Can chicken soup actually help fight a cold? Here’s what the experts say.

A hearty bowl of chicken soup.

Chicken soup is a remedy that dates back to at least the 12th century. (Photo: Getty Images)

Chicken soup tends to be the comfort food of choice when people are feeling sick. It is a remedy that dates back to at least the 12th century, when Moses Maimonides, a Jewish physician and scholar, recommended it for respiratory tract symptoms.

But does it actually help people feel better when fighting a cold? Here’s what the experts say.

The Science Behind Chicken Soup

In perhaps the most famous study done on chicken soup, researchers found that the soup may have a mild anti-inflammatory effect. This study tested the impact of each ingredient and various concentrations of chicken soup on neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that causes inflammation in our body.

Dr. Stephen Rennard, study author and professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told Yahoo Life: “I can say with real confidence that there is something in chicken soup which will inhibit the migration of neutrophils” – essentially, reducing the movement of these cells and possibly inflammation. Rennard explains that not only did the chicken broth show mild adverse effects on neutrophils, but also each vegetable used in the recipe tested. The effect of broth and ingredients together showed the greatest activity.

“I’m easily convinced that there are potentially things coming out of every vegetable and chicken that have potential medicinal activities,” Rennard says. “Now we don’t know – they could be the same thing, something common to all the ingredients, or they could be unique.”

Rennard points out that his research was done in the laboratory and did not evaluate chicken soup in sick people. “If you really wanted to test this as a medicine, you would actually have to show that if you give it to sick people, they get better. We did none of that,” he notes.

An older study found that sipping hot chicken soup helps loosen nasal mucus and clear the sinuses even more than sipping plain hot water. The study authors suspected that the aroma of chicken soup, “perceived at the posterior nostrils or through a taste-related mechanism,” plays a role in this.

What experts can agree on is that more research is needed to understand the beneficial effects of this home remedy.

Health Benefits of Chicken Soup

Meanwhile, chicken soup is still considered a valuable part of a treatment plan when you’re not feeling well. That’s partly because it’s packed with health-promoting nutrients and “it hits all the marks for a balanced meal,” Kelsey Kunik, registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition consultant for Zenmaster Wellness, told Yahoo Life.

Chicken provides protein, fats, minerals such as zinc and selenium, and “is rich in the amino acid cysteine, which can help break down mucus in the body,” says Kunik. It also contains a peptide, carnosine, which has natural antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties and helps protect your nervous system.

In addition to chicken, many of the vegetables and spices used in chicken soup are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the body.

It also helps you stay hydrated and replenish lost fluids, especially if you suffer from fever, diarrhea or vomiting.

Besides its nutritional benefits, chicken soup is easy to eat if you don’t have much appetite or energy to chew, or if you have a sore throat when swallowing. “Drinking hot liquids can help provide immediate relief, soothing a sore throat,” says Kunik.

The Power of Comfort Foods

“There’s no doubt that there’s something in there (chicken soup) that has the potential to affect cells in a way” that could be beneficial, Rennard says.

Although the mechanics of chicken soup for fighting colds aren’t fully understood or proven, there are some things we do know. “If someone takes care of you when you’re sick, you feel better,” says Rennard. “And it’s not a placebo effect – it’s real, positive support. No one should underestimate the benefits of being cured.

A warm bowl of chicken soup is soothing and can also improve your mood. Chicken contains tryptophan, which boosts your serotonin levels and which, in turn, can make you feel good.

While there’s some debate over whether chicken soup can actually cure a cold, at the very least, as Rennard points out, “the soup tastes really good!”

Maxine Young is a board certified dietitian and health and wellness coach.

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