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Old wives' tales' about health: Myth or fact?

Created date

August 20th, 2013
Bowl of chicken soup
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They’ve been handed down through generations—so-called “old wives’ tales” about health. Why have these pearls of wisdom persisted through the years despite the advances in modern medicine? Maybe because some have a little truth to them.

Chicken soup helps relieve the common cold

“Grandma was right about this one,” says Austin Welsh, M.D., medical director at Tallgrass Creek, an Erickson Living community in Overland Park, Kans. “Aside from anything scientific, we certainly know that the water in any hot soup can help loosen mucous, and the salt can soothe a sore throat if you have a respiratory infection.”

But there might be some other benefit that’s unique to chicken soup. “Birds have one of the strongest immune systems in the animal kingdom,” Welsh says. “B cells, which are a component of the human immune system, are also found in poultry. So it could be that some of that gets into your body and helps to fight the infection.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, chicken soup might also have an anti-inflammatory effect because of how it acts on neutrophils, which are immunity cells that play a part in inflammation associated with disease or injury.

Fish is brain food

This age-old wisdom has some truth to it. “Seafood is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to be very important for brain function,” Welsh says.

Research in recent years has demonstrated benefits of diets high in omega-3s for Alzheimer’s disease and even depression. They also play a part in heart disease prevention and symptom relief in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

“Most people don’t have enough omega-3 fatty acids in their body,” Welsh says. “Increasing your seafood intake helps. Fish oil supplements are another way to get these vital compounds into your system, but talk to your doctor first before using any over-the-counter supplements.”

If you go outside with wet hair, you’ll catch a cold

Today, most people know that colds are caused by viruses—not cold weather, wet hair, or chills. People catch more colds in the winter mainly because viruses spread easily indoors.

Nevertheless, there may be some evidence that the dry air associated with winter—indoors or out—may lower your resistance to infection. “The change in seasons might also affect how well your immune system functions,” Welsh says. “Regardless, I don’t recommend going outside with wet hair. And practicing good hand washing year-round is the best way to prevent colds or flu.”

Reading in dim light hurts your eyesight

Regarding this old wives tale, it’s a split decision. It is known that reading in insufficient light can cause eye fatigue and strain and lead to headaches. “Having good lighting is important to help you avoid these problems,” Welsh says. “If your eyes don’t feel good, you may not want to socialize or be active.”

In older adults, prolonged eye strain has not been shown to damage eye structures. There is some emerging evidence, however, that reading for prolonged periods may contribute to nearsightedness in children because their eyes are still developing, but dim light is not a major factor—genetic propensity to nearsightedness is the main cause.

Spicy foods cause ulcers

“Not that long ago, scientists discovered that most peptic ulcers are caused by the H. pylori bacterium,” Welsh says. “Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can also contribute to the development of this painful condition.”

Antibiotics can cure H. pylori infections, and you may be able to prevent being exposed to this bacteria by washing your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, eating food that has been properly cooked and washed, and drinking water from clean and safe sources.

The truthful side to this tale is that although stress and spicy food don’t play a role in ulcer development, they can exacerbate symptoms, as can smoking or drinking alcohol. “An ulcer is a raw tissue, so spicy food that touches it can cause pain,” Welsh explains. “There is some speculation, however, that the fat in food, not the spices, increases acid production and causes ulcer pain.”

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