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Truth in old wives tales

During my practice as a community pharmacist, I have heard of cures from my patients and clients that sometimes beggar belief. From the blue soap to tighten vaginal muscles, to taking Vitamin B12 to stop a runny nose!

What I have learnt though is that every such cure is not always to be scoffed at, as daily we are learning new things about the so called “herbal remedies”.

Today we will look at some so called “old-wives tales” and discover some fascinating this about them.


Honey has been mentioned as a good cough suppressant by the old folks, it sounds sensible to me, because it is thick, and sometimes that is all that is needed to quiet that cough. But was that a lucky chance or a way out from admitting that you will not pay for the expensive heavily marketed latest cough reliever?

To see whether there is actually anything to this, researchers decided to compare the effects of honey to those of dextromethorphan on children’s nighttime coughs. (Dextromethorphan is the active ingredient in pretty much all over-the-counter cold and cough medicines, and a favourite among particularly reckless recreational drug users.) Dextromethorphan is also the DM, you will see on the label. So the researchers gathered up a group of 105 sickly children ranging from two to 18 years old and split them into three groups: The parents of the first group would treat their children’s coughs with honey, the second group would get honey-flavored dextromethorphan, and the third group would get no treatment at all. (For those who believe we need nothing for the cough.)

Obviously, the real cough syrup scored better than nothing at all in treating coughs and sleeping difficulties. What was surprising was that the honey did even better than the drug, coming out ahead of the dextromethorphan at relieving cold and cough symptoms.

Researchers think that the stickiness and viscosity of honey is what helps it alleviate coughs, while the natural antioxidants can help in the healing process.


Using sugar to stop hiccups, have you heard this before? Me neither, but here goes. Hiccups contribute to nearly all of the world’s folk remedies. History has suggested everything from holding your breath to putting a plastic bag over your head to cure hiccups (I think that has changed now to a brown paper bag, I guess for obvious reasons) to scaring the daylights out of the sufferer.

The New England Journal of Medicine published a study by Dr. Edgar Engelman touting ordinary white granulated sugar as a cure for the hiccups. What Engelman found was that a spoonful of sugar immediately cured the hiccups in 19 out of 20 patients. That may not sound like much, until you find out that some of those patients had the hiccups for more than six hours, while others had been suffering from them for weeks. The most likely explanation is that the sudden influx of sweetness over stimulated the vagas nerve (the nerve that connects your brain to your abdomen); effectively distracting it from the task it was previously focussing on, which in this case is jack hammering your diaphragm. The scaring tactic can sometimes work on this same distraction principle.


I have always thought that the crust of the sandwich bread was only there to be cut off and to feed the birds. But a group of German researchers led by Dr. Thomas Hofmann had other more sensible ideas and decided to study the chemical makeup of bread crust versus the rest of the loaf.

How different can the crust be, considering that both parts of the bread are made from the exact same stuff? It is because when it’s baked, bread undergoes a process called the Maillard reaction, which is what gives it a crust. (It’s the same thing that gives meat and even beer that distinctive brown colour.)

Besides giving the bread much of its flavour, studies have shown that this reaction produces antioxidant compounds that act as defender molecules that stalk and destroy cancer cells.

When Hofmann et al anaylised their sandwiches, they discovered that the bread contained a specific antioxidant called pronyl-lysine – a compound that further study showed was the most important component in bread for boosting the body’s cancer prevention points. This compound was eight times more abundant in the crust than in the rest of the bread. And stuffing is even better, since it involves breaking the bread into smaller pieces, giving it more surface area to brown.

Well I guess I will be competing with birds for the crust now, sorry birds, you can have the white stuff!


We all have heard this one, especially when we are feeling sick with the cold or flu and someone tells you: “Eat man!” But as unreasonable as it may sound, not eating will make you weaker, and deprive you of needed fluids. As mentioned in earlier articles, chicken soup does work, even a little toast especially with the crust on will also help (we know why now). Increasing your cool fluids will cool you down if there is a fever and stimulate your bladder to pass more urine, thus passing out the bad bugs too.

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