Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Old Wives Tales: You ve heard them a million times, and sometimes they re true

Dead men tell no tales. But old wives, they ve got tons of them.

Chocolate causes acne.

Crack your knuckles and you ll develop arthritis.

For just about every situation sickness, pregnancy, bad weather there s a bit of folklore from an old wives tale to guide you through it. The trouble is figuring out when to bother.

These tidbits of wisdom come about for a variety of reasons, not all of them time-tested or scientific.

It can have a legitimate history or it can be made up on the spur of the moment, explained Ray Browne, professor emeritus of popular culture at Bowling Green State University. It s a kind of catch-all that allows you the speaker not to be responsible.

There are lots of examples that everyone knows, like eating chicken soup to cure a cold.

Thomas Craughwell explores this and nearly 100 others in his new book, Do Blue Bedsheets Bring Babies? The Truth Behind Old Wives Tales (Broadway Books, 239 pages, $12.95).

For the record, according to the book, chicken soup does work, mostly because the simmering poultry releases an amino acid into the broth that reduces the build-up of mucus and helps you breathe easier. (Though chocolate doesn t cause acne and cracking your knuckles won t lead to arthritis.)

Mr. Browne said there can be some degree of truth to many of these old myths.

People all the way from the severest critics and scientists are discovering more and more validity and truth in folklore in general, so they re recognizing ... that the old wives tales were not told by fools but were based upon some degree of fact, he said.

Then he paused and added: They can still be, well, pretty far-fetched.

With that, here is a sampler of old and new wives tales and what local experts have to say about the level of truth behind them.

  • Eating poppy seeds can show up in a drug test.


    Remember the Seinfeld episode where Elaine eats a poppy seed muffin and tests positive for opium? It could really happen, since the drug is derived from the poppy.

    That s why the federal test threshold for opiates was raised a number of years ago. Before, when tests looked for very small amounts of the stuff, the risk of false positives was very real, according to Jehad Awada, co-owner of Uritox, a drug screening company in West Toledo.

    Just two poppy seed bagels would have tested you positive under that, he said.

    Under the raised standards for drug screenings though not all companies use them someone will test positive only when opiate levels are more than six times the old ones, Mr. Awada said. You would have to eat two loaves of poppy seed bread or a dozen bagels for it to come back positive, he said.

  • Hair grows back thicker and darker after shaving; hats cause baldness.

    Mostly false., a Web site that investigates urban legends and old wives tales, suggests this myth got started because of the perception that short hair seems to be tougher than longer hair. But if cutting stimulated new growth, wouldn t balding people shave afflicted areas all the time?

    Barbara Lewandowski of Apollo-Cirrus Hair Center in West Toledo confirmed that shaved hair can t grow back thicker.

    You only have so many hair follicles on your body. It will only regrow based on those hair follicles, she said.

    And while baldness may cause some people to wear hats, the reverse isn t exactly true. Problems can occur with hats that aren t washed, but even then it can only cause a ring of baldness where the dirty, sweaty hat may block hair follicle ducts.

    Oils and secretions can build up and will smother the hair follicles, hence you ll get some recession from it. But it s not a direct cause of baldness, she said.

  • Your toothbrush gets sprayed with bacteria every time the toilet is flushed.


    It s not the kind of thing they spend a lot of time on in dental school, but there is documented evidence that flushing the toilet can send microscopic particles six feet into the air, according to Michele Carr, director of dental hygiene at Ohio State University s college of dentistry.

    So if you put one and one together, yes, it s going to land on your toothbrush, she said. It s gross. Just the thought of it is gross, and that s enough for me to put my toothbrush away from where the toilet area is.

    While studies have found fecal matter on toothbrushes, don t freak out yet, she said. Unless your immune system is severely compromised, your natural defenses will take care of you.

    Still, she said, you might want to make sure to close the toilet lid before flushing and keep your toothbrush in a cabinet.

  • Reading in dim light will ruin your eyes. So will being too close to the TV.


    Dr. Richard Koop, an ophthalmologist at Associated Eye Care, which has three offices around the area, has had lots of patients ask him about reading in dim light over the years.

    I assure them that it won t do any harm, he said. Those activities may cause eye strain, temporary ache, or tiredness ... but essentially will do no permanent harm or damage to your eyes.

    Even after reading all day in dim light and feeling battered by the process, a good night s sleep is all it should take to return to normal, he said.

    As for the TV, there used to be a little bit of truth to that. Older televisions emitted some radiation, which could have minimal effect on young children sitting within a few feet. Nowadays, though, Dr. Koop said, much has been done to essentially eliminate that problem.

  • It takes seven years for gum to go through the digestive system.


    Chewing gum goes through the digestive system just like anything else and comes out on schedule.

    Gum by itself is a substance which you re not going to digest at all. It s not food. It s a foreign body, explained Dr. Isam Daboul, chief of gastroenterology at the University Medical Center at the University of Toledo Health Science Campus, formerly the Medical University of Ohio.

    That means you shouldn t be swallowing it just like coins or marbles but it won t get stuck or take years to break down. It may seem sticky, but inside your body it s nothing remarkable.

    It will just go with the food and pass through you ... in two or three days, depending on how fast you are, Dr. Daboul said.

    The only hiccup could be if you swallow several pieces a day, say three or four, he added. That could result in a mass that is too big to pass through the intestines. Then it would need to be removed.

    Contact Ryan E. Smith at: or 419-724-6103.

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