Science Questions

Should you "feed a cold and starve a fever" ?

Sun, 13th Dec 2009

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Christina asked:

Should you "Feed a cold, starve a fever"? Is this true?


Chris -   Well, actually, it’s part right, part wrong.  Mostly part wrong.  The “feed a cold” is absolutely right.  A “starve a fever” is probably absolutely wrong.  There was a paper that got published and we reported it on The Naked Scientists last year - in the Physiological and Biochemical Zoology journal by Lynn Martin. She reported taking deer mice and starving them, in other words, they gave them 30% fewer calories than they would normally need in a day.  The mice didn’t show any obvious behavioural differences compared with well-fed mice.  But when they did blood tests on them they had far fewer memory B cells.  These are the cells that make antibodies that defend you against infections in the future.  So this shows that if you aren’t getting a good enough diet you will therefore have too little energy to put into mounting an effective immune response and therefore you’ll be more prone to an infection in the short term and more prone to an infection subsequently as well.  This also fits with other studies that have been done where people receiving measles vaccine have been followed up.  People who weren’t eating enough had far fewer anti-measles antibodies subsequently compared with people who are much better fed.  So, you should always ‘feed a cold’ is the moral of that story, but you should definitely not “starve a fever.”

Helen -   I just try and eat a thing, basically.  And if you’re feeling awful, try and get something down.  Exactly.

Chris -    Basically, you need energy to master your immune response.  You have to grow lots of cells.  And that takes energy.  And you got to feed yourself.

Helen -   Makes sense.


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