Does Chicken Soup Truly Have the Power to Provide Comfort During Illness?

Does Chicken Soup Truly Have the Power to Provide Comfort During Illness?
  • Chicken soup has long been used as a home remedy for cold and flu.
  • Some scientific evidence indicates that the soup could be anti-inflammatory.
  • Though research is scant, experts say chicken soup is worth a try when you’re sick.

When you’re sick, there’s no more iconic comfort food than chicken soup. People have been turning to this savory classic for decades—if not longer—for its soothing warmth and nourishing ingredients, which many believe actually have healing powers.

Still, there hasn’t been a lot of scientific inquiry around the health benefits of this sick-day staple. Besides one famous, often-cited laboratory study from 2000, which found that chicken soup might have anti-inflammatory properties, clinical researchers haven’t focused much energy on the merits of grandma’s homemade cold and flu remedy.

“I [haven’t found] much other research highlighting the specific benefits of chicken soup on recovering from a cold,” Alyssa Pike, RD, senior manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council, told Health.

Of course, not all healing modalities have to have scientific evidence behind them to be effective. (Individuals may experience anecdotal benefit from all sorts of things that don’t have studies to back them up.) But enough people report feeling better after eating chicken soup that it’s worth a closer look. Is this soup really food as medicine, or is it one big bowl of hype?

What Might Make Chicken Soup Healing?

As with any multi-ingredient food, chicken soup’s health benefits are a matter of its individual components. The typical soup comes together with chicken broth, chicken meat, and a smattering of savory vegetables and alliums like carrots, garlic, onions, and celery.

According to Amanda Sauceda, RDN, a lecturer at California State University, Long Beach, these healthy elements may make chicken soup more than the sum of its parts.

“The ingredients in chicken soup are full of vitamins and antioxidants which can help promote your body’s natural healing process,” Sauceda told Health. “Carrots are a source of vitamin A, which is critical for the health of your immune system and also for the cells lining your GI tract, which is the first line of defense for your body.” She also pointed to a 2021 study that found an extract from carrots to be helpful for rhinovirus.2

Onions and garlic have also been researched for their antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. In a May 2023 study, for example, elderly people who consumed daily onion and garlic extracts were better able to fight off infectious respiratory diseases.3

Even the water or broth in chicken soup could offer benefits. When sick, it’s easy to get dehydrated, Pike said, so consuming something water-based can be helpful.

Plus, if you’re losing electrolytes from gastrointestinal illness, chicken broth can replace them—it’s rich in sodium at 924 milligrams per cup. Chicken bone broth offers even higher levels of some electrolytes, such as potassium, phosphorus, and chloride.

Is Chicken Soup Really Anti-Inflammatory?

The famous chicken soup study from 2000 focused on its impact on inflammation.

“The 2000 study basically found that chicken soup inhibited neutrophil chemotaxis, which is a fancy way of saying it helped temporarily decrease inflammation so those who were sick could temporarily breathe easier,” Pike said. 

According to the study, all of the vegetables present in the soup and the chicken individually had this inhibitory activity.

Though there haven’t been further landmark studies on chicken soup, it appears that not much has changed since 2000. In fact, the University of Nebraska researchers who conducted the original study revisited the topic in 2021, confirming that “what we did in the laboratory was actually very rigorous… What our work shows is that there are ingredients in common foodstuffs that might have anti-inflammatory actions.” 

How to Get the Most Benefit From Your Chicken Soup

Want to sip a bowl of the most healing soup? Make it yourself (or have someone make it for you) at home.

“Ideally, homemade chicken soup would be the way to go so that you can control two big factors: the sodium and the seasonings,” Sauceda said.

Some store-bought soups may contain excessive sodium. Besides being a downside for blood pressure, Sauceda said overdoing it on salt could even irritate your gut. When making chicken soup at home, try a lower-sodium broth and add plenty of vegetables. Or, if you choose a store-bought variety, consider adding your own frozen veggies for extra antioxidants.

It’s probably best to serve chicken soup nice and warm, too. Hot foods and beverages have been linked to greater positive emotional response—which certainly can’t hurt when you’re feeling blah.5

Overall, chicken soup may not be a magic bullet to stop sickness, but if you find it makes you feel better, go ahead and slurp away.

“Recovering from an illness is usually part physical and part mental, so even if the data around the benefits of chicken soup is not extensive, there is something to be said about curling up with a warm bowl of soup when you’re under the weather,” Pike said. “That warmth, steam, and good taste (bonus if someone made it for you!) are sure to make you feel a little better—even if it will not completely cure your cold.”


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