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Did granny know best?

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Like many other Brits, I spent my childhood being told not to sit on cold seats as it would give me piles, to eat my carrots to help me see in the dark and to eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away. To be honest I took very little notice at the time and never really questioned these statements, but I remember distinctly during my medical school years marvelling at the fact that so many of these so called ‘old wives’ tales’ are based on medical fact.

What I find so fascinating is that these philosophies predate the science that proved them, and show that Granny is so often right. Let’s take a look at some of my favourites...

“EAT YOUR CARROTS, THEY WILL HELP YOU SEE IN THE DARK”
Carrots are rich in vitamin A, which is essential for the production of a pigment found at the back of the eye called rhodopsin. We need this to be able to see in low-light conditions, so if you become vitamin A- deficient you are likely to develop night blindness. Therefore eating carrots will help your vision, though admittedly won’t allow you to see in complete darkness.

“SITTING ON COLD SEATS WILL GIVE YOU PILES”
Sitting puts pressure on the veins around the anus, slowing down the circulation and causing back pressure which can lead to piles. While the temperature of the seat is irrelevant, there is no doubt that there is some truth behind this one.

“AN APPLE A DAY KEEPS THE DOCTOR AWAY”

We all know that apples are packed with vitamin C, which is good for our immune system, but according to recent research, the health benefits of eating an apple a day go much further. 

A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2011 concluded that the risk of stroke decreased by nine per cent for every 25 grams of white fleshed fruit, such as apples and pears, eaten per day. And, in 2013, the British Medical Journal reported that an estimated 8,500 deaths could be prevented each year if every adult over the age of 50 ate an apple a day. Certainly food for thought.

“THE DARKER THE DRINK THE WORSE THE HANGOVER”
Alcoholic drinks are made by fermentation; a by-product of which is the production of toxins known as ‘cogeners’. The highest concentrations of these toxins are found in red wine, fortified wines such as port and sherry, and dark spirits like brandy and whisky. So it stands to reason that a darker drink, unit for unit, might give you a worse hangover, but sticking to paler drinks doesn’t mean you will escape. If you drink more than the recommended limits of any alcoholic drink you will unfortunately pay the price. 

“HAVE A SPOONFUL OF HONEY TO SOOTHE A COUGH”
It seems that Granny – with a little help from Winnie the Pooh - got this one right too! Scientists have shown that honey forms a film on the airways, which helps protect them. It also has natural wound healing properties, so much so that Manuka honey is used in dressings to help heal wounds. 

“WRAP UP WARM OR YOU WILL CATCH A COLD”
I must confess I once dismissed this as a total myth, but interestingly, research from the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University has shown that there is science behind this one too! Being very cold causes the blood vessels in the peripheries to restrict in order to minimise heat loss from the body. This includes the blood vessels in the nose, which results in fewer of the cells that fight infection being delivered to the skin lining the nose and potentially making us more prone to infection.

“EAT CHICKEN SOUP TO CURE A COLD”
Generations have been fed chicken soup to help fight a cold and thanks to the American Journal of Therapeutics, we now know the science behind this one. Chicken soup contains a compound called carnosine, which researchers have shown helps the body’s immune system fight the early stages of a viral illness. It is thought to work by changing the movements of white cells that fight infection.

Scientists have also shown that chicken soup seems to be more beneficial than just drinking hot water when it comes to easing congestion. It is thought that, chicken soup has a greater effect on the tiny hair-like projections called cilia that line the nose and help prevent congestion. 

So, there you have it. It seems Granny knew a thing or two after all!

Dawn is a GP specialising in preventative medicine, women’s and family health. She appears regularly on TV and has regular columns in various magazines. More from this expert.

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