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Medical fact or old wives' tale? The truth about common health sayings

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 14/05/2018 Tomé Morrissy-Swan

a carrot and a knife on a cutting board: Carrots. © The Telegraph Carrots. Wisdom has always passed down through generations. Before the invention of the printing press, stories would be relayed orally – a process that left the original nugget of truth vulnerable to distortion, like a very long-winded game of Chinese whispers. 

This is most likely how old wives' tales came about. Older women – wives is thought to come from the Old English word for woman, wif, rather than wife – would offer snippets of domestic advice to their children. Unfortunately, most would have little scientific backing, which is why the term now connotes a traditional belief that is ultimately incorrect.

In the health sphere, these sayings are numerous. Most of our body heat is not lost through the head, for example, and cracking knuckles doesn't cause arthritis – but there's a fair chance you were told otherwise as a child. 

On Wednesday, reports suggested a more modern health myth has been busted. Cranberry juice has long been thought to help prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs). The idea behind this was that cranberries make our urine more acidic, creating an environment in which bacteria struggles to live. A study in 2010 did find people who used cranberry products 38pc less likely to develop UTIs, but now the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says the evidence isn't strong enough to support the claim. 

a bowl of fruit: Cranberries. © The Telegraph Cranberries. Current guidelines on how to steer away from UTIs include drinking lots of water, taking painkillers and seeking advice from a GP, where antibiotics may be prescribed. Though cranberry juice won't do any harm, it's also unlikely to remove the infection. 

Below we look into some other sayings and ask: is it an old wives' tale, or is there science behind the statement? 

1. The cold gives you a cold

a man holding a cup of coffee: The cold gives you a cold? © The Telegraph The cold gives you a cold? It's a common one, this. Your parents most likely told you that going out in cold weather in insufficient clothing would give you a cold – but were they right?

Not according to the experts. Those living in the Arctic are no more likely to catch a chill than folks in a hot country. In fact, cold weather may stimulate the immune system, according to a study by the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.  The saying most likely stems from a time when we couldn't treat fevers, so myths were established to explain the causes of a cold. 

There are, however, correlations between cold weather and colds. You can catch hypothermia if your body's core temperature gets too low, which will lower your immunity and leads to colds. So the cold can indirectly lead to a cold, but doesn't cause it. 

Verdict: Old wives' tale

2. Most of your body heat is lost through your head

In the old days, before central heating, people would wear hats to sleep, as their heads were the only body part not under the covers.

But in 2008 the theory that most of our body heat is lost through the head was debunked. What is true is that the face, head and chest feels temperature changes more acutely than elsewhere in the body; if we cover them up, we don't feel so cold. In truth, heat loss from the head is now thought to be fairly proportional to the rest of the body. 

Verdict: Old wives' tale

3. Sitting too close to the TV is bad for your eyes

In 1967, General Electric warned customers that some of their TVs were emitting harmful X-rays and told children to keep a safe distance, resulting in the common belief that sitting close to the box would ruin your eyes. 

However, subsequent TVs were built with few rays, and today, LCD and plasma screens contain no x-rays. You can still strain your eyes if staring at a screen for too long – although the same could be said of anything that requires focusing on something up close, such as reading a book.

Verdict: Old wives' tale

4. Carrots are good for your eyes

The claim is said to have its origins in WWII, when a propaganda campaign popularised the myth. There may be some truth to this one. Carrots are a rich source of beta-carotene, which is converted by the body in retinal, a type of Vitamin A that helps maintain good vision. 

Carrots © The Telegraph Carrots Before you reach for the carrots, however, it's worth noting that unless you are Vitamin A deficient, eating beta-carotene won't actually help you see better. This is because when your body has enough beta-carotene, it will stop converting it into Vitamin A. 

Verdict: We're on the fence

5. It takes seven years to digest a piece of gum

One we've all heard from our parents, but is it true? Most of the ingredients in chewing gum is easily digestible – sugar, flavourings, mint oils, etc. The gum base, however, is fairly resistant to stomach acid and digestive enzymes. 

But that doesn't mean it sticks in your stomach for seven years. It will generally make its way down the digestive tract, unless you've swallowed a massive amount – in which case, see a doctor. 

Verdict: Old wives' tale

6. Knuckle cracking causes arthritis 

Medical fact or old wives' tale? The truth about common health sayings. © The Telegraph

Medical fact or old wives' tale? The truth about common health sayings.

It's a myth probably created to prevent a thoroughly annoying habit, but there's no evidence that cracking your knuckles causes arthritis. Cracking occurs when gas bubbles form in the fluids between your joints, and a sudden movement can release it.

It's not thought to be harmful and doesn't mean you have bad knuckles – or any other joint. 

Verdict: Old wives' tale

7. Chicken soup can cure a cold 

Medical fact or old wives' tale? The truth about common health sayings. © The Telegraph

Medical fact or old wives' tale? The truth about common health sayings.

It's a wives' tale as old as time. Chicken soup, otherwise known as Jewish penicillin,  is often consumed by cold or flu suffers. For centuries, Jewish scholars have praised its health-restoring ability. 

And there may be some truth to this one. Chicken soup contains a broth made of several vegetables and chicken bones cooked for hours, releasing zinc, calcium and magnesium into the liquid. Theories as to why it helps relieve cold symptoms include hot soup clearing blocked noses; zinc helping shorten a cold; the hot water keeping you hydrated; and that there are several anti-inflammatory substances to alleviate colds. 

Verdict: Cure is a strong word, but this one can definitely help

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