Old Wives' Tales: True or False?

old wives tales

Story at-a-glance -

  • “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is just one example of the many old wives’ tales that may influence your health
  • Given their popularity and the reality that some of them are pure myth, I recommend you always take time to check out the facts behind these timeless tales, especially the health-related ones
  • Separating medical fact from fiction is just one more way you can take control of your health
  • Regardless of what the old wives say, when it comes to taking care of your body, there is no substitute for eating well, exercising regularly and getting plenty of high-quality sleep; start today

By Dr. Mercola

Given their unflagging popularity, you have very likely heard of or applied a few old wives' tales to matters of health, perhaps without checking to see if the advice was true or false. Based on two articles published in Reader's Digest,1,2 I am highlighting eight tales that dispense some type of medical advice. Separating fact from fiction with respect to these timeless tales is just one more way you can take control of your health.

No. 1: An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Somewhat true. Although you'll want to keep a close eye on your total daily fructose intake, and most certainly avoid an all-fruit diet, eating whole fruit like apples can be beneficial to your health. While there is no guarantee eating an apple a day will eliminate your need to see a doctor occasionally, a study published in the journal Nature suggests apples are good for you for the following reasons: 3,4,5

  • Great source of antioxidants: Researchers from Cornell's Food Science and Toxicology Department in Ithaca, New York, found the antioxidant properties of 100 grams (g) of fresh apple to be equal to 1,500 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C
  • High in fiber: One medium apple boasts about 4.4 g of fiber; fiber-rich diets promote good digestion and help you maintain a healthy weight
  • Natural cancer fighter: When treating cancer cells with 50 mg of apple skin extracts, the Cornell scientists noted a 43 percent decrease in the growth of colon cancer cells and a 57 percent reduction in liver cancer cell growth

The Cornell researchers suggest the bulk of an apple's antioxidant and anticancer properties result from the phytochemicals, such as flavanoids and polyphenols, mainly found in its skin. Toward that end, you'll want to eat the skin, which makes choosing organic apples important; apples are one of the most pesticide-contaminated fruits.

While the results of the Cornell study appear to be sound, it's important to note the research was funded, in part, by the New York State Apple Research Development Program and the New York Apple Association, groups with a clear interest to promote any alleged health benefits of apples.

Underscoring the nutritional value of apples, while making a strong distinction between the value of whole apples and apple juice, registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the department of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said:6

"There is good data to show the soluble fiber in apples can help prevent cholesterol from building up on artery walls. Apples contain a good amount of potassium, which can be beneficial for those who are watching their blood pressure. I strongly suggest you eat the whole apple. Juice does not have the fiber a whole apple does, and a good part of the beneficial nutrients are in the skin. Apple juice is not equal to a real apple."

No. 2: Chicken Soup Will Cure Your Cold

Somewhat true. Since there is no cure for the common cold and the biological basis for chicken soup's effects has never been fully realized, some believe its benefits are primarily psychosomatic. Colds, because they involve a virus, must run their course, and they do so based on the health of your immune system. That said, while chicken soup may not cure your cold, it can help soothe some of the unpleasant side effects.

In a study published in the journal Chest,7 a team of researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, discovered both homemade and canned chicken soup possess anti-inflammatory properties that may help reduce cold-related side effects like congestion. About the outcomes, they said:

"The present study … suggests chicken soup may contain a number of substances with beneficial medicinal activity. A mild anti-inflammatory effect could be one mechanism by which the soup could result in the mitigation of symptomatic upper respiratory tract infections."

In lieu of canned varieties, try one of my favorite recipes for homemade bone broth — a soup that will nourish you from the inside out. The next time you prepare a pot of this delicious chicken soup, make a larger batch and freeze the leftovers. In doing so, you will always have some on hand when it's needed, especially during cold and flu season.

No. 3: Chocolate Helps Relieve Premenstrual Cramps

False. While some suggest women gravitate toward chocolate before and during their menstrual cycle due to either a calcium or magnesium deficiency, there is little scientific basis for those claims. After all, plenty of other foods — such as green leafy vegetables — are high in these nutrients and cause few, if any, menstrual-related cravings. A more likely explanation for this well-known wives' tale is the reality many women eat chocolate as a comfort food and sometimes as a source of energy or a mood booster.

Unless you're a fan of the dark variety with a hefty cacao percentage, most of the chocolate you're used to eating gets its sweet taste chiefly from sugar and pasteurized milk. As you probably know, too much sugar in your system can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Pasteurization destroys most of the nutrients in milk and it may even contain toxins from cows raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Also, processed chocolate has very little healthy cacao content.

The reason dark chocolate is superior to other forms of chocolate lies in the cacao percentage. Dark chocolate contains a high percentage of cacao, which boasts nearly 400 varieties of polyphenols — micronutrients with health-boosting antioxidant activity. Polyphenols are the reason dark chocolate has a bitter flavor. The higher the polyphenol content, the more bitter the taste.

Instead of reaching for chocolate or over-the-counter pain medications, if you are consistently plagued by painful periods you may want to try an herbal remedy. Plants and herbs have been used for millennia to treat the bloating, cramps, pain and other symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). For more information, check out my article "15 Plants to Pacify PMS."

No. 4: Cod Liver Oil Is Good for You

False. Prior to 2008, I recommended cod liver oil as a dietary supplement to support healthy vitamin A and D levels, as well as essential omega-3 fats. Based on subsequent research, however, I now caution against the use of cod liver oil, mainly because modern cod liver oil does not supply these vitamins in healthy ratios.

Many people living in developed countries are potentially undermining the health benefits they could receive from vitamin D because they are consuming excessive amounts of vitamin A in the form of multivitamins or cod liver oil. While vitamin A is essential for your immune system and a precursor to active hormones known to regulate the expression of your genes, similar to vitamin D, the two work in tandem.

Without vitamin D, vitamin A can be ineffective or even toxic. Likewise, if you're deficient in vitamin A, vitamin D cannot function properly either. Too much or too little of either may create negative consequences. While the optimal ratio for these two vitamins has not yet been determined, in my opinion nearly all cod liver oil products supply these nutrients at less-than-ideal levels.

Keep in mind you're likely getting sufficient vitamin A if you regularly consume foods high in this nutrient, such as cantaloupe, carrots, sweet potatoes and other colorful fruits and vegetables. Butter, especially when obtained from grass fed cows, is another excellent source of vitamin A.

You were designed to obtain vitamin D mainly from sensible sun exposure. If getting outdoors on a regular basis is not possible for you, take a high-quality vitamin D3 supplement and make sure to have your blood levels tested semiannually. Remember, the target range for vitamin D is 60 to 80 nanograms/milliliter. In addition, if you're considering cod liver oil for the animal-based omega-3s, there are better, less perishable, sources, namely krill oil.

No. 5: Don't Eat Spicy Food if You Are Prone to Ulcers

False. Although doctors used to recommend you avoid spicy foods if you had an ulcer, there is no research to support this old wives' tale. If you've got stomach issues, rather than avoid spicy foods you actually may find hot chilies to be protective. Not only have chili peppers been shown to reduce your risk of stomach bleeding when taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin but eating them daily may also significantly reduce your risk of peptic ulcers. So, if you enjoy hot peppers, feel free to indulge.

With respect to patients unnecessarily avoiding hot peppers and other spicy foods as a means of addressing stomach issues, Toronto gastroenterologist Dr. Khursheed Jeejeebhoy says, "Whenever people have stomach problems, they'll say, 'I'll completely avoid spicy foods in order to heal my stomach.' There is no evidence they have to do that. Spices in moderation are to be enjoyed, and there is no evidence spicy food is bad for you."8

The burning sensation you feel from hot food is the capsaicin — the ingredient that fuels their spicy flavor — stimulating your nerve endings. "It's a bad feeling, but there's no evidence it produces a cut or causes an ulceration or injury of any sort in the gastrointestinal tract," states Jeejeebhoy.9 Over time, as you naturally build up a tolerance, the burning sensation diminishes. So, go ahead and enjoy spicy foods even if you've been diagnosed with a stomach ulcer.

No. 6: Eat a Tomato to Help Prevent Sunburn

True. Although you still need to approach sun exposure sensibly, there is truth to this old wives' tale about tomatoes and sunburn, albeit somewhat indirect. The lycopene — a carotenoid pigment and phytochemical — found in tomatoes is a well-known antioxidant that helps protect your cells from pollution, premature aging and sun damage.

In one study,10 participants were asked to consume 16 mg of lycopene from tomato paste with olive oil daily for 10 weeks. By the end of the experiment, they concluded the tomato paste/lycopene method was able to reduce ultraviolet-induced sunburn by about 40 percent. Keep in mind it takes time to develop this type of skin protection.

Experts at Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan said, "Oral protection from sunburn is not instantaneous; maximum effects are not reached until these antioxidants have been used for about eight to 10 weeks."11

While eating fresh tomatoes provides some health benefits, your health and skin will receive the biggest boost from ingesting lycopene through cooked tomatoes. That's the case because research has shown cooking tomatoes dramatically increases the bioavailability of lycopene.12 Astaxanthin, another potent antioxidant, can also be used both internally and topically to protect your skin from the sun. Other helpful antioxidants to help you build an internal sunscreen include proanthocyanidins and resveratrol.

No. 7: Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever

Somewhat true. According to Scientific American,13 this old wives' tale dates back to the later 1500s, having been cited in a dictionary that noted "fasting is a great remedy of fever." Since then, the common thinking has been:

  • Eating food may help your body generate warmth when you have a cold
  • Avoiding food may help your body cool down when you have a fever

Modern science, however, supports the notion to feed both colds and fever. With respect to colds, while you may not feel particularly hungry, your body requires energy to fight illness. The best strategy is to eat when you feel hungry and to focus on healthy, whole foods in moderate amounts. This means avoiding processed, sugary foods that will only serve to further tax your body and your immunity. Also get plenty of sleep. For more tips, check out my article "Natural Cold Remedies: What Works, What Doesn't."

With respect to fever, it's important to remember fever is part of your immune system's response to fight illness. Fever raises your body temperature, which in turn increases your metabolism and calorie burn. In fact, your body's energy demands increase with each degree of temperature rise, so you'll need to continue eating to satisfy those energy needs. Again, get plenty of sleep and stick to healthy foods, taking care to avoid excessive caffeine, junk food and sweets.

Beyond eating, drinking is vitally important when you have a fever, mainly because fevers cause sweating, which can lead to dehydration. You need to continually replenish fluids to help your body not only fight infection but also keep mucus from hardening and clogging your sinuses and respiratory passages. In the video above, I share a quick way to reduce the duration of colds and flu using hydrogen peroxide. Also, when colds and flu come around, as mentioned, remember to pull your chicken soup out of the freezer.

No. 8: Fish Is Brain Food

True. I'll close by addressing the old wives' tale about the effect fish consumption has on your brain. The reason some people call fish "brain food" is because fish is high in essential fatty acids. The most important one is omega-3 and it has been shown to have a positive effect on your brain (and heart). It may surprise you to know that 60 percent of your brain is made up of fat. On its own, docosahexanoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fat, makes up about 15 percent to 20 percent of your brain's cerebral cortex.

DHA is also found in high levels in your neurons — the cells of your central nervous system — where it provides structural support. When administered at high doses, omega-3s have been shown to be useful in addressing traumatic brain injury. Your best options for omega-3 oils are animal-based sources such as small fatty fish like anchovies or sardines or a krill oil supplement. Avoid farmed fish, fish oil due to its unstable nature and large fish like tuna that are contaminated with mercury and other neurotoxins.

Regardless of what the old wives say, when it comes to taking care of your body and your health, there is no substitute for eating well, exercising regularly and getting plenty of high-quality sleep. If you have let yourself go in one or more of these vital areas, take action today to get back on track. You won't regret it. After all, abiding by timeless medical truths will always benefit you more than old wives' tales.