If you are Sri Lankan, odds are that elderly female relatives are a big part of your life. Nothing in your life, from births to illness to deaths, is complete without an aunty or a grandmother or two helpfully contributing their tuppence worth on the subject. They stick to your side through sickness and in health, with the tenacity of chewing gum in a clump of hair, delivering an endless litany of curative advice and questionable health tips, which they insist are guaranteed to work just because their grandmothers said so. Many of the said health tips have been passed down from generation to generation, unchallenged, and still remain in circulation today. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where these guidelines originated, and you would be hard-pressed to explain the logic behind several of them. However, many people still adhere to them in the belief that there must be some truth in them. But do these age-old dictums actually have a scientific basis – or are they just outdated myths? Here, we explore the science behind some of the dos and don’ts you might have heard growing up.
Drinking cold liquids or having ice cream will make your runny nose worse
While cold drinks do not increase mucus production, they do slow down the movement of mucus in your nasal passages by making your phlegm thicker. This may lead to nasal congestion and a lot more discomfort than you bargained for. However, contrary to what you may have heard, cold liquids and ice cream don’t directly cause colds – they just make the existing symptoms worse. So, it would be a good idea to hold off drinking iced beverages till your nose clears up, and keep yourself watered on warm fluids instead.
Taking a bath or going for a swim immediately after eating will impair digestion
There has been a lot of debate about this one. According to one reasoning, digestion requires an unimpeded blood flow to the digestive tract. Having a shower or a swim causes a drop in body temperature, so some of the blood is directed away from the gut to warm up the extremities of the body, preventing the body from digesting food properly. However, this reasoning is flawed in many ways. For one, digestion is a process that takes about 6-8 hours, so this would mean that you would not be able to take a shower for a very long time after a meal. Also, exposure to cold temperatures causes peripheral vasoconstriction in humans. This is a process in which the blood flow to the body surface decreases, in order to reduce heat loss. The blood flow is directed to the interior instead. This puts to rest the theory that blood flow is diverted to the skin surface when taking a shower. Your body is skilled at regulating heat while simultaneously doing other things such as digesting food, so you will live if you have a shower after eating.
Eating green leafy vegetables or salads at night will be harmful to your body, hinder your digestion, or cause an increase in phlegm
One of the theories behind this is that plants respire at night, giving out carbon dioxide, so consuming raw plant matter would increase the carbon dioxide content in your body. Did you just have a “wait, what?” moment? So did we, because this theory is one of the most absurd things ever concocted. Plants do respire at night – as long as they are still alive. Even if the plant cells survive being stored for long periods of time in a freezer and chopped up, the act of chewing and the digestive juices in the body would soon destroy the cells and consequently degrade them into their component molecules. This would effectively put an end to any cell processes directly after the plant matter enters the mouth. Another theory behind this health tip is that green leafy vegetables have a high water content and exert a cooling effect on the body, thereby increasing mucus production. Increased mucus secretion is associated either with inflammatory respiratory diseases like common cold and asthma, or with the release of chemicals called histamines. With the exception of spinach, most leafy vegetables don’t trigger the release of histamines in the body. They also cannot cause common cold, regardless of whatever time of the day they are consumed. Leafy greens are highly nutritious and have a whole host of health benefits, including improved digestion, so go ahead and dig into that salad tonight. At the very least, you’d be dodging constipation and doing your rectum a great favour.
Having a bath late in the evening or at night will turn your hair grey, make you catch a cold, get a headache, or develop sinusitis
The elderly aunties seem to be very fervent in backing up this one, judging by the number of reasons cited. However, it doesn’t have any scientific premise. Sinusitis is an inflammation of the sinuses in the nasal cavity, resulting in nasal congestion and thick phlegm. It is caused by infection of the upper respiratory tract, and can be triggered by chemicals and allergens. Acute sinusitis usually starts with a cold. But, as mentioned before, common colds are caused by viral infections. Showering late in the evening does not cause colds, though headaches may be caused by sleeping with wet hair. In fact, having a bath in the night actually helps you sleep well. As for your hair turning grey – this nugget of wisdom simply transcends all logic, and the less said on the subject, the better.
Going out in the rain will make you sick
The truth behind this is a bit tricky to navigate. Infectious diseases like common colds, coughs and fevers are caused by microorganisms like bacteria and viruses. Some illnesses, such as influenza, are spread when droplets of saliva or mucus from an infected person enters the air during coughing, sneezing, or talking. These droplets contain microorganisms that cause the illness. They can remain suspended in air for some period of time, until they come into contact with another person and enter their respiratory tract. While rain itself does not cause illness, it can deposit these airborne infectious droplets on people. These droplets can then enter their bodies and cause disease. Whether or not you get sick when you go out in the rain also depends on the microbial load in the air.
Taking a bath while you are on your period will reduce or increase menstrual flow
This has absolutely no scientific basis. In fact, it is important to keep yourself clean when you are on your period to reduce the risk of infections. Your menstrual flow will do whatever it wants, depending on your hormones and nervous system. There isn’t much you can physically do to influence the flow.
Eating fish and curd in one meal will make you develop vitiligo
Vitiligo is a skin condition in which parts of the skin of sufferers lose their normal pigmentation, and become white in colour. It is caused when the cells responsible for the normal pigmentation of the skin are destroyed by the immune system of the body. The condition is triggered by genetic and environmental factors, and has nothing to do with fish and curd. These foods don’t have any adverse effects on the body when eaten together, even though they are a rather odd culinary combination.
Shaking your leg continuously for long periods of time will affect your heart
Many people jiggle their leg when seated or lying down, without even being aware of it. This could be a habit born of boredom, restlessness, or intense concentration. It could also hint at an underlying condition, like restless legs syndrome, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or autism. While fidgeting constantly is irritating for others in the vicinity, it has no known adverse effects on cardiovascular health. In fact, fidgeting is a great way for some of us to burn calories without actually having to drag our excess weight out of our chairs.
Eating herbs and leafy greens will make your hair grow longer and become stronger
Leafy greens and herbs are a rich source of iron, beta carotene, folate, and Vitamin C, which keep the hair follicles healthy and improve circulation of scalp oils. Vitamin C, an antioxidant, also improves blood circulation to the scalp, which in turn stimulates the hair follicles and influences hair growth. Iron is an important component of the blood that helps carry oxygen around the body, and oxygen is required for the growth of new hair cells. So, your mother wasn’t wrong when she told you to eat up your greens if you wanted hair like Rapunzel’s. If it didn’t work, maybe you should consider investing in a new conditioner.
Drinking hot water after eating fatty/oily foods will dissolve the fat, and help prevent heart disease
This one is almost beautiful in its serene optimism. Sadly, we don’t live in a world where fat mysteriously melts away into nothingness, leaving a glorious vacuum for us to fill with donuts and chicken nuggets. Fats are insoluble in water. Hot water simply separates large globules of fats into smaller globules, which only makes it easier for the body to degrade the fats into their individual molecules. These then get absorbed into the bloodstream. No amount of hot water is going to make your cholesterol disappear so if you are guilty of following this health tip, we suggest you take yourself to the nearest treadmill as fast as you can to work off your impending heart attack.
Mouth and peptic ulcers are caused by eating “heaty” food
Ulcers, which are lesions or wounds on the mucosal lining of the mouth and stomach, are caused by bacteria. They are also associated with a weakened immune system and increased acid load in the stomach, due to stress. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that “heaty” food causes ulcers. Cooling food does not heal them either.
Unripe papaya and pineapple are natural oral contraceptives
We are pretty sure that there is a legion of young women out there who aren’t going to thank their grandmothers for this less than helpful tip.There is no scientific data proving the success of pineapple or raw papaya as oral contraceptives. However, studies have shown that papaya seeds reduce male fertility in monkeys, rats, and rabbits, and the milky juice of the unripe fruit has been said to be a powerful abortifacient in female rats. Conversely, other studies show that papain extracts from papaya fruits have no effect on conception or on fetuses in pregnant female rats. But since we’re not rats, it’s impossible to establish an actual scientific basis for this one.
These are just a few examples of an average Sri Lankan dowager’s foray into health and medicine. They merely make up the tip of the iceberg of remedial wisdom that we hear and despair of every day. Having questioned their validity, we now wait nervously for the wrath of our foremothers, past and present.
Featured image courtesy rosannadavisonnutrition.com