Chances are you’re familiar with at least one of these long-standing food fixes: Sip on warm milk to help fall asleep; eat chicken soup to cure a cold; drink prune juice to relieve constipation; and so on.
Many natural food remedies have been around for years and years, even centuries, passed down from generation to generation.
Have you ever wondered, though, if such remedies really work? Is there scientific evidence to deem them worthy of adding to your prescription list?
Here’s a look at what medical science says about five common “cure-alls.”
Peppermint tea banishes bloating
The idea that drinking peppermint tea soothes digestive upset stems from positive studies on peppermint oil capsules and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. Several clinical trials have shown that taking enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules reduces bloating, abdominal pain and gas in people with IBS. (Enteric-coated capsules bypass the stomach and are released into the small intestine.)
Peppermint oil contains an essential oil called menthol which, in animals, has been shown to relax the smooth muscle of the gastrointestinal tract, slow bowel motility and ease pain.
Peppermint tea, though, has not been studied. Even so, it’s possible it could have similar effects.
If you want to try it, consider using a handful of fresh peppermint leaves instead of a tea bag to make your tea. Research suggests if you do, you’ll extract twice the amount of menthol.
Note: If you have GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), peppermint (and spearmint) may trigger symptoms.
Chicken soup cures a cold
Despite probably being the best known cure-all, there’s no evidence to prove that eating chicken soup is effective at treating the common cold. There are, however, theories gleaned from lab studies as to how the traditional remedy could help lessen the sniffles.
According to a 2000 study from the University of Nebraska, a homemade chicken soup – containing chicken, lots of vegetables, parsley, salt and pepper – was shown to inhibit the activity of inflammation-causing white blood cells in blood samples from volunteers. It was thought that this could reduce the flow of mucus and ease a stuffy nose.
Another study (1978) found that sipping hot chicken soup increased the velocity of nasal secretions in 15 healthy volunteers, an outcome that might help clear a stuffed-up nose. However, the effect lasted only 30 minutes and drinking hot water had the same effect.
Still, there’s no reason not to eat chicken and vegetable soup when you’re sick. It’s tasty, nutritious and helps hydrate you, too.
Prunes treat constipation
This well-versed remedy has scientific backing. A 2014 review of four randomized controlled trials concluded that eating eight or 10 prunes daily for three weeks increased stool weight and bowel movement frequency in constipated and non-constipated individuals. Prunes were more effective than psyllium.
And a trial published earlier this year found that among 120 healthy adults who ate a low fibre diet, eating eight or 12 prunes a day for one month significantly improved the frequency of bowel movements.
Prunes contain fibre (5.6 grams for every eight prunes), both insoluble fibres that increase stool bulk and soluble fibres that are fermented by bacteria in the colon. Prunes also have sorbitol, a natural sugar, which has a laxative effect in some people.
Whole prunes may be more effective than prune juice since they are higher in fibre and sorbitol. Eight dried prunes have 184 calories, about the same as two medium apples.
Warm milk helps you fall asleep
The claim that milk is a sleeping aid revolves around tryptophan, an amino acid that’s used to make serotonin in the brain. Serotonin, in turn, is converted to the sleep hormone melatonin.
There is no evidence that milk induces sleep and, if it does, it’s likely not because of tryptophan, which is low in milk to begin with.
Plus, to enter the brain, tryptophan has to compete against other amino acids in milk. Studies have found that eating protein-rich foods, such as milk, reduces the ability of tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier.
If drinking warm milk does help you fall asleep, it may be because it’s part of a bedtime ritual that mentally prepares you for sleep.
Ginger ale abates nausea
Ginger – in the forms of tea made from fresh or dried ginger root and capsules of ginger extract – have been shown to reduce nausea related to pregnancy, motion sickness, vertigo and hangover. Ginger owes its anti-emetic effect to active compounds in the root and rhizome called gingerols and shogaols.
But here’s the thing. There’s little or no real ginger in most ginger ale. The so-called “ginger” comes from “ginger flavour.”
If you’re feeling queasy, try homemade ginger tea. Pour boiling water in a cup, add fresh grated ginger root, or slices, and steep for 10 minutes.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.