Chicken Soup is Good Medicine
Why Eat Chicken Soup for Illness? There Isn't Just One Answer.
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Have you ever wondered why chicken soup is good for you?
As cold weather approaches my thoughts invariably turn to that ultimate comfort food — chicken soup. Could it be a coincidence that it’s also the time of year when I’m looking for ways to repurpose spent layers and surplus cockerels? And could it be a coincidence that chicken soup not only is warming and good for the soul, but also offers relief for the sniffles that ride in on winter weather?
Chicken soup was known to have healing properties as far back as the 12th century, when Egyptian physician Rabbi Moshe ben Maimonides extolled the virtues of chicken broth for its ability to relieve respiratory symptoms caused by the common cold. More recently Stephen Rennard, MD, chief of pulmonary medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, proved that chicken soup helps break up congestion, eases the flow of nasal secretions, and inhibits the white blood cells (neutrophils) that trigger inflammatory response to the cold virus that makes your nose stuffy and your throat sore.
“There’s something in chicken soup that actually is anti-inflammatory,” claims Patty Quinlisk, MD, the chief epidemiologist for the Iowa Department of Public Health. “In other words, it has the same action as Tylenol or an aspirin would. It basically stops the immune systems from overreacting.”
Despite the growing body of knowledge about the miraculous effects of chicken soup, scientists have yet to determine what exactly about chicken soup is so incredibly soothing when you’re suffering from a cold. Researchers so far have been unable to come up with a definitive answer as to what makes chicken soup such good medicine. Here are ten of the many theories:
Why Chicken Soup Is Good for You:
- It’s the chicken. The protein in chicken contains the amino acid cysteine which is related to acetylcysteine, a drug used to loosen thick mucus clogging the airways in patients suffering from bronchitis and other respiratory ailments. Cysteine released by chicken into the broth thins accumulated mucus, making it easier to cough up. Furthermore, cysteine, along with two other amino acids in chicken protein (glutamic acid and glycine) create the powerful antioxidant glutathione. Among its many other benefits, glutathione enhances the body’s immune function.
- It’s the onions. Onions are among many foods containing the flavonoid quercetin, a powerful antioxidant, as well as a natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory. Quercetin has many uses as a medication, including boosting energy and fighting viral infections. Red onions are among the best natural sources of quercetin.
- It’s the garlic. Garlic is well known to have broad-spectrum anti-microbial properties. Studies have shown that eating garlic can reduce the duration of a cold by 60 to 70 percent. Not only does it help you fight a cold, but garlic’s ability to boost the immune system has the potential to reduce the frequency and number of colds you get. Garlic also contains small amounts of a large number of nutrients the body needs to maintain health.
- It’s the carrots. Carrots are a terrific natural source of beta-carotene. The body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, or retinol, which is essential for maintaining healthy mucous membranes that prevent disease-causing microbes from entering the body. Retinol also improves the ability of white blood cells to fight infection by destroying harmful bacteria and viruses.
- It’s the celery. Celery is high in antioxidants, including vitamin C, which helps keep the immune system healthy, and magnesium, which soothes the nervous system to help you fight a cold by letting you get a good night’s sleep. Celery also contains lots of natural chemicals collectively known as phytonutrients, which have anti-inflammatory properties that help alleviate lung infection.
- It’s the fluid. Fighting a fever causes your body to lose fluids, which can lead to dehydration. The resulting dehydration can make your cold worse, which in turn makes you more dehydrated. Chicken broth helps fight a cold by working to keep you hydrated. When you have a cold, remaining hydrated helps prevent mucus from thickening and becoming difficult to cough away. Note, too, that thickened mucus is a sign of dehydration.
- It’s the steam. The vapors coming from a cup of hot chicken broth help loosen a stuffy nose and open up a congested throat, relieving upper respiratory symptoms. Steam from chicken soup has been proven more effective than vapors from plain hot water. So don’t overlook the importance of inhaling those aromatic vapors while you’re enjoying a bowl of chicken soup.
- It’s the soothing odor and great flavor. When you have a cold, you probably don’t feel much like eating, at a time when your body needs plenty of nutrients to fight infection. The comforting odor and homey flavor of chicken soup pique the appetite. And if you feel just too weary to eat soup with a spoon, you can strain out the solids and get all the same benefits by sipping the broth from a cup.
- It’s the warm fuzzies. Eating chicken soup that was made for you by your grandmother, your mother, your spouse, or your best friend just plain makes you feel good. And so does the pleasure of knowing that all the ingredients, including the chicken, were grown not far from your kitchen.
- It’s the synergy. Since scientists have been unable to come up with a single definitive reason as to why chicken soup works so well in helping alleviate cold symptoms, some speculate that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A little of this and a little of that combined in one bowl creates the magic and mystery of why chicken soup is good for you.
The Proof Is in the Soup
Just as pretty nearly everyone has a different opinion about why chicken soup works, nearly everyone has their own favorite chicken soup recipe. Here is my family’s favorite:
- 1 quart chicken broth
- 1/3 cup cooked chicken, shredded
- 1/3 cup onions, chopped
- 1/3 cup carrots, chopped
- 1/3 cup celery, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
Combine ingredients in a sauce pan and simmer until the vegetables are just tender.
The correct way to serve chicken soup is a subject of much discussion. Some people insist on straining out the solids and serving them separately from the broth.
Among those who serve all the ingredients in the same bowl, some add rice. That’s my preference. I find that adding about ½ cup cooked rice to the above recipe is just right.
My husband feels that noodles are the only way to go. Accordingly, when I’m making soup for his pleasure I add ½ cup of thin noodles. I like to cook the noodles directly in the soup broth, but folks who prefer their pasta on the chewy side cook the noodles separately and add them at serving time.
My mother was a huge fan of dumplings. To make Mom’s dumplings, you’ll need:
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 tablespoon chopped chives or parsley
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- ½ tablespoon soft butter
- 3 tablespoon milk
Combine the first four ingredients. Cut in the butter. Stir in the milk just to moisten. Drop bits of dough into the simmering soup by the teaspoonful. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. To ensure tender dumplings, do not lift the lid until the time is up.
And don’t wait until you catch a cold to enjoy a bowl of your own homemade chicken soup.
Originally published in the December/January 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.
Gail Damerow enjoys cooking and eating soup made from chickens and vegetables grown on her farm in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland. She the author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens and other books available from Countryside bookstore on page XX.