Maybe you had a granny whose raspy voice you still hear rattling around your head every time you feel a cold coming on. “Feed a cold, starve a fever.” Or, wait, is it the other way around?
Maybe every time you stick a hand in the fridge, foraging for something yummy, you hear that ringing won’t-go-away rhyme, the one about the apple-a-day and the doctor.
So here’s the burning question: What’s with all those aphorisms anyway? Is there any truth to the bits of medical folk wisdom we all know by heart, if not by practice?
We dialed up a wise and jolly family physician, Dr. Jeffrey Cain, who happens to be president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians and chief of family medicine at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
He not only patiently ticked through the truth behind a slew of what he called “folk wisdom,” he made us feel not so silly for believing in a few.
We’ll take it one by one:
n “Feed a cold, starve a fever.” The skinny: This one has medieval roots, the good doctor tells us, first appearing in print in a 1574 dictionary. And it’s basic common sense: “When people have a fever, they don’t want to eat,” says Cain. “There’s no science behind it, but there’s no harm behind it either. The most important thing, though, is to give your body a rest; let it heal.”
n “Sweat it out.” The skinny: “Sometimes when someone has a fever they think that if they pile on the pajamas, and get under lots of blankets, they will sweat out the virus. There’s no science to it. When you break a fever, you will sweat, and as your fever goes down, you’ll get chills. But you can’t sweat out a virus,” says Cain.
n “Walking is the best exercise.” The skinny: This goes back to that ol’ healer, Hippocrates, who would have flunked the Athenian P.C. Exam since he claimed it was “man’s best exercise.” Says the modern-day Cain: “When people ask, what’s the best exercise, the answer is, ‘The one you’ll do.’ Walking is great, it’s easy and you don’t need any equipment. It’s two special benefits are that it’s almost as good for you as jogging, but it won’t hurt joints.”
n “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” The skinny: “We know Americans don’t get enough fruits or vegetables,” says Cain, “so I’m all for an apple a day. If you want to take it up a notch, try, ‘Be sure your plate is filled with lots of colors, flavors and textures.’ Stick to whole foods, in forms as close to all-natural as you can get.”