Since the ancient times, food has been hailed as a restorative factor in our lives.

A phrase attributed to Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, says it all: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

And while there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this — how many of us turn to chicken soup to soothe a cold? — science is now catching up to Hippocrates.

For example, a recent study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health reveals that foods like fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidant nutrients and carotenoids are associated with better function in patients diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

ALS is a severe neurodegenerative disorder that causes atrophy, paralysis, and eventually respiratory failure. Median survival for ALS patients ranges from 20 to 48 months, although 10 percent to 20 percent of patients can live longer than 10 years, according to researchers.

Dr. Jeri Nieves

Jeri Nieves

For the study, Jeri W. Nieves, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology, and her research team examined the links between nutritional intake and severity of ALS for patients who had symptoms for 18 months or less.

The study followed 302 participants recruited at 16 clinical centers throughout the U.S. The patients reported their nutrient intake on a food questionnaire, while researchers used a validated measure of ALS severity and respiratory function.

“It appears that nutrition plays a role both in triggering the disease and why it progresses,” said Nieves. “For this reason, ALS patients should eat foods high in antioxidants and carotenes, as well as high fiber grains, fish, and poultry.”

The researchers also found that milk and lunch meats were associated with lower measures of function, or more severe disease.

Two different statistical analyses by Nieves indicate that diet may help minimize the severity of ALS and point to the role of oxidative stress in ALS severity.

“The foods and nutrients that may help reduce the severity of ALS are very similar to the recommendation to prevent many other chronic diseases,” she said.

She admits that relying on a food questionnaire isn’t always best as it may not represent a true daily diet. It’s pretty common for people to present what they think they should be eating, rather than what they are eating.

Nevertheless, the study reveals some insight into how nutrition can help people with ALS.

“Those responsible for nutritional care of the patient with ALS should consider promoting fruits and vegetables since they are high in antioxidants and carotenes,” Nieves said.

She added that future studies will look at follow-up-data on both dietary intake and the progression of ALS in patients.