Why Chicken Soup Always Makes You Feel Better When You're Sick
We did some noodling to determine if the popular folk remedy can help (and even heal) you.
Soups are linked with curative properties. There’s a reason, for example, that chicken soup cooked in the Jewish tradition with matzo balls is often called “penicillin,” and that chicken soup is associated with grandmothers and nourishment, warmth, and soulfulness. Our food culture has a vague but long-entrenched idea that chicken soup can offer a remedy more homestyle than the pill capsule, a notion that reaches into the past.
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates said, “Let your food be your medicine.” We tend not to think of food as medicine, but it can be. Some cultures more prominently consider the medical and digestive properties of food when planning meals. Think of the European aperitif and digestif culture, where liqueurs prime your system for eating or help you digest after. In the Chinese tradition, many diners think about the warming and cooling influences of food, among numerous other diverse factors.
Foods are made up of many chemical compounds. Some, like dark chocolate, contain hundreds. Because of their components, many foods can predictably alter your mood, mind, or how your body works. Think about how you feel as you fall under the spell of the tryptophan of a turkey leg, or the calming agents in a cup of chamomile tea.
According to one classic study, chicken soup can also change bodily activity.
Early this century, an American College of Chest Physicians study cooked up an impressively comprehensive chicken soup for testing. The soup contained a wide range of vegetables, including sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, and celery. Organizers found that chicken soup provided a mild anti-inflammatory effect—one that could help mitigate infections in the upper-respiratory area, such as the common cold.
According to the study, undertaken by Nebraska Medical Center, chicken soup achieves these results by inhibiting something known as neutrophil chemotaxis. Basically, white blood cells behave differently after chicken soup, resulting in added anti-inflammatory activity.
This widely cited study attributed results to the soup’s chicken and its vegetables. Interestingly, the study tested store-bought soups as well as homemade. It found that a few store-bought soups offered less benefit than the homemade version.
An even earlier study from the same research journal found that chicken soup, relative to water, allowed for easier movement of fluids in the nose (referred to in the study as “nasal mucus velocity”). Though these two studies aren’t fully determinative, what they suggest aligns with our chicken soup folklore.
Seen from a broader angle, our bodies need nutrients to overcome sickness. Protein especially allows our systems to kick into the gear we need to get better. And chicken soup packs a wide range of nutrients, from vitamins to protein to fat if you’ve simmered your soup with chicken skin. Chicken soup is a handy way to obtain these nutrients during under-the-weather days you don’t feel like eating, say, a stir-fry or steak.
From a still-broader angle, think of how good you feel after a bowl of chicken soup. Especially on a cold afternoon. It gives you warmth in more ways than one. There is an old magic at work, and that magic, when we look, may be the result of science. But it is likely also the result of more intangible properties: eating food cooked by caring people, eating food with other people, eating robust whole foods simply made.
As the famous study reveals, homemade soup is a great option. There are lots of kinds of chicken soup, with origins all over the world. Some even include further anti-inflammatory ingredients, like ginger. Many aren’t all that hard to make. So next time you’re feeling a sniffle or have a chicken and some vegetables, look to recipes like chicken noodle soup, ginger chicken soup, or Mexican chicken soup for some tasty healing.