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Chicken Soup's Label As 'Jewish Penicillin' Is More Whimsy Than Fact

But it's still a great comfort food, researchers say.

This article was first published in the Montreal Gazette.

“As the Good Book says, when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.”

That line comes from Tevye in the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof. The village Rabbi’s son overhears this and asks: “Where does the Book say that?” To which Tevye responds. “All right, all right! It doesn’t exactly say that, but someplace, it has something about a chicken.” And he is right!

The “Good Book” to which Tevye refers is the Talmud, a collection of writings compiled in the 5th century by Jewish theologists about ethics, philosophy, religious observance, rituals, dietary laws and traditions that serve as a guide for the conduct of daily Jewish life. One of the discussions in the Talmud mentions “the chicken of Rabbi Abba, which for medical reasons was cooked so thoroughly that it completely dissolved.” Sounds like the sage considered chicken soup as medicine!

Actually, credit for the first mention of chicken soup as “medicine” goes to a Chinese document dating to the second century BC in which the soup is described as a “yang food” that warms the body and has an invigorating effect. But it was Moses Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher and physician, who brought the healing properties of chicken soup into the limelight.

Maimonides was born in the Iberian town of Cordoba, but his family had to flee when it was conquered by the Almohades, an extremist sect that forced Christians and Jews to convert to Islam or face death. Eventually the family ended up in Egypt where Moses became a highly respected physician, even serving in the Sultan’s court. Exactly how he was educated is not clear, but we do know that his medical writings reflect Galen and Hippocrates’s view that health is a function of the balance of the body’s four humors, namely blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.

Although the humoral theory had no scientific basis, Maimonides’s recommendations to bring them into balance had value. Well ahead of his time, he emphasized the importance of clean air, clean water, a healthy diet and exercise, and stated that “a physician should begin with simple treatment, trying to cure by hygiene and diet before he administers drugs.” That diet included the meat and broth of chickens that he claimed “rectified corrupted humors, especially black bile that causes melancholy.” He even recommended chicken soup as a medication for leprosy. That would not have had any effect on the bacteria that cause the disease but could have provided nourishment for convalescence. Maimonides was particularly fond of chicken testicles for convalescence and also claimed that “they aid the libido in a strongly perceptible manner.”

While there is no record of Maimonides specifically addressing chicken soup for the common cold, Dr. Fred Rosner, the world’s foremost expert on Maimonides, has dug up a quote that “soup made from an old chicken is of benefit against chronic fevers that develop from white bile and also aids the cough which is called asthma.”

Whether because of the Talmud or Maimonides’s conjectures, by the early 1900s in Russia, the era of Fiddler on the Roof, the mythology of chicken soup as medicine was well established and the soup had become a staple at the Shabbat dinner. But is mythology really the right term? Could there be some science to the soup’s supposed benefits? That question has tickled the fancy of researchers, some perhaps motivated by the chance to garner headlines, something that any story about chicken soup is guaranteed to do.

First out of the block were physicians at the Mount Sinai Medical centre in Miami who in 1978 decided to investigate whether “chicken soup, a treatment long advocated by Jewish mothers,” was effective for alleviating upper respiratory tract ailments. In 15 healthy patients, they devised an ingenious way using tubes, tiny Teflon discs inserted into the nose and scuba diving masks to measure the speed at which mucus flowed out of the nose and air flowed in. The subjects were asked to consume hot water, hot chicken soup or cold water either by sipping or drinking through a straw.

Sipping hot water or hot chicken soup both increased nasal mucus velocity as did chicken soup by straw, but hot water by straw did not. None of the treatments changed nasal airflow. Although this study received a great deal of publicity with articles highlighting the increased flow as a result of consuming chicken soup, the fact that hot water had the same effect was hardly mentioned.

The chicken soup literature was silent until 2000 when a study with the title “Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro” once again captured the media’s attention. Chemotaxis is the ability of cells to move in a particular direction in response to a stimulus such as chemicals emitted by a bacterium or virus. Neutrophils are white blood cells that are attracted to the site of infection by signals released from cells that have been infected and damaged by bacteria or viruses. The neutrophils then engulf the invading microbe and destroy it. It is the elimination of the breakdown products that results in the runny nose, sneezing and congestion, the classic symptoms of a cold. “In Vitro” literally means “in glass” and refers to experiments done in the lab, as opposed to using animals or people.

The researchers found that chicken soup significantly inhibits neutrophil migration and does so in a concentration dependent manner. Both the broth and the vegetables it contained showed this effect when tested separately. What does this mean? Not much. First, a study in glassware with neutrophils immersed in chicken soup cannot be extrapolated to what may happen in a cold sufferer. It is hard to even guess if whatever “active ingredient” there may be in the soup makes it from the stomach to the respiratory tract. And while slowing neutrophil activity may lessen symptoms, it also lengthens the time to destroy the invading microbe. So, really, there’s very scant evidence here for chicken soup as medicine.


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