Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Science vs. Grandma: Debunking old wives' tales -- or not
By Aimee Heckel Camera Staff Writer
Posted: 11/10/2009 09:08:16 AM MST

This must be how it all started.

Heath Croll's 7-year-old nephew thought spinach was disgusting. But Croll, a Boulder-based youth fitness specialist, knew how to change that.

"If you want to get big and strong like you're uncle, you've got to eat spinach," Cross told him.

The boy started eating it immediately, straight out of the bag.

Croll, who has more than 13 years working with kids and fitness, admits the Popeye-spinach connection isn't exactly a medical fact.

"It's not that simple," he says. Purely popping cans of spinach will obviously not inflate muscles, not without strength-training and a more comprehensive nutritional plan.

Yet it worked for Popeye, right? Just like chicken noodle soup cures a cold, and carrots improve your eyesight, and it's bad to swim on a full stomach.

Right -- Grandma?

Old wives' tales have been around as long as, well, old wives. And despite advances in science and doctors begging us not to believe some of them, the tales -- some myths, some truths -- live on. Even when they defy logic, says Michelle-Nicholle Calareso, a Longmont-based birth doula and childbirth educator.

Ah yes, the old wives' tales around pregnancy are prolific, she says with a laugh. Any rational woman knows that the patterns of a swinging necklace can't foretell the gender of your baby, and neither does the way an expecting mom picks up a key.

Yet we still play these games, Calareso says.

"It's part of human nature," she says. "Pregnancy is so unknown. Science tries to take care of it, but it's still just a lot of unknown, so people try to explain it any way they possibly know how. We don't like the unknown."

The same goes for trying to control nature, she says. Gardening has its own tales: Frost is coming if you don't see many birds.

"It makes sense, kind of," Calareso says. "Over time, people say, 'Hmm, yeah, I've seen that happen,' and there you go. It's your reasoning for trying to explain the world."

And many bits of advice do seem to make sense.

Others, Calareso says, are actually true.

All of this family time with Grandma this holiday season may have you wondering: Which of her warnings hold weight? Here, we've pitted a variety of local experts against good ol' Grams, to make sense of some of our favorite old wives' tales.

1. If you carry the baby high, it's a girl. If you carry low, it's a boy.

Calareso: False. How a mother carries her baby is based on her physique: the length of the torso, where the baby is positioned, how it's sitting. The gender has nothing to do with it.

"I always giggle at these myths," she says. "Babies will sit any way they want to."

In fact, Calareso says, there is no way to predict the gender -- for sure. Darker nipples don't mean it's a boy. Fetal heart rate is the same for all healthy babies, regardless of gender, she says. Despite its popularity -- you can even download it onto your Palm Pilot -- the Chinese birth chart is bunk. Your cravings or amount of heartburn have to do with the mother and her hormones, not the baby. Even ultrasounds can be wrong.

Girls do not "steal their mom's beauty" or cause women to have extra acne. (The amount of estrogen from a girl fetus has no real effect on the mother's body.)

"I had skin problems, and I had two boys," she says. "Those were my hormones. You can't really blame it on them. You can blame other things on them, but not that."

2. Eat chicken soup if you have a cold.

Amy Dickinson, licensed acupuncturist, of Boulder: True. Go, Grandma! Hot liquids are soothing for the throat. Onions and garlic help the lungs and have anti-microbial effects.

The Chinese version of this is hot and sour soup, which also contains vinegar, an extra "oomph" in terms of healing properties, Dickinson says.

"I am recommending this a lot at this time of year, as you can imagine," she says. "And the cod liver oil Grandma used to force our long-suffering parents to swallow is now recommended by every medical profession I know."

Manora Nygren, herbalist at the North Boulder Pharmaca Pharmacy: True. The minerals in the bones of the chicken help your immune system. So do the healthy fats and protein. Hot liquids can also warm up your insides if you have the shivers.

3. Don't go swimming on a full stomach.

Croll, youth fitness specialist: True. Overeating before an activity can make you feel sick and give you a stomach ache. It's not seriously dangerous, though; you're not going to be overcome by cramps and drown. This wives' tale could have been created to keep kids from throwing up in the pool.

Joe Horwat, Boulder-based USA Olympic sports performance coach: True. Cut down on the amount of protein and fat you consume one to two hours before exercising; they digest slower and can cause cramping -- with any kind of exercise. If you're feeling hungry, instead consume a simple carbohydrate, such Vitamin Water. This fills your stomach, gives you some energy and won't make your stomach hurt.

Debbie Steinbock, holistic health counselor with Boulder-based Whole Nourishment: True. We digest better when we aren't diverting blood flow to other activities.

4. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Croll, youth fitness specialist: Not exactly. A variety of fruits and vegetables will help keep the doctor away.

Dickinson, acupuncturist: Sort of. Grandma was probably referring to good nutrition, in general. Chinese medicine has always treated food as therapy. Now, biomedicine is finding a "revolutionary" connection between the digestive system and the immune system.

"All the good medicine in the world cannot reverse the effects of improper diet, and indeed the most prevalent diseases of wealthy countries today -- Type II diabetes, coronary artery disease, obesity -- all stem from undisciplined eating," Dickinson says. "Another point for Grandma." Sort of. Apples have antioxidants and flavonoids that enhance the activity of vitamin C and can help reduce the risk of colon cancer, heart attack and stroke.

5. If you swallow your gum, it'll take seven years to digest.

Croll, youth fitness specialist: False. Otherwise every time you get an x-ray, you would see lumps of gum.

Nygren, herbalist: False. Gum resin comes from the gum tree. It's not going to digest easily, but it's a natural component of nature.

"It doesn't take seven years, but I don't think that it's the best thing for your system," Nygren says. False. Gum is "indigestible," meaning the body can't break it down. But it still can pass through the body -- at the same rate as any other swallowed matter.

6. Eating carrots will improve your vision.

Croll, youth fitness specialist: Not exactly. The beta-carotene is healthy, but same with the apple; there's a lot more to eye health than just eating carrots.

Steinbock, nutritionist: True. Carrots have beta-carotene (a natural form of vitamin A), which supports the health of the optic nerve. False. Eating carrots will not actually improve vision. Although carrots are a good source of vitamin A and beta-carotene, which can reduce cataracts and macular degeneration, studies show it would be difficult to eat the number of carrots necessary to make a difference. Plus, large doses of vitamin A can be toxic, and too much beta-carotene can turn your skin orange.

7. Spicy foods cause ulcers.

Nygren, herbalist: False. Spicy and acidic foods can aggravate an ulcer, but the won't cause ulcers unless you already have the predisposition. Otherwise, all people in Mexico would have ulcers.

Steinbock, nutritionist: False, although some foods (refined, spicy, fried, alcohol) can cause an increase in stomach acids and aggravate an ulcer.

The Mayo Clinic: False. The cause of most ulcers is a corkscrew-shaped bacterium called the Helicobacter pylori. Excessive alcohol consumption, stress, smoking and the regular use of pain relievers may be aggravating.

8. Shaving will cause the hair to grow back thicker.

Jamie Gordon, cosmetician at Lafayette-based Jamie Gordon Skin Care Studio: False. You have two different types of hair: pre-pubescent hair that will come back the same no matter how you take it off, and "hormonally related" hair, which is subject to hormonal changes. It is possible to kill a hair follicle after repeatedly subjecting it to waxing over a long period of time, but that follicle might have died anyway because of hormonal changes, such as menopause. False. Cutting does not stimulate growth. If it did, bald men would be shaving their heads

9. You should sweat out a cold.

Dickinson, acupuncturist. Depends. Chinese medicine differentiates between the colds you get in winter and in the summer. For the common winter cold -- with the chills, lack of sore throat and body aches -- you will feel better if you drink hot liquids, use diaphoretic herbs, wrap yourself up in blankets and sweat out the pathogen. On the other hand, a cold with feelings of heat and rapid heart rate could get worse with sweating.

Nygren, herbalist: Depends. If you have a fever, some herbs (osha root, yarrow) can raise your temperature, help kill the bacteria and cause the fever to "break."

"Sometimes your body needs a fever," she says. "Breaking it can be helpful -- if it's ready to break."

10. Toads give you warts.

Nygren, herbalist: False. This myth probably stems from ancient women who had knowledge of plants, who were labeled "witches." These women used to create an ointment out of boiled skins of certain toads and rub it on their skin. The ointment had "mind-opening" (hallucinogenic) qualities. These women were often old and therefore had warts.

"It might have gotten confused that women who had warts play around with toads," Nygren says.

The Mayo Clinic: False. Warts come from contact with the human papillomavirus.

11. Standing on your head after sex can help you get pregnant.

Calareso, doula: False.

"I hear lots of interesting things people try: standing on your head, lying in all kinds of different positions, not eating spicy things," she says. "They're ridiculous things."

Whereas the position does not matter, men should be careful not to overheat their scrotum, which can slow down the mobility of the sperm.

Parents Magazine: False. It doesn't matter to the sperm and egg what position you use.

12. Drinking two glasses of Gatorade will relieve a headache.

Croll, youth fitness specialist: Depends on why you have a headache. If you're dehydrated with low energy, the electrolytes in Gatorade can help relieve some symptoms. It won't help a migraine, though.

Horwat, personal trainer: Depends. If you have a headache after a big training day, it could be due to lack of sugars, liquids and carbs in your diet. Gatorade could help, although it's basically sugar water.

Steinbock, nutritionist: Depends. Hydration can help some headaches, but the excess sugar and food coloring in Gatorade can make a headache worse. Stick with water.

13. Put toothpaste on a burn or acne.

Nygren, herbalist: Maybe. If the toothpaste contains baking soda, it could help balance out the pH of your skin. I wouldn't put baking soda directly on a burn, but toothpaste could help soothe and cool a small burn temporarily.

Gordon, cosmetician: Maybe. Baking soda can be anti-inflammatory, it helps absorb oils, exfoliates and draws out toxins, so it makes sense. But remember: Toothpaste has been so reformulated since this myth probably originated. Much of today's toothpaste also contains dyes, whitening agents and all kinds of ingredients.

Instead, put Vaseline on a burn to temporarily relieve pain. It seals out the air.

14. Put honey on a blemish and cover with a Band-Aid overnight.

Nygren, herbalist: Probably. Raw honey has strong antibacterial components to it -- "although I've never actually done it or heard or anyone doing it," she says.

Gordon, cosmetician: True. Raw honey is often used in face masks. She references the "Beauty by Nature" book by Boulder herbalist Brigitte Mars: Honey is mildly antiseptic and holds water; helps draw impurities out of the skin; and can soothe, heal and nourish the skin.

Contact Staff Writer Aimee Heckel at 303-473-1359 or