Much like superstitions, many old wives’ tales passed down through the ages were based on observations at a time when science could not prove them to be true or not. Some are useful and can be proven as fact such as: “Eat fish to make you brainy” as this is due to omega-3 fatty acids in fish that are important for brain function. But what about “feed a cold and starve a fever?” True or false?
There are actually two sides to this argument. Whereas it is not generally recommended to starve the body at any time, the saying has been found to have some scientific backing. The idea itself may have originated far back in history when in the Middle Ages it was common practice to fast to fight a fever. Whereas they felt that colds and chills needed to be fueled so eating was recommended.
Nowadays, feeding a cold and starving a fever is seen as advice to be discarded as denying the body necessary nutrients and fluids is also denying the immune system the energy it needs to function properly. Drinking plenty liquids such as water and fruit juice can help prevent dehydration.
Results of a study conducted by a Dutch research team seem, however, to support this old wives tale! Van den Brink who conducted the study found that after a meal, the balance of two chemicals that regulate the relevant branches of the immune system, shift quite strongly. Temporary variations in the amount of chemical messengers called cytokines were seen in healthy volunteers when eating and fasting.
It was found that the average level of cytokine gamma interferon which helps to trigger white blood cells and stimulates the body’s defense against chronic infections increased by 450 per cent. Whereas fasting produced lower levels of gamma interferon but higher levels of interleukin which helps produce antibodies that defend against acute infections. Van der Brink argues that fevers are often associated with swift-acting infections and colds can be more persistent.
Even so, depriving the body of necessary nutrients is not conducive for good health and it seems that common sense advice would be to drink plenty liquids in order to avoid dehydration and to eat when hungry!
A fever can be cooled by taking a cold bath or shower or using a fan to help reduce the temperature of the body. Wear light clothing and keep the room cool. If a fever is very high or lasts for a few days, seek medical attention.
Association for Psychological Science (2009, July 21). Starve A Fever, Feed A Cold, Don’t Be Stressed.