Homemade Health: Testing the Validity of Treat-It-Yourself Remedies

There are many old sayings related to health that we hear so often, we believe them to be inherently true. Whether it is eating an apple a day or icing a sprained ankle, such “wisdom” has been around for a very long time. However, we rarely take the time to consider the source of these ideas and if there is scientific basis to support their validity. Here, we will take a look at some homemade health practices and evaluate the effectiveness of four common mantras.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Although it differs from the current version, the first use of this saying was recorded in the 1860s and reportedly originated from Pembrokeshire in Wales. The original phrase was “eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” This evolved in the 19th and early 20th centuries to “an apple a day, no doctor to pay” and then “an apple a day sends the doctor away.” Today’s “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” was first recorded in 1922.

There have been several studies to test the science and effectiveness of the phrase. Most recently, a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that although apple eaters seemed to be more likely to keep the doctor away, the association was not statistically significant. The impact on staving off pharmacists was another story: “Evidence does not support that an apple a day keeps the doctor away; however, the small fraction of U.S. adults who eat an apple a day do appear to use fewer prescription medications.”

Although their merit as doctor deterrents is questionable, apples obviously have nutritional value. Whether it is an apple or another type of fruit, this food group has proven its value as part of a healthy diet. Fruit contains antioxidants, fiber, and other beneficial components that can help fight cancer and other diseases.

Use the RICE method for injuries.

The RICE mnemonic — Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation — to treat sprains and strains was coined by Dr. Gabe Mirkin in his best-selling Sportsmedicine Book in 1978 and has been used for decades. However, even Dr. Mirkin is now questioning the efficacy of RICE, citing several studies that call the practice into question and even suggest that some components, such as ice, which increases tension and the likelihood of spasms, could cause further damage by slowing recovery. Too much swelling can amplify the negative effects of an injury, but it’s also an essential part of the healing process and should not be delayed indefinitely.

Almost 40 years later, we’ve honed our responses to injuries significantly, and many experts are now recommending that the POLICE method be used instead: Protection, Optimal Loading, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. The authors of a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine say that too much rest can actually delay healing: “Rest should be of limited duration and restricted to immediately after trauma. Longer periods of unloading are harmful and produce adverse changes to tissue biomechanics and morphology." In other words, light and moderate movement, depending on the injury and age of the individual, helps your body heal.

Try the BRAT diet for upset stomachs.

Long used to treat children with gastrointestinal distress, the BRAT diet — Bananas, Rice cereal, Applesauce, and Toast — has been touted for its effectiveness due to the ease with which it can be digested, giving the gut a chance to rest and reduce the amount of stool produced.

However, experts are rethinking this approach as well, saying that it may not be the best option for children who are ill. Since the BRAT diet is low in fiber, protein, and fat, it does not provide enough nutrition to aid recovery of a child’s gastrointestinal tract. That is why the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that as long as the child is well hydrated, they may resume a normal age-appropriate diet within 24 hours of getting sick, including a mix of fruits, vegetables, meat, yogurt, and complex carbohydrates.

Starve a fever, feed a cold.

There is an ongoing debate about the origin of this saying, with some attributing it to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and others arguing that it first appeared in 1574, when a dictionary writer named John Withals wrote, "Fasting is a great remedie of feuer." The thought process behind the original saying is that eating helps increase the body’s temperature during a “cold” and fasting helps cool it down when there is a fever.

Either way, experts say there is no scientific merit to the premise, noting that the more effective approach would be to “feed a cold, feed a fever.” In both instances, the strain of illness means that the body requires energy to fight it off, which equates to the need for an adequate calorie intake to do it. Equally important is the need to take in plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and clear mucous. So yes, a steamy cup of chicken soup fits the bill for both.

Health care decisions are made at home all the time, including deciding whether to go to work or school or seeking professional care. It’s important to remember that your primary care provider is a partner in your care, and that “old adages” may or may not be scientifically proven. When in doubt, it’s best to discuss important matters of health with the experts.