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8 Old Wives’ Remedies, Revisited

8 Old Wives’ Remedies, Revisited


  • ‘‘Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.”
    Coined in the 1860s, Pembrokeshire in Wales

  • 1. Take Your Medicine, Billy!: It wasn’t that long ago mothers were forcing their children to take cod liver oil, which seemed more like punishment. Then, scientists confirmed what many patients with arthritis believed: cod liver oil is effective in managing joint pain. Its omega-3 fatty acids switch off the aggrecan- and collagen-degrading enzymes that break down joint cartilage, slow the cartilage destruction that occurs in arthritis, reduce inflammation, and lessen pain.

  • 2. Eh, What’s Up, Doc?: Mothers also urged children to eat their carrots, because, without much scientific evidence, they claimed carrots “are good for your eyes.” Well, they are. A recent study concluded that higher intake of bioavailable lutein/zeaxanthin is linked with a reduced risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration and that a public health strategy of increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables rich in carotenoids may reduce its incidence.

  • 3. Starve a Fever, Feed a Cold: Long regarded as a remedy for symptomatic upper respiratory tract infections, chicken soup probably won’t prevent a cold but it may contain substances that have some medicinal activity. A mild anti-inflammatory effect may be a mechanism by which the soup could mitigate these infections. Chicken soup also can speed up the movement of mucus through the nose to relieve congestion.

  • 4. An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away: The original phrase was said to be, ‘‘Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” Research shows that apples and apple juice contain a variety of phytonutrients. Apples are high in flavonoids, particularly quercetin, which has high antioxidant activity. Thus, making apples a regular part of the diet may translate into real health benefits.

  • 5. Weight Loss as Simple as H2O: Folklore has long had it that water can promote weight loss, but scientific evidence has been lacking. Then a randomized, controlled clinical trial compared weight loss among dieters who drink water before meals with those who do not. Over the course of 12 weeks, water drinkers lost about 15.5 lb; non–water drinkers lost about 11 lb. Water may be effective because it fills up the stomach with a substance that has no calories.

  • 6. Honey Does More Than Attract Flies: Drinking tea with honey is a time-honored way to soothe a sore throat, but can honey fight a cough? Honey contains natural anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial substances. In a comparison of honey, honey-flavored dextromethorphan, and no treatment, parents rated honey highest for symptomatic relief of their child’s nocturnal cough and sleep difficulty resulting from upper respiratory tract infection.

  • 7. Inject a Cough to Reduce Pain: Doctors have tried numerous tactics to distract patients from the pain of an injection. One that works is urging the patient to cough vigorously as the needle comes into contact with the skin. The cough may provide distraction and momentarily increase blood pressure. Authors noted that hypertension has been established as being able to reduce pain perception.

  • 8. A Hiccup in the Science: Of the many old wives’ remedies put forth for stopping hiccups, eating sugar may be the most popular. But the evidence on treating common, nonpersistent hiccups is extremely limited—mostly case studies, anecdotes, and small studies. In a 1971 New England Journal of Medicine study, eating a spoonful of granulated sugar was found to be effective in 19 of 20 patients. The search for a definitive cure goes on.

To relieve chest congestion, remove the fat from a skunk and eat 2 or 3 spoonfuls to bring up the phlegm. For athlete’s foot, step in warm cow dung. For a headache, save hair clippings after a haircut and bury them under a rock. For a sick child, take some blood from the child’s arm, put it on a grain of corn, and feed it to a black hen.

These folk remedies, however appealing, all have one thing in common: They clearly don’t work. We found 8 others that do, with science to back them up. Click through them, above.

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