Irish mammies more often wrong than right, say scientists

‘Carrots let you see in the dark’ among myths peddled by our mothers

Irish mammies are legendary for offering sound advice on life, love and health, but it turns out they may have got it wrong more often than right.

“Wear a hat out there, sure don’t you lose more heat from your head,” is something we have all heard at one time or another, probably accompanied with a stern shake of a finger.

“Don’t sit on that cold wall, you’ll get a kidney infection,” is another piece of advice that turns out to be a bit dodgy.

Sad to say these and other common adages in fact are not true, according to Science Foundation Ireland.


It runs the SFI Discover programme that backs public outreach and education about science. It decided to look more closely at the things Irish mammies say to see if their advice stands up to scientific scrutiny.

Carrots are a case in point. Eating lots of carrots means we will be able to see better in the dark, right? Sorry, wrong. The Foundation says the orangy beta-carotene in carrots helps the body make vitamin A and this in turn helps to sustain the eye cells used to see in dim light.

But more carrots won’t change anything once there is enough vitamin A so your night vision won’t improve.

A hat will keep the rain off and keep your ears toasty but wearing a hat to conserve heat is a waste of time.

The notion you lose more heat from the top of your head arose in the 1950s after experiments by the US military.

Your head might feel colder than other parts of your body, but you won’t lose heat any faster through your head, the Foundation said.

Kidney infections are caused by bacteria that get into your kidneys and not by spending time in the cold. The claim was more likely a ruse to thwart loitering by youngsters, the Foundation suggests.

By the same token research in the New England Journal of Medicine found being in the cold did not increase your chances of getting a cold.

Then there is the old one about getting a chest cold and coughing up phlegm. “You’ve got green phlegm so you better get an antibiotic from the doctor,” is the advice but this too is false, the Foundation says.

In fact the presence of phlegm actually shows the body’s immune system is working and fighting off the infection. It proves white blood cells are attacking and killing the bacterial or viral invaders.

If you do contract a cold then should you heed the advice to “take some vitamin C to help cure your cold”? This final bit of advice is actually a way, the Foundation says.

It is similar to the carrots but in this case the vitamin C helps your body make more white blood cells, the main cells in your immune system. But there is no clear evidence that the vitamin C is actually working directly to cure the cold.

The Foundation has a campaign running called #ScienceRising that seeks to involve more of the public in things scientific and to take an interest in the world-beating scientific research happening here.

“The idea is to engage with people a little bit more, to make science more topical for general readers,” a spokeswoman said.

The #ScienceRising campaign selects a different theme every month and May is given over to health-related issues.

Last month it was technology and next month it is about women in science.

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Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.