If you were brought up by a Jewish mother, chances are you have been prescribed a hot bowl of chicken soup at a time you felt under the weather. Dr. Mom may have insisted it was a type of "Jewish penicillin," that it would lessen your sniffles and perk you right up. She was, in some regard, correct.
In a 2000 study published in the journal of the American College of Chest Physicians, researchers found that chicken soup could help reduce upper-respiratory inflammation, which leads to those annoying qualities of a cold, like a stuffy head and incessant sneezing. Many doctors believe that colds are caused by viral infections. The body responds to these infections by sending over white blood cells to take charge, though they are not really effective in killing the virus. Instead, they lead to those cold-like symptoms that make you feel crummy.
Stephen Rennard, M.D, Larson Professor of Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and one of the study's leaders, found that fewer white blood cells attempted to be heroes when the body had chicken soup in its system. The soup had some "very modest but clearly measurable" ability to promote an anti-inflammatory activity, he explained in a UNMC video about the research (watch here). Even more, fluids -- not specific to soup alone -- loosen congestion and support hydration.
Still, even 14 years later, Rennard's not sure what exact ingredient in a meal passed down from grandma activated the "healing." "Common foods have lots of things that have these biological activities," he told The Huffington Post over the phone. "My guess is that the world is replete with many things that are medicinally active -- but I don't know for sure."
One thing that is specific to homemade soup is that it's inherently made with compassion. This is the "TLC factor," as Rennard put it. "If you're feeling ill, it's good to have somebody take care of you. That's actually not a placebo." As they say, there's nothing like a mother's love. "The fact that someone's making a fuss over you when you are feeling badly is real support. There's biological proof in that," he said. Rennard says that this particular "old wives tale" has "legs" and exists in many cultures. Grandma's chicken soup is prescribed around the world because it has anecdotally made people feel better. "It's not the individual ingredients that anyone ever advocates." As he explained, "nobody ever recommends boiled carrots," even though these probably contain active ingredients that would help.
Love may heal all wounds, but it's not just the soup's TLC factor that helps to stifle the sniffles. Researchers first tested a recipe that was passed down from Rennard's wife’s Lithuanian grandmother. (The soup's ingredients are chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery, parsley, salt and pepper -- yum) Researchers found this soup had the anti-inflammatory effect. Fortunately, you needn't marry into the family to gain these elusive soup benefits. The researchers then tested a variety of canned chicken soups -- and even a vegetarian vegetable soup. They found that these store-bought versions could be just as effective.
If you're craving something with that extra benefit of TLC, you might send a few of the enticing recipes below to a loved one as a hint; if the soups don't make you less sneezy, at least you'll have something to eat for lunch.