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Chickens in the garden
Of all the homemade winter cure-alls, chicken soup is the best known and most loved. In fact, the term “chicken soup” has become idiomatic for all things restorative; benefiting every possible problem from the head to the soul. In many different cultures, chicken soup is a traditional treatment for symptoms of the common cold.

Chicken soup is widely known as “Jewish Penicillin”. Some of this may reflect the traditional use of chicken soup as a Sabbath meal and the perceived importance of piety in affecting health outcomes. Nonetheless, it’s a staple among Jewish grandmothers and their snotty grandchildren, worldwide.

Even before the Olympics, Greek grandmothers may also claim they invented Chicken soup for the common cold. Avgolemono (Αυγολέμονο) is a thick egg and lemon (chicken) broth widely administered for the symptoms of cold and flu, or for their prophylaxis on wet winter evenings. Although a quintessentially Greek dish, it is likely that its therapeutic use has its earliest origin in Sephardic tradition. Adding the “all important” lemon may have been the Greek contribution.

Not to be outdone, most Chinese grandmothers are ready and primed to produce chicken soup at the first sign of a sniffle. In traditional Chinese medicine, illness is perceived as a state of imbalance between yin and yang. Yin represents the darker cooling forces, while yang embodies the lighter, warmer forces. In this paradigm, the treatment for cold is obviously yang, and chicken soup is a prime example: restoring the yang forces and balancing the cold of yin.

There have been a few attempts to definitively establish these cold-busting effects in clinical studies. One 1978 study found that sipping hot chicken soup increased the velocity of nasal secretions (runny noses) in healthy volunteers. This could be a good thing for clearing a blocked nose but the study showed it only worked for a few minutes and wasn’t any more effective than hot water.

Beyond the steam, there is no chemical or biological reason for having chicken soup when we are sick with a cold. However, the psychology of chicken soup can’t be overlooked. Chicken soup is a comfort food on a day when we would really like some comfort. With the expectation of efficacy, the succour of being cared for, the taste of home on an otherwise dull day. There’s a good reason for chicken soup for the soul.


The Longevity List
This is an edited extract from Prof Merlin Thomas’s The Longevity List – Myth Busting the Top Ways to Live a Long and Healthy Life available from www.exislepublishing.com. Thomas is a physician, scientist and author who uses the cutting-edge science and research to help people live better, longer and healthier lives. He has been featured in many of the world’s leading medical journals, and is the author of Understanding Type 2 Diabetes, and Fast Living, Slow Ageing.

Mother and baby
The most prominent infection that affects newborns is called Group B Streptococcus (GBS), which can lead to babies developing sepsis or pneumonia before their immune systems are strong enough to fight off the bug. While GBS can be deadly, most newborns don’t get infected. Researchers have now found that although the pathogen can be transmitted to infants through breastfeeding, some mothers produce protective carbohydrates in their milk that could help prevent infection. They also report that the carbohydrates can act as anti-biofilm agents, which is the first example of carbohydrates in human milk having this function. “This is the first example of generalised, antimicrobial activity on the part of the carbohydrates in human milk,” says chemist Steven Townsend. “One of the remarkable properties of these compounds is that they are clearly non-toxic, unlike most antibiotics.”

Curious as to how GBS was infecting these young infants in the first place, researchers about 10 years ago found cases in which the bacteria were transmitted through breast milk, despite milk’s known immunologic benefits. But because most babies do not become infected with group B strep, Townsend and others wanted to see if some women’s breast milk contained protective compounds that specifically fight that bacteria.

“As carbohydrate chemists, we knew from previous research that milk carbohydrates are protective against other bacteria, so we figured there would be a chance they would be active against group B strep, too,” says Townsend, who is at Vanderbilt University. To test this hypothesis in a pilot study, his lab gathered five samples of breast milk from donors, isolated the complex sugars, also called oligosaccharides, and grew GBS in the presence of the sugars. The women’s GBS status was unknown.

“When bacteria want to harm us, they produce this gooey protective substance called a biofilm, which allows them to thwart our defense mechanisms,” Townsend says. “In the initial study, the oligosaccharides from one mother’s milk killed nearly the entire colony. Another milk sample was moderately effective, while the remaining three showed diminished activity.”

In the current study, his team members are testing more than a dozen additional milk samples to see if they can replicate their first round of results. So far, two samples have shown activity against both bacteria and biofilms; two just worked against bacteria but not biofilms; and four helped fight biofilm formation but not bacteria. Six were relatively inactive against both. Preliminary data also suggest that some mothers produce milk carbohydrates that make the bacteria more susceptible to common antibiotics, including penicillin and erythromycin. If these results bear out through future studies, these carbohydrates could potentially become a part of an antibacterial treatment for infants or adults. They could also help reduce our dependence on some common antibiotics, Townsend says. “The great thing about these carbohydrates,” he adds, “is that if they’re safe for babies, they should be safe for everyone.”


Are we building places that harm our health? Yes, unequivocally, yes we are according to distinguished professor Jim Sallis opening a survey of the young science of built environments and obesity at the National Academy of Sciences.

Well into the 20th century, big cities and small towns alike were built for people. Mixed uses meant that neighbourhood businesses served the needs of people who lived nearby. Workplaces and schools often blended into neighbourhoods. People used the streets. By the end of the century, most cities and towns were built for cars. Zoning laws separated homes from businesses. Strip malls and fast food evolved around cars. Pedestrians became second-class citizens at best. Driving to work, to shop, and to school became a big part of daily routines. Public transit faded and frayed.

Did these profound shifts in our environment play a role in the rise of obesity? That was a question rarely studied until the 21st century, said Sallis. Rodrigo Reis, Karen Glanz, and Daniel Rodríguez provided excellent overviews of what we know about this question. Especially in Glanz’s presentation on the food environment, two things were clear.

First, we certainly have good reasons to suspect that we’ve built our world in a way that promotes obesity. But second, the evidence remains thin to pinpoint the critical factors and single out solutions. When tested, assumptions often prove to be false. Considerable money and effort, for example, went toward planting supermarkets in food deserts. But those efforts, by themselves, didn’t move the needle toward better nutrition.

Likewise, efforts to control fast food outlets haven’t yet produced impressive results. Glanz made an important point. These are early days. Maybe the problem is that our methods are weak for studying these questions. Maybe the strategies need refinement. Implementation, intensity, and time are all important factors. Or maybe some of our assumptions are wrong. The time is right for asking what we really know. Which beliefs about the built environment are indeed factual? Which are presumptions? And which of them are simply myths?
—Thanks to Ted Kyle of ConscienHealth for this report.

To read more 

  • For slides and a video recording of the proceedings, click here
  • For perspective on studies of the built environment and health, click here and here
  • For a systematic review of the relationship between local food environments and obesity, click here
  • Photo: Ted Kyle