Old Wives (Health) Tales – Fact or Fiction?

Old Wives (Health) Tales – Fact or Fiction?


15 February 2016


Is chicken soup really good for the soul, and the perfect remedy for colds? Does an apple a day really keep the doctor away? We’re fairly certain that these phrases ring a few bells in your head.

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These health ‘old wives tales’, originating from the wise advice of midwives and healers of olden times, have wiggled themselves into the embrace of motherly wisdoms today. As they are so frequently referred to and quoted, it has blurred the lines between pure superstition and factual merit. You might even strongly swear by a few of the tales mentioned below!

So are these ‘health’ tips total malarkey, or is there a smidgen of truth behind them? We look into some of the most popular tales and whether they are fact or fiction.

1. An Apple A Day Keeps The Doctor Away

Let’s start off with a classic – does an apple day really keep the doctor away?

Apples are a good source of Vitamin C and fibre, and contain both soluble and insoluble pectins, which help lower cholesterol. Don’t forgo the skin; it’s where most of an apple’s goodness resides; such as quercetin (improved lung function) and ursolic acid (lowering obesity risk). The skin also has pectin.

However, the goodness in an apple alone is insufficient to keep your body running in tip-top shape 24/7. A recent study from the US concluded that unfortunately, an apple a day may not keep the doctor away, although a small fraction of adults do appear to use fewer prescription medications upon having their daily dose of the fruit.

Regardless, an apple is a great, easy snack and is bursting with nutrients, so bite into one!

Final Verdict: True (to a certain extent!)

2. Chicken Soup Works Wonders For Colds

Having a case of the sniffles? Warming your soul with a bowl of steaming-hot chicken broth isn’t just an old wives tale – there’s a lot of science behind it that proves its worth as an age-old and favourite household remedy to curing the common cold.

Dr. Stephen Rennard of the University of Nebraska Medical Center discovered that chicken soup is able to inhibit neutrophil chemotaxis, thus meaning that it has anti-inflammatory properties that could help relieve the symptoms associated with upper respiratory infections. It is also proven to be able to slow down the activity of white blood cells that are associated with the infection. Chicken also contains the amino acid cysteine, which is said to be similar to acetylcysteine, a drug prescribed to patients with bronchitis and respiratory infections.

Apart from all the science-cy stuff on chicken soup, it’s also yummy and a favourite of many; all the more reason to ask for seconds!

Final Verdict: True

3. Cracking Knuckles = Arthritis?

Some people can’t stand the aggravatingly loud and annoying snaps and pops of cracking knuckles, but can the habit exacerbate arthritis? Good news for those who can’t stop the snap - it does not!

Comparisons between people who were chronic knuckle-crackers and those who did not have the habit showed that there was no incidence of oestroarthritis between the two groups. But, be aware that although it doesn’t increase the risk of arthritis, knuckle-cracking is associated with soft-tissue injuries like the dislocation of tendons and damage to ligaments that surround the joints. It’s best to break the habit as soon as possible.

Final Verdict: False

4. A Spoonful of Sugar Helps Keep The Hiccups At Bay

The ancient Greeks thought that hiccups were violent emotions erupting from the body. Although we technically might not have a cure for that, a bevy of cures for the wild hiccups have surely surfaced along the centuries. From holding your breath to drinking gallons upon gallons of water, many swear by their own favourite cure for the hiccups, but eating a spoonful of sugar may be the most effective one by far, according to science.

The oldest recorded evidence of this was back in 1971, when Dr. Edgar Engelman found that a spoonful of sugar immediately cured the hiccups in 19 out of 20 patients, some of them who were suffering from the hiccups for weeks! It is believed that it overstimulates the vagus nerve (which connects the brain to the abdomen), thus distracting it from the task it was focused on before (causing you to hiccup uncontrollably). A sweet solution!

Final Verdict: True

5. Sperm Can Survive Hot-Tub Temperatures

If you’re a fan of the TV Series, Glee, you probably heard of this one. In the show, cheerleader Quinn convinces her boyfriend, Finn, that he got her pregnant through some hot-tub hanky-panky, specifically through premature ejaculation. "A hot tub is the perfect temperature for sperm," she says. "It helps them swim faster."

Although technically you can still get pregnant from unprotected sex in a hot-tub, the chances of getting impregnated by an errant swimming sperm is highly unlikely. If you’re trying to conceive though, it’s best to steer clear from the hot-tubs. A University of California study in 2007 revealed that men who were frequently exposed to hot water temperatures (around 30 minutes a week) through hot tubs or hot baths, showed signs of infertility, including impaired sperm production and motility. Sperm production can be increased, if they are willing to give up the hot water baths.

Final Verdict: False

6. Cheese Dreams

Ebenezer Scrooge, from ‘A Christmas Carol’ blamed cheese for his ghostly encounters. The idea of ‘Cheese Dreams’, that eating cheese before bedtime will give you peculiar dreams, if not wild nightmares, has been a point of speculation for some time. But, some evidence point to it as being true!

A survey conducted by the British Cheese Board discovered that 200 volunteers who ate a variety of cheeses before bedtime reported having different types of dreams. Those who ate Stilton had bizarre dreams; Red Leicester opened their minds to the past while Lancashire to the future. And if you want Channing Tatum in your dreams tonight, put cheddar cheese on the pre-bedtime snack agenda.

However, due to several fundamental flaws in the study, cheese dreams are still open for debate. The good news is however, cheese has tryptophan, which the body uses to produce serotonin for sound sleep. Say cheese!

Final Verdict: We’re on the fence with this one.

Carrots Can Improve Eyesight

We all probably learnt in Science class that carrots are good for our vision, especially when it comes to seeing in the dark. But do they really give you laser-sharp 20/20 eyesight?

Carrots are good for the eyes because they are chock-full of beta-carotene, which is a precursor for vitamin A. It is able to maintain eye health and slow down macular degeneration, one of the primary causes of blindness. As for night vision, historical evidence states that the British Air Force was able to gun down German aircraft during World War II due to their consumption of the carrot.

But binging on carrots will not drastically improve your eyesight, as the body will stop converting beta-carotene to vitamin A once it has enough. Also, carrots are only good for eye problems associated with vitamin A deficiencies – vision issues caused by genetics, diabetes or ageing cannot be easily fixed with munching on carrots.

Final Verdict: True