At the first sign of sniffling and sneezing, my grandmother (like many grandmothers) always recommended a bowl of chicken soup. Chicken soup is considered to be a staple for anyone battling a cold or the flu, and it does certainly seem to make us feel a bit better. Have you ever wondered why? As it turns out, studies show that the ingredients in chicken soup do offer some relief, meaning a bowl of soothing chicken soup could be just what the doctor ordered.

What’s the science behind chicken soup?

Cold symptoms are typically the result of the body’s inflammatory response to an invading virus. Neutrophils are an important type of white blood cell that migrates toward the site of inflammation to help fight infection in the body.

Although the inflammatory response is an important part of fighting an infection, it’s also what causes the symptoms you get when you’re fighting a cold or the flu. So, while you don’t want to suppress the response, dampening an overactive response can be a good thing.

One in vitro (test tube) study analyzed the effect of chicken soup in mitigating the body’s inflammatory response to determine if it could account for the claimed benefits. The study used a traditional homemade chicken soup recipe (including chicken, onions, sweet potato, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery stems, parsley, salt, and pepper).

The study also looked at 13 commercially available soups and tested them against the homemade recipe. Although the results varied, the general finding was that chicken soup had the ability to significantly inhibit neutrophil migration and could be the mechanism by which the soup mitigates symptomatic upper respiratory tract infections and associated symptoms.

The researchers caution that the results do not prove that chicken soup would have the same effect in vivo; i.e., in real life when you eat a bowl of chicken soup.

Inhibiting neutrophil migration is just one potential benefit of eating a bowl of chicken soup. According to dieticians, the ingredients in a bowl of chicken soup can also help support your immune system and health in other ways.

Breaking down the ingredients in a bowl of chicken soup

So what makes a bowl of chicken soup so soothing? It’s all about the ingredients. Let’s start at the base – the broth. The broth helps keep you hydrated, and the warm steam from the bowl can help open airways and clear congestion.

Vegetables, like carrots, celery, and onions, are great natural sources of important vitamins and minerals.

  • Carrots are high in the antioxidant beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body.  Vitamin A is necessary for nearly all aspects of the immune system to function properly.
  • Onions are a good source of vitamin C (an important immune-supporting vitamin). Onions are also one of the best food sources of the flavonoid quercetin – which has immune support and antihistamine properties.
  • Celery is a good source of fiber and also contains a flavonoid called apigenin, which has anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties.

If carbs are added in the form of noodles, rice, or matzoh balls in the case of the study cited above, then they can provide a quick boost of energy to combat the sluggishness associated with a cold. The protein from chicken also helps keep you feeling full and is immune-supportive. Chicken also contains tryptophan, an amino acid that helps produce serotonin – the “feel good” chemical.

Other ways to support the immune system during winter months

A hearty bowl of chicken soup is just one way to support your health this winter. Here are some additional quick tips to keep your immune system running strong during the colder months.

1. Test your vitamin D level

Research indicates that individuals who have lower levels of vitamin D are more likely to self-report recent upper respiratory tract symptoms, like sneezing, runny nose, or congestion, compared to individuals with adequate vitamin D levels.*2

Test your vitamin D level to make sure you’re at an optimal level. And if you’re not, then be sure to incorporate vitamin D-rich foods or a vitamin D supplement to help.

2. Wash your hands

Because many infections can be caused by hand transmission,3 handwashing is one of the simplest ways to prevent the spread of illness. Just make sure you’re doing it right. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds to ensure you they’re as clean as possible.

3. Get a good night’s sleep

Lack of sleep really hinders your immune system’s ability to protect your body from outside invaders. If you think your sleep hasn’t been the best, then take a test that measures your body’s sleep/wake hormones. This will give you a better understanding of your sleep cycle and point you in the right direction to get better sleep.

4. Stay hydrated

Because staying hydrated is often characterized as a summertime concern, dehydration is often harder to realize in wintry weather. We don’t sweat or exert ourselves as much, so our thirst cravings can be harder to notice. Winter air is usually much drier than air in summer months, which is why cold weather tends to chap our lips and cause our skin to crack and itch. Follow this link for important tips for maintaining optimal hydration during winter to support your immune system and overall health.

5. Test for stress

Just like a lack of sleep, too much stress can hinder the ability of the body’s immune system to do its job. And winter – along with the holidays – always brings extra stress. What with all the traveling, hosting parties, family get-togethers, and holiday shopping, it can really add up.

Test your stress levels this winter to make sure you’re doing what’s best to manage your stress levels.

6. Cut back on sugar

The winter bugs love to feed on sugar. While it strengthens the bugs, it can weaken your immune system. Now that the holidays are over, put all those leftover holiday confections in the freezer.


References

  1. Rennard B, Ertl R, Gossman G, et al. Chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro. Chest 2000;118(4):1150-1157.
  2. Ginde A, Mansbach J, Camargo C Jr. Association between serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level and upper respiratory tract infection in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Arch Intern Med 2009;169(4):384-390.
  3. Arbogast J, Moore-Schiltz L, Jarvis W, et al. Impact of a comprehensive workplace hand hygiene program on employer health care insurance claims and costs, absenteeism, and employee perceptions and practices. J Occup Environ Med 2016;58(6):e231-e240.