Six bizarre health tips Italian grans swear by

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Patrick Browne - [email protected]
Six bizarre health tips Italian grans swear by
Photo: olly18/DepositPhotos"

Italians have come up with some truly weird and wonderful remedies for common health complaints but do they help, or are they just a bunch of old wives' tales?


Every culture around the world has its own unique knowledge systems developed by different communities over the centuries. Given the patchwork nature of its history, Italy is awash with traditional remedies, many of which are still thought to work.

But why are these beliefs so popular? Are Italians more suspicious of conventional medicine?

“Not at all!” laughs Elisabetta Brero, a 20-year-old student from Turin.

She admitted to having tried some of the methods on the list below, but explained: “They come from the older generations. It's not as though my mum tells me to whiten my teeth with sage or anything... They date back to a time when we didn't have so many products and so people had to make do with what they had.”

In most cases, being Italy, that meant food.

Here, food is a central theme of daily life. Certainly, the old adage “food is medicine” is held to be true when it comes to Italian folk medicine.

The items on this list are all things that usually reside in the kitchen cupboard and not the medicine cabinet. This reflects the Italian idea that good health begins at the table. There's got to be something in it: the average life expectancy in Italy is a whopping 83 years, compared with an EU average of just 79.

Some of these remedies are tried and tested and others are a bit more dubious... but they just might be worth a try next time you need a quick fix.

Whiten your teeth with sage leaves

Garden Sage, good for your pearly whites. Photo: Sotiria Simota

A simple one that's sure to leave you with fresh breath and a pearly-white smile. Take a bunch of sage leaves and rub them on your teeth. The science behind this one would appear to be sound. Sage has astringent, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties and smells and tastes great – sage advice indeed!

Soothe a burn with olive oil

Extra virgin olive oil, a veritable panacea. Photo: Jim

It would be impossible to have a list of Italian health tips that didn't include olive oil. Olive oil is consumed by the gallon here and is an essential part of the healthy Mediterranean diet. Olive is an oil for all seasons and can be used to treat a wide array of ailments, from chapped lips to burns.

Any Italian grandmother will tell you that applying olive oil to a light burn can soothe pain and reduce scarring — although it should be noted that for more serious burns, olive oil won't help and immediate medical attention is recommended.

Olive oil isn't just for external use in the treatment of burns either: The Olive Oil Times reported that a group of severe burns patients who took an olive oil food supplement healed quicker than those given a sunflower oil supplement.

A piece of white bread alleviates heartburn

Cure heartburn with white bread. Apparently Photo: Mrjohncummings

One of the more bizarre items on the list. Especially seeing as white bread is frequently cited on lists of foods that cause heartburn. What's the science? We're not sure....however, the Italians we asked said it may have something to do with the bread soaking up any excessive gastric juices. Deliciously dubious...

No more tears: onions cure earache

No more tears! Onions, said to soothe earache. Photo: Donovan Govan

Don't look so surprised! Onions are a year-round fixture in every Italian pantry and, as a result, must have some kind of medicinal value too.

While this may sound strange, it seems to have a fairly solid scientific base. The good news is that administering onion therapy couldn't be more straightforward. Take an onion and chop it in half – warm it slightly in hot water (be careful not to heat it too much), then place the warm root over your ear and have a lie down.

Once the vapours get to work they should soothe your earache thanks to a natural antibiotic called allicin. Nonna knows her onions...

Cure toothache with brandy

Getting to the root of the problem? Brandy can ease toothache. Photo: Abhay Kumar

There is nothing worse than the persistent throbbing of a sore tooth. One of the most effective home remedies in Italy involves rinsing your mouth out with brandy. This works as the alcohol not only sterilizes the mouth, it also soaks into the gum providing efficient pain relief.
Yes, the alcohol should be spat out at the end of the process. You might want to try soaking a piece of cotton wool in brandy and placing it over the sore tooth – this will prevent you from polishing off granddad's favourite bottle.
Upset stomach? Eat white rice and lemon

White Jasmine rice. Photo: Henning Klevjer

A sworn favourite. If you have a dicky stomach the last thing you want to eat is anything with any kind of flavour or too many spices. It kind of makes sense – white rice is easy to digest and fairly nutritious, while the lemon will help cleanse your stomach and give you a hit of immune boosting vitamin C.

Avoid eggs, unless you want to ruin your liver

Eggs, a very un-Italian breakfast. Photo: Cyclonebill

A prevailing belief among many Italians is that eating too many eggs will ruin your liver. Your Italian nonna would recommend you eat no more than three eggs a week.

This stems from the widely held belief in Italy that eggs are very difficult to digest and place a strain on the liver. All of which would appear to be untrue; indeed the myth has been busted by many Italian media sources.

Not all Italians are egg-averse though. Emma Morano, Italy's oldest woman before her death at 117, put her longevity down in part to the two eggs she ate a day.

As the old saying goes: you can't teach your grandmother to suck eggs.

A version of this article was first published in 2015.



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