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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Old Wives’ Tales: Fact or Folklore?

Old wive's tales debunked by Allison Ford at Divine Caroline. Who exactly are these old wives, and why do they seem to have an opinion about everything? Toads, warts, eating, swimming, swallowed gum, carrots, eyesight, chocolate, and acne.

Before modern medicine and technology, women were the keepers of medical information. They delivered babies, healed the sick, and were considered experts in nutrition, children, folk medicine, herbs, and death. The “old wives” of these tales were most likely just wise village women—grandmothers, mothers, midwives, and healers. Perhaps once rooted in truth, now old wives’ tales are synonymous with unsubstantiated traditional beliefs and urban legends. They exist for everything from health to pregnancy to forecasting the weather. Some old wives’ tales are just silly superstitions, but some may just have a nugget of truth.

Touching Toads Will Give You Warts
Toads aren’t exactly the cuddliest animals, so maybe that’s why the old wives were so spooked by them. But contrary to popular belief, they can’t give you warts. Warts in humans are only spread by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, and reptiles do not carry the virus. This fallacy may have originated because toads do have bumps on their backs that slightly resemble warts and people could have been sufficiently freaked out to believe that the toads were the cause. In fact, those bumps aren’t warts at all. They’re glands that store toxins to protect the toads from predators. So handling a toad won’t give you warts, but the toad might release a poison and teach you not to pick up toads anymore.

Don’t Swim for an Hour After Eating, Or You’ll Cramp Up
Just think of all the time wasted in the summer, waiting poolside for your lunch to digest. Mothers have been warning their kids not to swim after eating since at least the 1950s, despite the fact that there is not a single recorded instance of someone drowning after suffering a cramp. If you eat and then start rigorously exercising, the blood that should be rushing to your stomach to aid in digestion gets diverted to your arms and legs, causing a cramp or stitch. Cramps don’t usually happen to kids who are just splashing in a pool though. You’d need to be doing laps or seriously exerting yourself in order to be at risk, and even then, cramps are pretty easily ameliorated. This tall tale may have originated with overprotective parents who wanted an Adult Swim.

Swallowed Gum Takes Seven Years to Digest
Nope, not even close. Humans have chewed on plants and other natural substances for thousands of years and this specious claim might have been made up by mothers who were tired of hearing their kids make smacking noises all day, or who thought that gum chewing was low-class. Gum doesn’t break down in the digestive system, but it passes through like anything else. If you’re regularly swallowing wads of gum, then they could meld into a giant blob in your stomach and cause some problems, but the occasional swallower of gum has nothing to worry about.

Eat Carrots for Better Eyesight
Carrots do contain beta carotene, which is important for eye health among other things, but eating copious amounts of carrots doesn’t improve vision. There is some evidence that vitamin A and beta-carotene can reduce the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration, but a person would have to eat about 370 baby carrots per day and I don’t know anyone who loves carrots that much. Some say that in World War II, the English wanted to conceal their use of a new air radar system, so they claimed that Royal Air Force pilots ate lots of carrots, which is why they developed superior vision. It’s unclear whether or not this story is true. Although there’s typically no harm in eating lots of carrots, excess consumption can turn your skin an orange hue. There is one known death from eating WAY too many carrots.

Eating Bread Crusts Will Make Your Hair Curly
No, diet cannot make your hair curly (or straight). The bread crust myth is thought to have originated in Europe about 300 years ago, when many people lived on the brink of starvation. Curly hair was seen as a symbol of health and prosperity, as well as an indicator of youth. Those who had enough to eat (including bread) were generally healthier, so bread became associated with healthy, curly hair. Crusts actually tend to be the most nutrient-dense and healthful parts of bread. They contain more fiber and antioxidants than the rest of the loaf, so while eating them might not give you ringlets, it might make your hair shine a little brighter.

Chocolate Will Give You Acne
It’s possible that this myth originated when scientists discovered that overactive sebaceous glands produce a fatty substance called sebum, which can lead to acne. Chocolate is high in fat, and sebum is high in fat, so the thinking was that if you ate a lot of chocolate, more sebum (and acne) would be produced. It was a pretty big jump to a conclusion that’s given grief to teenagers for years. Chocolate does contain fat, but not the same type that’s found in our skin. The only way it can cause acne is if you rub it onto your face.

If You Pluck a Gray Hair, Two More Will Grow Back in Its Place
Gray hair can proliferate quickly, so it’s natural that once you see one gray hair, you start noticing them all over your head, as if they’ve multiplied overnight. But follicles produce one strand of hair, no more, no less. Plucking a gray hair won’t cause more to grow. Actually, plucking can cause you to lose hair, since yanking can damage the follicle or destroy it completely. It’s okay to tweeze the occasional stray gray, but if your hair is already thin or thinning, getting it colored might be your best bet.

Even though many old wives’ tales have been debunked as superstitious myth, their origins as folk medicine remain important. Luckily, we know that we don’t have to be so superstitious. Go ahead, have a candy bar, take a dip in the pool, and pick up some toads.

From the web site, Divine Caroline:
Old Wives’ Tales: Fact or Folklore?
By Allison Ford
First published April 2009