This is the old wives' tale that no one seems to be able to keep straight. The actual cliché is as the title states, “starve a fever, feed a cold.” The saying dates back to 1574 and was first penned by dictionary maker John Withals. The exact wording he used was "Fasting is a great remedie of feuer."
There is no clear indication of how the remedy was concocted. One possible origin can be found in the folk understanding of how diseases worked. It was thought that there were two kinds of illnesses, those caused by low temperatures (colds and chills) and those caused by high temperatures (fever). To cure a cold, it was thought that you should warm your body up by feeding it fuel. If you had a fever, you wanted to avoid overheating, so you were to cut down on the fuel your body was receiving.
But is there any truth to this phrase?
Well...yes and no, let me explain:
When it comes to illness, common medical thinking states that you shouldn’t deviate much from your regular eating habits. Either stuffing or starving yourself adds unneeded stress to your already overworked body that is trying to fight off infection. Whether you have a cold or fever, it is important to take in a lot of fluids as well as all essential vitamins and minerals.
Yet, a recent study claims that on the short-term, “starve a fever, feed a cold” might actually be correct. Eating and fasting cause brief fluctuations in the amount of two chemical messengers called cytokines.
After a meal, the average level of the cytokine gamma interferon (INF-gamma) in the blood of six volunteers increased by 450%. INF-gamma stimulates the body's defense against chronic infections that are associated with colds. INF-gamma triggers the release of killer white blood cells, which destroy infected cells.
Volunteers who did not eat a meal had low INF-gamma levels but far higher concentrations of another cytokine called interleukin-4(IL-4). IL-4 is associated with the production of antibodies, the protein molecules that form the front line defense against acute infections, the kinds that most often produce fevers.
So if you find yourself sick, taking in a good amount of food may be helpful for fighting a cold, while taking in a little less may be helpful in fighting a fever. Neither should be taken to an extreme though. If you have any questions or the illness gets more severe, consult a physician. And for Pete’s sake, get off the computer and get back in bed, you need to get some rest!