Old wives tales that are actually true
Dr. Jennifer Thieman
Updated: August 20, 2012 6:04AM
In general, most anecdotal remedies, popularly known as “old wives tales,” don’t contain much truth, but because they have been passed down through the generations, they “feel” true, at least in the moment. For instance, although expectant mothers are naturally curious about the baby they cannot yet see, it’s impossible to determine if the baby will have much hair based on whether the mom has heartburn during pregnancy. You can also not decipher the gender based on how the mother carries the baby.
Similarly, legends built around the full moon, such as increased risk of seizures or poor outcomes during surgery, are just plain silly.
Occasionally, however, scientific studies will back up the claims, such as with the following old wives tales.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
Easting a balanced diet rich in antioxidants, and apples are rich in antioxidants, is good for overall health and may actually decrease the incident of colon and breast cancer.
Drinking warm milk at bedtime makes you drowsy.
Although milk does contain slight amounts of L-tryptophan, which may produce a calming effect, there probably is not enough of this amino acid in warm milk to give it the full soporific credit. More likely, drinking warm milk creates a comforting feeling, which helps you relax and fall asleep.
Long hot baths reduce sperm count
True; so does anything that raises testicular temperature, such as soaking in hot tubs, wearing tight pants, and placing laptops directly on lap.
People with head injuries should not sleep
Sleep and rest may be very healing for a patient following a head injury, but do periodically rouse the patient per your doctor’s instructions. Difficulty in waking or excessive drowsiness could indicate the injury is worsening.
Carrots are good for the eyes.
Eating carrots does not improve vision or prevent night blindness, but it can decrease the risk for age-related macular degeneration.
Lose a tooth for every pregnancy.
Pregnancy is definitely not the time to skimp on regular dental checkups. Increased hormone activity during pregnancy can soften gums and make them more prone to gingivitis, which, if left untreated, can certainly lead to tooth loss.
Cranberry juice prevents bladder infections.
Not just cranberry, but the juice of blackberries, too, contain elements to discourage bacteria from sticking to bladder walls.
Chicken soup is good for colds.
Anything that helps with congestion, such as a cup of hot tea and warm milk, will help you feel better. Chicken soup has the added benefit, if made with real chicken, homemade broth and vegetables, of adding some tangible nourishment, too.
Fish is brain food.
That is definitely true. Fish is high in omega 3 fatty acids and powerful antioxidants, which are very good for cognition as well as the prevention of many diseases. A recent study showed that, among people over age 65, those with high fish intake showed a lower rate of cognitive decline. Although you do obtain some omega 3 fatty acids from products such as flaxseed, it is not present in the same amount as it is in fish.
I can feel it in my bones.
There is some evidence that individuals suffering from osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis might feel increased joint pain when the barometric pressure drops.
So what is my approach when a patient approaches me with a home remedy for an illness? It depends on the disease and the treatment. If a person had an ailment that would be dangerous if not appropriately treated, then I would not recommend an old wives tale or home remedy. If, however, the condition is self-limiting, we could try to see if it helps. However, just because the home remedy was successful with that particular patient doesn’t prove that it was the cure.
For instance, there is some scientific evidence that tea tree oil can help fungal infections in the nails and that tonic water, which contains quinine, can ease muscle aches and cramps when drunk at bedtime. Conversely, there is only anecdotal evidence that Vicks Vapor Rub helps fungal infections and that placing a bar of sap underneath one’s mattress prevents bedtime leg cramps. Perhaps an element in Vicks Vapor Rub might inhibit the fungus growth, but the soap remedy is more likely due to a placebo effect; the afflicted person believes it will work, and so it does.
In general, most old wives tales are harmless, but usually don’t deliver what they promise. One caution: some home remedies, especially herbal preparations, might interact negatively with some prescription medications, so do not self-medicate until you have checked with your doctor.
Dr. Jennifer Thieman is a family practitioner who admits patients to Adventist Hinsdale Hospital and Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital.