It might seem ironic that, while we rely on antibiotics to save us from many of our worst infections, that for our most common infectious diseases—the cold and influenza— we are essentially powerless. There is no cure for these. Antibiotics do not help since these illnesses are caused by viruses, against which antibiotics have no power (and may be harmful).
So it makes sense that people have, probably forever, turned to certain foods to try to soothe their symptoms and speed recovery. In much of the western world, chicken soup is at the top of people’s minds when they are ill, but is it helpful, or just folklore?
Actually, chicken soup is probably the food with the best scientific research supporting its healing properties.
The healthiest chicken soup seems to be the traditional type made from stock created of simmering chicken meat and bones for several hours. The bones donate to the stock the helpful minerals calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. Amino acids and fats from the marrow and cartilage may add further anti-inflammatory factors. And the various vegetables in a good chicken soup each contribute their own measure of different vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
A study from the University of Nebraska (USA) published in the journal Chest showed that homemade chicken soup alters the action of the white blood cells in a way that decreases nasal congestion. A study published in 1978 in the same journal showed that chicken soup helped improve the function of the cilia, which are the tiny hair-like projections found on the surface of our respiratory system, which act as microscopic sweepers to flush out invading microbes.
A study published in the American Journal of Therapeutics (2012) identified the amino acid carnosine as the key beneficial compound in chicken soup. Other research suggests that the warmth, hydration, and salt provided by the soup are additional boosts to healing.
As far as which vegetables to add, scientific research supports the antiviral properties of garlic, onions, and ginger. Additional vegetables thought to be especially helpful include celery, parsnips, turnips, leeks, carrots, parsley, and sweet potatoes.
To summarize, the idea of eating warm chicken soup when you are ill has good scientific evidence behind it, and probably, when you are ill, the sooner you start taking the soup the better. It might be wise to make a large batch of chicken soup when you are well, and store it frozen for when you need it. Start taking it at the first symptoms, or to help prevent infection when a close contact is sick.
Chicken soup is a good way to hydrate yourself, and also important is adequate water and/or tea. Finally, allow yourself to sleep as much as your body needs. Sometimes getting sick is a message that you have been moving and stressing too much, and sleeping too little.
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