Why Soup Can Make You Feel Better When You're Sick

Photo by Maria DelRio.
Your nose won’t stop dripping, your throat feels like you just swallowed an entire knife set, and keeping your eyes open requires pretty much all the strength you have in your face. And all you want is a warm bowl of soup to cuddle and sip.

But what is it about soup — a.k.a. Jewish penicillin — that makes many of us feel better when we have a cold? Sure, it’s comforting, tasty, and easy to eat, but would medical professionals actually prescribe a bowl of hot matzo ball or lentil soup to help cure an illness?

While there is no official cure for the common cold, research suggests that soup can, at the very least, help relieve symptoms. A study published in the medical journal Chest in October 2000 took chicken soup off the sick day sofa and into the laboratory and concluded that chicken soup "may contain a number of substances with beneficial medicinal activity." That is, chicken soup may really help you feel better, especially when it comes to respiratory infections and head colds.

Science has yet to conclude that soup is the key to getting better, but doctors and nutritionists have some theories on why soup can sometimes make your sickness feel less plague-like. Ahead, we break down why soup may actually make you feel better when you’re sick. If only insurance would cover ramen delivery...
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Photographed by Bek Andersen
Soup helps reduce inflammation.

As shown in the aforementioned 2000 study, soup can help reduce inflammation, which in turn lessens the severity of cold symptoms.

"The recipe used in the study included chicken, onions, potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery, parsley, salt, and pepper," says Silvia Delgado, a Registered Dietician at Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Park Medical Center. "The belief is that the vegetable ingredients, each with their different vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are working together, synergistically, to help decrease oxidative stress and inflammation."

Chicken soup, specifically, can also help alleviate congestion, thanks to cysteine, an amino acid found in chicken.

"N-acetyl-cysteine, a form of cysteine, breaks apart mucus and has anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects," says Hayley Kurtz, RD, co-founder of Ma Vie Nutrition. Of course, any soup made with chicken broth will also contain cysteine.
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Photographed by Maria Del Rio.
Soup efficiently packs in the nutrients.

"Soups are a simple way of consuming heart healthy, nutrient dense meals," Delgado says. "A hearty, wholesome soup can be a healthy, well-balanced meal in itself."

For example, a bowl of chicken soup has a serving of protein (chicken breast), a serving of carbohydrates (noodles, rice, potatoes, or crackers), and several servings of vegetables (carrot, celery, potato, string bean, onion, and more). Eating a bowl of homemade soup, or several bowls, may be healthier than your regular, less-than-balanced meals.

Plus, soup's nutritious broth helps ensure that you're getting the nutrients necessary to help your body heal.

"Unlike boiling or steaming, where we throw away the water containing valuable nutrients, we consume the broth containing essential water-soluble vitamins and minerals," Delgado says.
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Photographed by Molly Cranna
Ingredients used to flavor soup can also be medicinal.

Flavorful ingredients, like herbs, garlic, ginger, and onions, may also benefit the sick sipper.

"In addition to improving the flavor of your food, spices have been shown to have very powerful antiviral properties," Delgado says.

Garlic has been dubbed nature’s antibiotic by the American Chemical Society, so add as much garlic to your soup as you can handle to help fight bacteria and fungus in your gut.

And if spicy soup is what gets you out of your sick day slump, there may be medicinal benefits to that, too. There's anecdotal evidence that cayenne pepper, which contains the natural anti-inflammatory capsaicin, can help heal a sore throat — of course, there's no science to back that up, but if you're really desperate, you could give it a try. Similarly, spicy foods, like hot peppers and curry, are said to help clear your nasal passages and relieve sinus pain. But again, the evidence is only anecdotal at this point.
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Photographed by Maria Del Rio
The heat is helpful.

That steamy soup may feel as comforting as a warm blanket, but the hot temperature may have its own benefits. A 2008 study at the Common Cold Center at Cardiff University found that hot liquids were beneficial to those with a head cold. Subjects who drank a hot drink demonstrated immediate relief from symptoms, which included a runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, chilliness, and tiredness. Subjects who drank the same drink at room temperature, however, were only relieved from a runny nose, cough, and sneezing.

The researchers concluded that, thanks to the placebo effect and the physiological effects of salivating before enjoying a tasty hot liquid, warm beverages can be "a beneficial treatment for relief of most symptoms of common cold and flu."
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Photographed by Maria Del Rio.
Soup helps you hydrate.

"When our airways are irritated, it's important to hydrate them with warm, moist air," Delgado says. Not only can soup help soothe your sore throat, soup will help hydrate you with the fluids your body needs, sick or not.

"When you’re feeling sick, it’s not uncommon to lose your appetite, but it is very important to get all the liquids you can, especially when you are feeling under the weather," says Mia Finkelston, MD, a family physician who sees patients virtually via LiveHealth Online.

It may be easy to skip your regular glass of water when you're feeling too sick to eat a full meal, but becoming dehydrated while you're sick can make you feel even worse.

"If you are not well hydrated, your mucus can turn into 'glue cement,' as I like to explain it to my patients," Dr. Finkelston says. "If this happens, the mucus sits around longer, and can trigger a secondary infection."

Warm liquids, like the broth in soup, allow your mucus to loosen up and move around, so you can wipe it away with a tissue or blow it out.

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