Everyone has heard old-fashioned health cures, or superstitions, that have been passed down through generations. Often known as old wives’ tales or folk remedies, these are the health adages you may have grown up hearing. They’re statements like, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” But is there any merit to these sayings or are they better left in the past?
6 common superstitions about your health
Here, learn more about the most common old wives’ tales to find out what’s fact and what’s fiction.
1. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
This old wives’ tale favorite is one of the earliest ones many of us heard. Unfortunately, a 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that there was no significant difference in doctor’s visits between people who ate an apple a day and those who didn’t.
But it’s not all bad news—daily apple eaters did appear to use fewer prescription medications. And of course, apples are packed with fiber, vitamins, and are a good snack choice for most people, including those on a low-cholesterol diet.
2. Feed a cold, starve a fever.
Should you be focused on food when you’re sick? This folk remedy rings mostly true. Eating when you have a fever can raise body temperature further and can make you feel worse, especially if there is nausea or vomiting involved, says Julie Miller Jones, Ph.D., emeritus professor of nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., and a member of the Grain Foods Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board. To lower a fever or keep it from rising, it’s best to stick to chicken broth, fluids, and foods that are easy to digest, like scrambled eggs, toast, pasta, or applesauce.
Soups and broths when you have a cold are a good idea, she said, because they’re hydrating and often use veggies in their preparation. The protein and other nutrients in easily digestible foods benefit the immune system and can help fight a cold. “For both cold and flu, lots of water, tea, juices, and broths are critical to prevent dehydration and to help flush out the virus,” Miller says.
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3. Ginger ale helps an upset stomach.
The folk medicine favorite of reaching for a ginger drink when your stomach is unsettled is a good idea. “Ginger in any form can help with nausea and an upset stomach,” says Miller. Although ginger ale contains minimal amounts of ginger, it does provide fluid that’s often needed. A better choice is non-alcoholic ginger beer because it’s usually packed with much more ginger than ginger ale. Adding freshly grated, shaved, or candied ginger to a mug and topping it with boiling water for a ginger tea is also helpful.
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4. Increasing vitamin C helps get rid of a cold more quickly.
Do you start gobbling down vitamin C when you feel a cold coming on? It turns out that regularly eating foods with vitamin C, like broccoli, strawberries, and citrus fruits, or supplementing can reduce both the duration and severity of colds in adults and children, says Miller.
However, “studies show inconsistent results when vitamin C is therapeutically consumed, or after a cold has begun, when it comes to reducing duration, symptoms, or severity,” she explains. It’s unlikely that the extra onslaught of vitamins helps your body fight the cold any faster. Your best defense is to make sure you’re regularly getting the recommended amount of vitamin C in your diet.
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5. Flu shots give you the flu.
This is a more recent old wives’ tale that now circulates annually, but it was a categoric no from both Miller and Rachel Trippett, MD, a family physician with the U.S. Public Health Service Indian Hospital in New Mexico.
Flu vaccines cannot give you the flu. Instead, “flu vaccines promote your immune system to produce antibodies to provide protection against infection caused by the viruses used to formulate the vaccine,” Miller says. Flu vaccines given with a needle are made with inactivated viruses or only a single protein of the virus. Nasal spray vaccines do contain live viruses, but these have been weakened enough that they will not cause illness.
“Patients vaccinated against the flu have been documented to have reduced severity of illness deaths, likelihood of intensive care unit (ICU) admission, ICU length of stay, and overall duration of hospitalization,” explains Miller. “It’s one of the best tools we have for protecting people against the flu,” says Dr. Trippett.
6. Eating chocolate gives you acne.
Your teenage self may still be wondering about this, but the answer isn’t so clear-cut. Some studies have found that chocolate is one of the foods associated with acne in adolescents and young adults and one found that eating dark chocolate exacerbated existing acne in males, but “association doesn’t mean causation,” says Miller.
Instead, it could be that a diet rich in chocolate may be lacking other important food groups. “The question to be asked is ‘what dietary changes are needed overall?’” explains Miller. One that focuses on protein, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole and enriched grain staples, with limits on sweets and processed foods, is probably more helpful than the obsession with chocolate on its own.
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