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The Truth About Old Wives’ Tales

We asked readers if they had old wives’ tales that they wanted our Research Department to investigate. Here is a selection of the tales you sent in, along with the results of the work done by our researcher, Craig Segal.

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A lot of us depend on old wives’ tales to help when we’re sick, but what if the sayings are wrong?

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1. Eyes

Q: Is it true that you can hurt your eyes while sitting too close to the television or computer?

A: There is nothing about a TV or a computer screen that is bad for your eyes in and of themselves. But some optometrists warn us to prevent eye fatigue and red eyes by taking breaks from looking at the screen, making sure we have enough light in the room, and, yes, sitting at least five feet from the screen.  

But if someone you know is sitting close to the TV, ask him or her why. They may be nearsighted and not know it. If they find they need glasses, they should get them-and wear them. Their eyes won’t get better on their own, even if they eat carrots. And, if they own a car, drivers will be thankful!

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2. Pregnancy

Q: In a pregnant woman, does one of the sexes “show higher?”

A: There is no conclusive evidence that either sex shows higher in the womb, but some women swear by it-along with many other unproven methods. But if you don’t know your baby’s gender-and you’re looking for a little fun-why not try out some other tricks? Try suspending your wedding ring over your palm by a thread. If the ring swings in a circle, it’s a girl. If it swings straight, it’s a boy.   There are other interesting wives’ tales, including a theory based on Chinese astrology that not only allows you to know the sex of your child, but to plan it according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar. And a recent study asked 104 pregnant women, who had not checked their babies’ genders through prenatal testing, to guess their babies’ genders. Those who based their guesses on feelings or dreams were 71% correct! Another study suggested women who get severe morning sickness in their first trimester are more likely to have a girl. Though, a doctor behind the study warned that trying to guess gender from morning sickness is about as accurate as a ring, er, coin toss!

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3. Onions

Q: Is it true that eating fried onions will sooth a sore throat?

A: Human kind has come a long long way in the brief time we have spent on this watery planet. We fly through the air, implant machines into our bodies, and live more than a century. But we still haven’t figured out a cure for the common cold. While there is no proof that foods like onions will make you well, people swear by many methods-from chewing garlic, to drinking mysterious elixirs.  

But don’t let that stop you from trying. Good nutrition is a key step to staying healthy, and onions certainly are good for you. The great thing about Old Wives’ Tales cold remedies is many of them are harmless. Why not try some out? If you like the taste of garlic, but don’t eat it because you don’t like what it does to your breath, try it out when you’re sick, and home in bed. Other favourites you might want to test on that scratchy throat before reaching for pills include Echinacea, vitamin C, ginger tea, zinc lozenges, honey, ginseng, gargling salt water, spicy foods, and chicken soup, otherwise known as “Jewish penicillin.” 

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4. Weather

Q: “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” Is this true?

A: Unlike many sayings, the Red Sky prophecy appears to have some basis in reality, although explanations vary. Here’s one, for what it’s worth: In mid-latitude locations storm systems typically move west to east. A red sunrise means light is shining on clouds to the west, and sailing is clear to the east. Clouds moving from the west mean a storm is coming. But a red sky at night means the sun is shining on clouds to the east, and conditions are clear to the west. Other folklore says birds fly higher in fair weather; the higher the clouds, the better the weather; sun or moon halos indicate a coming rain (or snow); birds will stop singing just before it begins to rain; frogs will stop croaking and pine cones, dandelions and ant hills will close up just before it rains. The ancients also devised weather predictions based on astronomy and volcanic activity.

Luckily sailors don’t have to rely on rhyming sayings. With today’s hi-tech gadgetry, they can get weather predictions off their radio, satellite telephone, television, email, and fax. But there is no such thing as a perfect weather prediction. Even the best meteorologist makes mistakes!

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5. Colds

Q: What about the old saying “Starve a fever, feed a cold”?

A: This popular saying-which some people remember backwards as “feed a fever, starve a cold”-is wrong on both accounts. It may be based on the mistaken belief that food acts like kindling to your temperature: if you have caught a chill, you need to fan the flames, but if you have a fever, you need to remove the fuel to lower the blaze. Pay this Old Wives’ Tale no heed. When your body is fighting infection, it needs plenty of nutrients, fluids, and rest. If you don’t eat, your body will not have the energy it needs to fight. As annoying as a fever is, it is not harmful in and of itself. It just means your body is fighting back. The best thing you can do against illness is try and prevent it. Eat well, get plenty of rest and exercise, and wash your hands frequently during cold season.

Q: Is it possible to sweat out a cold?

A: You can’t starve a cold to death. Neither can you drown it, blast it with pills, or sweat it out. A cold can take one or two weeks to run its course, and the only way to get rid of it is to take care of yourself. But sweating isn’t harmful when you’re sick, as long as you replenish your body with fluids, change your clothes, and avoid sweating in the cold. You also can’t excercise out a cold. Your body needs to conserve energy to fight it. Exercising is a good way to keep your immune system strong when you’re well, but skip your workout if you’re feeling run down. Exercise can be a stress on a body that is trying to fight an illness.

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6. Taste Buds

Q: When my mom was pregnant with my youngest sister my mom could not eat or stand the smell of eggs. To this day my sister will not eat eggs. So my question is: Does the unborn baby somehow register these aversions after they are born? All the Old Wives’ Tales I have heard say yes to these puzzles. Is there any science to support this phenomenon or is it just doo doo?

A: We all have friends that are picky eaters. You know, the ones who think ordering food at a restaurant is a conversation, and want all their seasoning “on the side.” Well, new research indicates that they could be “supertasters.” A Yale University study found that taste is genetically determined. The study classifies people according to their ability to taste a bitter compound called PROP. Your sister is a non-taster, medium taster, or supertaster. Non-tasters simply don’t taste PROP. Medium tasters find it bitter, but don’t mind. And supertasters taste PROP and hate it! The study blames not the supertaster’s parents or finicky personality, but the number of taste buds in their mouths. Supertasters have the most.

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7. Teeth

Q: As a Dental Hygienist, I have had MANY women tell me (including my own mother) that when they were pregnant “my teeth were soft as the baby took all the calcium from my teeth.” This comment has come from women of all different ages and classes. Any chance you could help clear this up?

A: Like the old saying, “You lose a tooth for every child,” this is untrue. However, it is possible that these women’s gums have swelled, making them feel soft and spongy. So it is important that pregnant women takes extra-special care of their teeth-including regular dental visits-to avoid tooth decay and possible bleeding. Babies do get their calcium from their mothers. So pregnant women should be concerned about getting enough calcium in their diets.  

Studies have shown that many pregnant women are low on calcium. Some try to make up for it with prenatal formulas. But that may not be enough. Daily prenatal formulas have as little as 200-300 mg of calcium-far below the roughly 1,200mg a woman and her baby need. Pregnant women who feel they could be low on calcium, and don’t like dairy, need not worry. Calcium is found in plenty of other foods, like leafy greens, nuts and seeds, spinach, turnips, and broccoli, as well as salmon and sardines. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist to learn more.