First described by the early Greeks, their writings were followed up in the 12th century by the Egyptian physician and philosopher Maimonides. His experience led him to recommend this food favorite as a treatment for upper respiratory tract infections.
His advice has been passed down over the generations. Today chicken soup is consumed not just because it’s reputed to fight colds and viral infections, but also because it tastes great.
But are the medicinal qualities of chicken soup real or just folklore? Several research groups tried to find out.
Clears Congested Nasal Passages
Also known as Jewish penicillin, chicken soup was put to the test by three respiratory specialists from Mount Sinai Medical Center, Miami Beach.
They asked 15 volunteers to drink chicken soup, hot water or cold water by either sipping or using a straw with a lid over the cup. Measurements of air flow and nasal mucus were taken at the start of the study, and again after five minutes and 30 minutes. I assume they just tested the broth because you can’t take in meat and noodles through a straw.
The doctors found that chicken soup, whether you sip it or suck it through a straw, topped plain water for stimulating the mucociliary transport system. This helps clear infection in the respiratory tract by moving particles along, a process called nasal mucus velocity.
As lead researcher Dr. Kiumars Saketkhoo explained, “The mucociliary transport system is important for getting rid of every respiratory infection including colds. Whatever can make airways clear up faster may decrease risk of infection or clear an existing infection.”
While chicken soup outperformed hot or cold water, the doctors could only speculate on the reasons why, but they believe the aromas and seasonings in the soup, as well as its taste, play a part. They wrote that hot chicken soup “appears to possess an additional substance for increasing nasal mucus velocity.”
A second study was conducted by researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. They drew blood samples from volunteers to evaluate the movement of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell the immune system generates when the body is hit by colds and other infections.
Considering that neutrophils are potent stimulators of mucus, which in turn gives rise to sputum and coughs, the research team theorized that chicken soup might be able to limit the inflammatory response by inhibiting the transport of neutrophils to the infection site.
And that turned out to be the case when the blood and soup were combined in the lab.
Lead author Dr. Stephen Rennard said the study “presents evidence that chicken soup might have anti-inflammatory activity, namely the inhibition of neutrophil migration.
“Since many of the symptoms that follow upper respiratory tract viral infections may well be due to the inflammatory response, the current study may have clinical relevance.”
The study itself concludes, “A mild anti-inflammatory effect could be one mechanism by which the soup could result in the mitigation of symptomatic upper respiratory tract infections.”
While these studies do not prove that chicken soup counters cold symptoms, the ingredients in the homemade variety typically include root vegetables — carrots, parsnips, turnips – that provide high levels of fiber, vitamin C, and vitamin A, as well as other antioxidants and nutrients that play a role in the immune response and healing.
Chicken itself helps repair body tissues. It provides cysteine, which may help thin mucus in the lungs. Its bones and connective tissues contain collagen, which can become damaged under inflammatory conditions. Chicken soup also contains carnosine, which has been shown to raise the immune response and reduce inflammation.
And if all that isn’t enough, chicken soup helps to rehydrate you and qualifies as a “comfort food” for both mind and body. In short, it’s a nutritious winter treat.