The science behind our sickbed cravings

    Chicken soup is served at Hershel's East Side Deli in Reading Terminal Market. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Chicken soup is served at Hershel's East Side Deli in Reading Terminal Market. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    WHYY conducted a highly un-scientific survey of what people ate when they had the sniffles as kids, and tried to uncover whether there is any science behind our childhood sickbed cravings. 

    Home remedies for the common cold abound, from soft-boiled eggs to ice cream. WHYY conducted a highly un-scientific survey of what people ate when they had the sniffles as kids, and tried to uncover whether there is any science behind our childhood sickbed cravings, including the ubiquitous chicken soup.

    Throat-soothing foods

    Many of the people we surveyed remember being fed foods that made their throats feel better; among them, soft-boiled eggs, ice cream and tea.

    We ran these selections by nutrition expert Rebecca Katz, author of The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, a cookbook for those undergoing cancer treatment, and recipe books for longevity and brain health.

    Katz gave the thumbs up to the hard-boiled eggs, which are packed with protein, and a thumbs down to ice cream. Dairy adds to the mucus already overloading the system when you have a cold.

    Tea, especially with vitamin-C rich lemon juice and throat-coating honey added, got top marks from Katz.

    “When the body is sick, it needs hydration, hydration, hydration,” Katz said. “I can’t say it enough.” 

    Cold liquids take more energy for the body to heat up, but sipping hot ones can help loosen nasal mucus.

    “Which is really why, when you’re sick, you want hot liquids or at least lukewarm liquids.”

    Bland foods

    Ginger ale and saltines, another childhood sickbed staple, got low marks from Katz for being nutritionally void.

    “We kind of think that ‘Oh, well you know, I’m feeling sick, or this person is sick, so I have to feed them really bland sick food,” Katz said. “But actually it’s more the opposite.”

    Unless you are suffering from digestive issues, Katz argues flavor is your friend when sick. Nutrient-dense ingredients that boost immune function also tend be flavorful.

    “When you’re really trying to feed the body to heal, that’s when you want to go with things like thyme and mint and lemons and honey and garlic and ginger and coconut milk,” Katz said.

    Soups, often of the chicken variety

    Homemade or from a can, chicken soup is perhaps the most immediately recognized home remedy for a cold.

    Gary Emmett, a pediatrician at Thomas Jefferson University/ Nemours, said he still remembers having a bad cold as a resident and mentioning it over the phone to his mother.

    “About three hours later, she had made chicken soup from scratch and showed up on my front door with a big plastic container of it so I would get better faster,” Emmett said.

    “To Jewish mothers, chicken soup is Manna when you’re ill.”

    Many cultures seem to claim the chicken soup remedy, but in fact, it’s ubiquitous. From a chicken and rice porridge in Indonesia to a veggie-rich Syrian soup, to an extra spicy chicken curry from India or a pepper-filled version from Barbados, people we spoke to from all over the world eat some variety of chicken and broth when they are sick.

    There is some scientific research that backs up what our mothers and grandmothers know about the soothing properties of soup.

    The most cited is a 2000 study from the University of Nebraska, where Dr. Stephen Rennard tested a traditional matzoh ball soup recipe to see if it inhibited the movement of the most common type of white blood cells, neutrophils.

    “What we showed was that Grandma’s chicken soup had some very modest but clearly measureable ability to reduce the ability of those cells to move,” Rennard said in a video about his 2000 study.

    These neutrophils fight infection, but in the process they also cause muscle aches and congestion. Slowing down their deployment allows them to work enough to fight a virus, but not enough to overdo it and cause more misery than necessary. Chicken soup slowed down these neutrophils in blood samples, and Rennard speculated they could do the same in people.

    “If [eating chicken soup] resulted in fewer cells, for example, in your throat when you’ve got a virus, you could speculate that that could lead to less symptoms,” Rennard said.

    Rennard could not identify which ingredient was at work here, but speculated it may be a combination of the chicken and vegetables working together.

    A tiny 1978 study found chicken broth was a bit better than plain hot water at clearing nasal mucus.

    None of this research is conclusive, however, and does not address if chicken soup is better than any other variety at reducing cold symptoms.

    “I think really it’s about having a warm, soothing broth,” said Katz, the nutritionist. “Whether it’s a nutrient-dense vegetable stock or chicken soup, I think there’s a lot of wisdom in craving warm liquids.”

    Chicken soup’s medicinal properties likely come from combining the mucus-clearing properties of hot liquids with the nutrients of vegetables, herbs and spices, along with the soothing memories of a hot bowl being served out of love many colds ago.

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