Chicken Soup for the Cold?

Many cultures use some form of ‘culinary intervention’ as a form of home medicine when a person gets sick. These range from Iranians eating ‘yogurt and rice’ when they have gas or an upset stomach, to some Chinese drinking a ‘tea’ of honey and sesame for constipation, to South Asians and their various Ayurvedic spice mixtures for a myriad of issues. But one of the most common is the use of chicken soup when a person has a cold or flu.

In fact there are several different cultures around the world each with their own version of a chicken soup for cold and/or flu is an interesting phenomena. Some of this may be due to earlier cultural pollinations due to the silk route or other trade and migration patterns. In fact this measure is so old that there is even a 12th century treatise written by early medical philosopher Maimonides reputedly drawing from even earlier unknown Greek sources, recommending chicken soup as a cure for chest related illnesses. Its use is so prevalent in Jewish circles that some Jews in the medical fields have taken to calling it “bobamycin” or “bohbymycetin,” and two Israeli doctors have even nominated it to the World Health Organization's “List of Essential Drugs.”

Some physicians believe that it is only a matter of the hot steam clearing up the nasal passages, and while this is true, and studies (like Dr. Saketkhoo’s) have shown that “drinking hot fluids transiently increases nasal mucus velocity in part or totally through the nasal inhalation of water vapor.” There are still other things to be considered as well, especially in terms of what each of the ingredients are and what they do when they combine or processed by the body. Most recipes contain chicken, a carbohydrate (usually noodles or rice), sodium (usually salt or soy sauce), and a member of the alum family (usually onion or garlic).

Asian versions also normally have the addition ginger to this mixture. The strong oils in ginger called ‘gingerols’ have been noted in recent scientific studies to increase the gastrointestinal tracts movements. The same study noted that gingerols also have sedative, antibacterial and analgesic properties – all of which might be helpful in fighting off a cold. Still others contain, contain some sort of acid as well such as lemon (Greece & Bulgaria) or vinegar (Bulgaria, France, China) or pickling spice (Germany) – which may also add astringent or bacteria killing properties to the mix.

Interestingly Koreans have two versions – Baeksuk and Samgyetang- which are held to help with different types of chest related illnesses. Baeksuk is more similar in ingredients to the typical western chicken soups and is used for minor colds and hangovers. Samgyetang is more complicated, and is used as a preventative measure as well – often medicinal herbs are added to it as well.

So is chicken soup actually doing anything helpful, or is it all just placebo effect? While the mental health benefits of receiving attention – in this case via something home cooked - from a caring relative while one is sickly are hard to quantitative, it has nonetheless been observed in many different studies of having a beneficial effect. Additionally as more and more families turn to holistic and complementary health care to cure or ameliorate their illnesses, more studies should be done to understand home remedies like chicken soup in terms of what may be making them effective?

Another fairly recent may shed light on the subject. This study suggests that “Chicken soup significantly inhibited neutrophil (type of white blood cell) migration and … All of the vegetables present in the soup and the chicken individually had inhibitory activity, although only the chicken lacked cytotoxic (cell killing) activity. Interestingly, the complete soup also lacked cytotoxic activity...A mild anti-inflammatory effect could be one mechanism by which the soup could result in the mitigation of symptomatic upper respiratory tract infections.” Though it proves that not all the effects of chicken soup are placebo – the study doesn’t conclusively prove ‘how’ or ‘what’ is the most important function or functions of the soup.

Conversely other medical researchers and doctors feel that the idea of chicken soup’s cytotoxic actions on microorganisms actually helping kill the infectious bio-agents involved is a controversial and not provable idea in scientific terms. The researches of the studies involved acknowledge this controversy, and think that it may be more about an “attenuation of the inflammatory response” which helps the person feel better.

The question remains are these the sole effects of chicken soup in helping someone feel better - and will we ever know?


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