Mom was right! The latest scientific evidence suggests that chicken soup really does help to heal.
Making a bowl of chicken soup for someone who is sick has been a common practice around the world for centuries. Today, generations from virtually every culture swear by the broth. The soup owes its reputation as a household remedy for colds to Pedanius Dioscorides, an army surgeon who was consulted by early healers for more than a millennium under the Roman Emperor Nero and his five-volume medical encyclopaedia. However, the origins of chicken soup lie thousands of years earlier, in ancient China. But can its effects really be scientifically proven, or is it just a good placebo?
What gives the soup its distinctive taste is “umami” – the fifth category of taste sensations alongside sweet, salty, sour and bitter. It is often described as “meaty”. This makes sense, as amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and the amino acid glutamate is present in umami-flavored foods. However, not all umami foods are meat or poultry. Cheese, mushrooms, miso and soy sauce also contain glutamate. Studies show that the taste is decisive for the healing effect of chicken soup. The umami taste stimulates the appetite. This is an advantage when you are sniffling and coughing. However, you need to eat to get the nutrients your immune system needs to fight the cold.
Participants in one study said they felt hungrier after the first time they tasted an umami-flavoured soup that the researchers had added. According to other studies, umami can also improve the digestion of nutrients. Once our brain perceives the umami taste via the taste receptors on our tongue, our body prepares our digestive tract to absorb protein more easily. This can alleviate the gastrointestinal discomfort that many people experience when they are not feeling well. Although most people don’t associate upper respiratory infections with gastrointestinal symptoms, research in children has found that the flu virus increases abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural response to injury or illness. Inflammation occurs when white blood cells migrate into the inflamed tissue to help it heal. When this inflammatory process occurs in the upper respiratory tract, it leads to common cold and flu symptoms such as stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, coughing and thickened mucus.
Conversely, lower white blood cell activity in the nasal passages can reduce inflammation. Interestingly, research shows that chicken soup can actually reduce the number of white blood cells travelling to inflamed tissue. It does this by directly inhibiting the ability of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, to travel to inflamed tissue.
To truly understand the beneficial and healing effects of chicken soup, it is important to know the soup’s ingredients. Not all chicken soups are packed with nutritious, healing properties. For example, ultra-processed canned chicken soups, both with and without noodles, contain many of the antioxidants found in homemade soups. Most canned chicken soups contain almost no vegetables. In any case, freshly cooked soup is preferable to the ultra-processed, nutrient-poor variety.
The main nutrients in homemade soups are different from canned soups. Chicken provides the body with a complete source of protein to fight infection. Vegetables provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Prepared American-style, pasta is an easily digestible source of carbohydrates that the body uses for energy and recovery. The warmth of chicken soup can also help. Drinking the liquid and inhaling the vapors raises the temperature of the nasal and respiratory passages, which loosens the thick mucus that often accompanies respiratory illnesses. Studies have shown that chicken soup is more effective at loosening mucus compared to hot water alone. The herbs and spices sometimes used in chicken soup, such as pepper and garlic, also loosen mucus. The broth, which contains water and electrolytes, helps with rehydration. This is very important, as the body loses a lot of fluid due to all the sniffling.
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