The Old Wives Club: Which Health Myths Are True?

May 29, 2014
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I was in line at my favorite coffee shop, gabbing with the teenage barista as I waited for her to finish my iced latte. We’d just gotten to the finer points of our “Hunger Games” survival strategies (I opted for immediately finding a water source, while she went straight for the weapons) when the woman behind me in line cried out that pouring steamed milk over ice was a health hazard.

I was in line at my favorite coffee shop, gabbing with the teenage barista as I waited for her to finish my iced latte. We’d just gotten to the finer points of our “Hunger Games” survival strategies (I opted for immediately finding a water source, while she went straight for the weapons) when the woman behind me in line cried out that pouring steamed milk over ice was a health hazard.

She explained that the mix of extreme hot and cold bred bacteria with the urgency of a bomb disposal technician shouting at a trainee to cut the red wire, not the blue. The barista and I exchanged a look that segued from quizzical to concerned. Though the woman didn’t announce any medical credentials, she spoke with such conviction that the barista wordlessly dumped the cup of ice into the sink.health myths

As I left the café with my (now hot) latte, I remembered my own years as a co-ed coffee-slinger. Every summer, I helped de-zombify the pre-dawn masses with iced coffees made exactly as this barista made mine. Had I sent hundreds of customers to the emergency room, clutching their bellies and cursing the day they were born? I took a deep breath and called a friend who is studying to be a physician’s assistant.

“There’s no immediate danger in pouring hot liquids over ice,” she said. “Sounds like this lady spooked you with some old wives’ tale.”

As a soon-to-be medical professional, my friend will no doubt hear the old wives’ greatest hits (along with a few new numbers). Even in an instant-access world where your doctor is a phone call or email away and clicking “search” can help you find up-to-date research on any topic under the sun (or above the stars), we cling to time-worn (if not time-tested) do’s and don’ts.

Perhaps this has something to do with the power of a shared narrative: When we’re grappling with nebulous situations (especially regarding our health), we search for certainty in stories that have trickled through the generations. Pedro Arrabal, M.D., medical director of the Institute for Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Sinai Hospital, has heard his fair share of these stories, ranging from the quasi-plausible to the head-scratchingly bizarre. “Pregnancy is a physiological condition we’re evaluating and treating, but it’s also emotional,” he says. “It’s your child. It’s hard for the patient to be scientifically objective.”

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pregnancy mythsNine months can give moms plenty of time to rack up worries. Having an easy set of rituals can help them feel more in control. Stepping outside during an eclipse can give baby a cleft palate. The full moon can bring on early labor. If what you expect while you’re expecting is heartburn, then brace yourself for a hairy baby. The good news for astronomy- (and burrito-) loving mommies is that none of these old chestnuts cracks up to be true.

Though it’s easy to chuckle over beliefs that swinging a ring on a string over a woman’s belly – or even the way her belly looks – can determine whether she’s carrying a boy or a girl, certain old wives’ tales have become mistaken for medical facts. Tabloid headlines revel in pointing out the dark roots of Hollywood’s blonde bombshells during their pregnancies; however, Arrabal says that dying your hair is actually fine. If you’re a mom-to-be who loves to nosh on cooked sushi or enjoys a cup o’ joe every morning, you’re also in for pleasant surprises: In moderation (and under certain conditions), you don’t have to give up life’s little delicacies.

In fact, salmon is rich with omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, which benefit mom and baby alike. Just stay clear of uncooked sushi made from fish that are “at the top of the food chain, like shark and swordfish,” Arrabal explains. If you want to pop in the Starbucks after your cooked sushi lunch, go right ahead. Despite claims to the contrary, pregnant women can indulge in a little caffeine (the equivalent of two to three cups of coffee or tea). However, they shouldn’t imbibe anything stronger: “Pregnant women should completely avoid alcohol,” Arrabal advises.

Gay Bearzi, R.N., IBCLC (International board-certified lactation consultant), contends with the old wives’ club once baby is born. She’s heard that smaller breasts produce less milk (not true); that nursing mothers must drink milk to make milk (nope); and that moms can pass upset or gassy stomachs onto their babies through nursing (nada). As a lactation consultant and chair of Sinai’s breastfeeding committee, she helps new mothers develop ongoing plans for breastfeeding and offers continued support. A lot of her work involves outreach and education.

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Certain old wives’ tales – that a breastfeeding baby needs extra water or that a woman’s nipple must be washed before she nurses – undermine a woman’s faith in her own body’s abilities to nurture her child. “Breast milk contains all the water that a baby needs,” Bearzi says. “And cleaning the nipple washes away protective oils and dries the nipple out.” Another damaging misconception is that a mother’s body simply isn’t producing enough milk. “Usually it’s not because the mother doesn’t have enough milk,” she’s quick to point out. “It’s because the baby doesn’t get the milk that the mother has.” That’s why it’s so important to teach moms how to help their youngsters latch on properly.

Still, Bearzi admits that she’s seen a few old (and odd) stories show some merit. Wrapping the cabbage leaves you’d chop into your salad around engorged breasts can decrease fluid. Nobody knows why this seems to work, but it has helped ease many a new mom’s discomfort. Soothing the savage ache through certain folk remedies will have you raiding your pantry.

There are ongoing studies about the effectiveness of ginger, but a little at-home experimentation helped Ali Tabrizchi, D.O., interventional cardiologist at the LifeBridge Health Cardiovascular Institute, disprove another food remedy. “A patient once told me to put dates on my legs to alleviate muscle cramps. Not true,” he jokes. Still, sometimes seemingly silly ideas can prompt a bit of research. Tabrizchi actually investigated a common question about whether coughing during a heart attack could save one’s life (the answer, he found, is no). “No question is too silly to be asked,” he insists. Arrabal says that patient questions give him a chance to really sit down and explain what’s going on and what the most prudent approach might be. “You should never feel that a question is silly; we’re here to take care of you.”