an injectable to decrease wrinkles. However, you can rub it into the skin all day long, and there’s no science that says it’s going to do anything.
Hemorrhoid Cream for Puffy Eyes
Fail: A lot of people swear by dabbing Preparation H around the eyes to shrink swelling. And while it does work, you should save it for special occasions. Most hemorrhoid creams contain hydrocortisone, which can thin the skin with extended use.
Fail: Fillers, creams and facials containing placenta (and the stem cells inside) have become a skin rejuvenation craze, but don’t run so fast to buy them. There’s no scientific research confirming that fillers or creams containing placenta will affect your skin. And while stem cells can be miraculous in causing cells to grow, they may also present a risk that cancer cells will grow. “Stem cells can go rogue,” Alster says. “There has not been enough research to show the long-term safety of them.”
Fail: Drinking water won’t improve the look of your skin, unless you’re already dehydrated. “If you’re hydrated and you drink more water, you just go to the bathroom more,” Alster says. “For your skin’s sake, hydrate from the outside in, not from the inside out.” In other words: Moisturizing can be more beneficial to the skin than drinking extra water.
Fix: As we age, collagen and hyaluronic acid (HA) both diminish. Collagen injections are old news; the latest procedure is to inject HA into the wrinkle. Common brands are Juvéderm and Restylane. Not only does HA plump up the wrinkle, it is a surfactant, which attracts water to the area for further lifting. “Hyaluronic acid is what makes babies’ cheeks chubby, and by adding it to all the right places, we can restore contour,” says Patricia Farris, a dermatologist in New Orleans. Look for HA pills, too. A recent study showed that oral ingestion of HA for 12 weeks in people 59 and under suppressed wrinkles and improved skin luster.
Fix: A decade ago, dermatologists and plastic surgeons inserted permanent barbed sutures under the skin to create lift in sagging jawlines and other facial areas. But the sutures were prone to infection. “After a while, you could see some of the strings too, and people looked like marionettes,” Alster says. The sutures soon fell out of favor, but their new and improved cousin, InstaLift, is all the rage now. These coned sutures, which doctors slide under the skin using a local anesthetic, dissolve in about two years. While under your skin, they also stimulate collagen production so that, even after they dissolve, your face shouldn’t come crashing down.
Lasers for Liver Spots
Fix: People are increasingly using pigment-specific lasers — the kind usually used to remove tattoos — to treat liver spots. These lasers can be effective at blasting away a liver spot or two without a big recovery. If your liver spots are plentiful, more intensive ablative laser treatments are renowned for producing fast and excellent results, but recovery takes up to three weeks.
Which of these tips will actually bring you relief from pain?
Fad: Much of the world discovered cupping when swimmer Michael Phelps revealed large circular bruises on his back during the 2016 Olympics. This pain-relief fad has only grown since. Used in traditional Chinese medicine, hot glass cups are placed along sensitive trigger points on the body to create suction. “It increases blood flow and can reduce muscle tension, which causes an increased sense of overall well-being,” says Stacey Simons of Simons Physical Therapy in Tucson, Ariz. However, “many patients will say that they have had no relief with it at all.”
Fail: Some people who have found acupuncture helpful as a short-term treatment for reducing migraines are now getting their daith (the innermost cartilage fold of the outer ear) pierced, in the hopes that this will provide a more permanent end to their headache hell. While it may have a placebo effect, there is no research to indicate that this sometimes-painful piercing will affect the symptoms or frequency of chronic headaches.
Soft Neck Collar
Fail: If you’ve thought of purchasing a soft neck collar to wear during the day for neck pain, you should think again. While they do provide some support to the spine, the collars are best used at night. Extended daytime usage can actually weaken supporting muscles and structures in the neck, leaving you with less stability and ongoing neck problems.
Fix: Although it looks similar to acupuncture, dry needling has been around for only about a decade. Whereas acupuncture is designed to remove blockages and restore chi (healing energy), dry needling is used to reduce muscular pain and has shown short-term success. The theory goes that the needle, inserted into a trigger point, causes biochemical changes that help reduce pain and create twitch responses that help the muscle to relax.
Fix: It may feel silly, but getting down on the floor and rolling out those kinks in your back with a tennis ball or a long foam roller can make you feel better if you’re aching. Simons says these items release sensitive spots in the muscles or connective tissue, also known as trigger points. Do you have difficulty getting down on the floor? Put that tennis ball or foam roller between you and the wall and get rolling for up to five minutes.
What can help you obtain a better brain?
Fad: We’ve been hearing about the seeming magical powers of these essential fatty acids for a while now. But the science is complicated: Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly those called EPA and DHA, are essential for normal brain function. But dietary supplements aren’t a quick fix. “It takes two and a half years to build up an adequate supply of omega-3s in your brain cells. You may need to take them before symptoms of memory loss begin,” says Richard Isaacson, M.D., founder of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “And you can’t just go and buy a bottle of fish oil and call it good. For age-related memory loss, you need 900 milligrams daily of DHA.”
Nootropics or 'Smart Drugs'
Fail: The brain-health supplement market is poised to top $11.6 billion by 2024. One of the hottest categories is nootropics, or “smart drugs,” aimed at older adults. An example is Prevagen, a dietary supplement derived from a protein in jellyfish, often advertised on TV as a memory enhancer. The New York state attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued the manufacturers and charged the company with fraud. Experts say that supplements like these can have adverse side effects and bad reactions with prescription medicines.
Fail: What if you could zap your brain with an electrical current to improve your memory, learn to play piano or master a foreign language?
You can try commercial headset devices such as Halo and Foc.us — but don’t get your hopes up. A study published in Experimental Brain Research in 2016 found that people who got such treatments performed worse on cognitive tests than those getting fake treatments. And possible negative side effects include dizziness, as well as altered sight, hearing or taste.
Fix: To flavor your coffee, swirl in a tablespoon of pure dark cocoa powder. One study published in Nature Neuroscience found that taking high doses (900 mg) of cocoa flavonols daily for three months improved brain function. Sixty-year-olds then performed pattern recognition tests as well as people half their age.
Fix: We have new insight into why older adults in India have a lower prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease: The secret is in the (curry) sauce. Curcumin, the anti-inflammatory substance that gives curry its vibrant hue, improves brain health. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found memory and attention improvements in adults ages 51 to 84 who consumed 90 mg of curcumin twice daily for 18 months. PET scans showed healthier brains, too. “When you cook with it,” Isaacson says, “you can absorb it and have a lot of it over your lifetime — and it probably protects the brain.” Don’t want to eat curry every day? You can also try a highly absorbable supplement such as Theracurmin, which was taken by subjects in the UCLA study and, Isaacson says, is likely even more effective than curcumin.
What will give you a slim, fit physique?
Fad: Paleo advocates argue that evolution points us to a diet similar to that of caveman times — unprocessed meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds. From a short-term perspective, research has shown good results from the paleo diet. The catch? Excluding dairy, grains and beans means people may not get enough calcium, vitamin D and fiber, all important for older adults. For those reasons, the panel for U.S. News and World Report’s annual Best Diet survey gave the paleo diet low scores.
Cleanses and Detox Diets
Fail: The Master Cleanse — 10 days of consuming nothing but a lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne concoction plus a nightly laxative — was conceived as a detox process, but it and comparable plans have evolved into crash diets. Will you lose weight? Sure. But it would be temporary and highly risky. Remember: Between your liver, kidneys and other organs, your body is already well-designed to detoxify itself.
Fail: Remember the Atkins diet? Similar plans are again popular. Keto diets — with most calories from fats and some from protein — force your body to draw fuel from stored fat, rather than from blood sugar derived from carbs. Any diet that limits bread or sugar will help you lose weight. But a 2017 analysis concluded that maintaining weight loss “is a major problem,” and the benefits seen with keto diets are “usually limited in time.”
Weight-Loss Supplements and Teas
Fail: Alas, there is no magic pill. The National Institutes of Health says the science behind claims for supplements is “inconclusive and unconvincing.” This includes herbal teas that promote weight loss but accomplish it through diuretic water loss, not fat loss.
Fix: A permanent diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and healthy fats, with an occasional glass of red wine, is the healthy way to lose weight and keep it off. Even better: A new study found that older adults who follow this diet had higher mental function.
Fix: In a 2013 Mayo Clinic study, overweight adults on a yearlong incentive program that included a chance of winning a “bonus pool” lost nearly four times as much weight as people who had no financial carrot.
Sari Harrar was a 2017 National Magazine Award finalist and writes frequently on health for AARP; Mike Zimmerman is the author of more than 30 books, primarily in the field of health and wellness; Renée Bacher has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and many national magazines; Selene Yeager is a fitness columnist and health writer who has written or contributed to more than two dozen books.