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 Jessica Marie Galella



For years, grandmothers everywhere have advocated the use of chicken soup for every illness under the sun. It has been administered to bedridden patients of all shapes, sizes, and ages, with seemingly positive effects—this treatment surely would not have endured or become as widespread had the responses not been favorable. But to what extent is this remedy more than just an old wives’ tale with a strong placebo effect? Can a healthy helping of chicken soup really cure people of such a universal disease as the common cold, or even flu?


What is known to most as a simple cold is an illness caused by one of the many forms of the rhinovirus, a word derived from the Greek “rhin”, meaning nose. How this illness acquired the misnomer of “cold” is still a mystery—the best explanation is, since this is a disease characterized by no cure but what the body can do on its own, that cold temperatures slow the blood circulation needed to carry the white blood cells to the infected area. Whatever the label, this is a contagious viral infection of the upper respiratory system that manifests itself in the nasal cavity and passageways, as well as the throat and eyes. With so many possible strains of this virus, there is no actual “cure” for this disease. The best treatments offered are those that alleviate the symptoms, decreasing the overall misery of the patient.


The medically acknowledged actions toward a cold are far from scientific. Since this virus has no absolute cure, the best advice physicians can offer is that of immune system boosts and precautions against dehydration. Biologically, many doctors consider high doses of Vitamin C to be helpful in the improvement of symptoms, but this is currently under review. Other matters thought to help on a molecular level are Cysteine, an amino acid found in protein, and garlic. Over-the-counter medicines can be helpful in relieving general bodily pain and suppressing a fever, but nothing else. Other treatments appear to be more geared towards at-home remedies and obvious good health choices, such as eating nutritious foods, drinking plenty of fluids, and getting adequate sleep. To alleviate the discomfort of the nasal passages and throat, anything that increases the moisture of the air that comes in contact with the irritated areas will be soothing, such as humidifiers and many sources of steam, including hot showers and, not surprisingly, soup. Saline washes of both the nasal cavity and mouth also reduced irritation.


In 1982, Saketkhoo, Januszkieviez, and Sackner did a study testing the effects of variously heated drinks on mucus and other hindrances of the nasal passages. Subjects either drank cold water, hot water, or hot soup, and were then tested for levels of mucus production and other causes of air flow resistance in the passageways. The hypothesis, that the soup would have the greatest clearing effect, not only for its temperature and steam, was supported when the soup proved more helpful than the hot water (both of which beat the cold water). This led researchers to suggest that soup affects the cold on a biomolecular level as well as a thermodynamic one, proposing sulfur or hydrogen sulfide responsible.

The link to this study can be found in this article:



The major source of sulfur is from the amino acid Cysteine, an amino acid found in high protein foods, e.g. chicken. Through the sulfonation cycle, Cysteine produces N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), a metabolite with a thiol group that quickly catalyzes the production of Glutathione (GSH), “one of the body’s most important natural antioxidants and detoxifiers,” from Cysteine, Glycine, and Glutamate. GSH is known to break down harmful chemicals into compounds more easily managed by the body, protect and strengthen cell membranes against unwanted permeation, and promote nutrient transport to cells with key roles in the immune system. The most important function of NAC, however, occurs before its rapid conversion takes place. As a molecule it has the distinct capability to cleave the disulfide bonds found in mucoproteins, which are long strands of proteins ordered specifically to be mucus. By splitting these bonds that link the proteins together, the chains shorten drastically—thus the viscosity (stickiness) of the mucus is very much reduced, giving way to clearer nasal passages and the “runny nose” syndrome. Research done on this particular molecule (NAC) shows daily dosages to not only better the similar symptoms of other upper respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis and influenza, but to actually help deter the onset of the disease and shorten its duration.


In one of the only true studies done on the subject, Rennard investigated the effects of chicken soup after puzzling with his wife over Grandma’s unwavering faith in the remedy. A specialist in inflammation research, it is no surprise that is his angle of exploration. His idea is “that many, if not most, of the symptoms related to colds are consequent to the inflammatory response thus initiated” by the “transient infections of the mucosa of the upper respiratory tract.” Such inflammations are the result of certain white blood cells called neutrophils—which, admittedly, are a helpful and necessary bodily response to disease—rushing to the affected areas. Although the intent of these immune system enforcers is noble, such an influx of cells to any given area causes uncomfortable swelling and consequent irritation. It is this inflammation that Rennard believes can be assuaged by the notorious power of chicken soup. Simply put, he proposed chicken soup to contain neutrophil inhibitors. These inhibitors, or so he hypothesized, drastically slow the migration of the well-meaning white blood cells to the infected area. While this does decrease the inflammation, it has the unfortunate side effect of prolonging the disease, as is obvious since less of the active fighting agents are present. Although Rennard was not capable of determining what specific ingredients in the soup so drastically affected the neutrophils, he safely assumed it was a product of chemical reactions that take place somewhere along the cooking process between the chosen chicken, vegetables, and spices.


When the above study was run on thirteen different brands of soup, all differing slightly in their ingredients, it comes as no surprise that some worked with greater effect than others. Grandma’s recipe came in sixth place, beat (most notably) by two kinds of Campbell’s soup, including one appropriately named “Campbell’s Home Cookin’ Chicken Vegetable.” Each soup differed in their general composition, and there are few ingredients that are agreed upon in the ideal recipe besides the actual chicken. It seems, however, that the addition of particular vegetables is almost irrelevant: “The identity of the active ingredient of ingredients present in the soup remains unknown. The vegetables that are used to prepare the soup, however, are known to contain a large number of chemical species, many of which have medicinal purposes.” Rennard wrote this in reference to his Grandma’s recipe, which admittedly contains more than just the usual array of vegetables, including sweet potatoes, among others, but when the soup that slowed activity the most was one of only chicken and noodles, it is apparent the vegetables are not the definitive ingredients. Unfortunately, we may never know what those are. The expense of time and money to run such an in-depth study would be unbearably large, especially considering the fact that chicken soup cannot be patented, therefore negating the chance of any pharmaceutical company recovering the funds spent on the research. All in all, it is generally accepted that “the benefits of chicken soup… are widely acclaimed… although the anecdotal nature of the clinical evidence supporting a benefit of chicken soup is well recognized.” Chicken soup is a product that does a great many things, albeit small, to reduce the symptoms of the incurable common cold. It provides steam that is inhaled when the soup is sipped, warmth to ease a chill inside or out, and chicken as a source of the above mentioned amino acid, Cysteine. Also, the salt found in the soup serves as an oral saline wash: the salt particles are attracted to swollen cells, where they draw water out across the cell membranes through osmosis, causing the cells to shrink with this loss of volume. This reduces the swelling in the nose and throat, soothes irritations in these areas, and restores easy breathing.



Rennard says it best when he states in his article “undoubtedly, the in vivo effects of chicken soup include more than the effects on neutrophils. The warm liquid, particularly when sipped, can stimulate nasal clearance and may improve upper respiratory tract symptoms. The social setting in which chicken soup is often taken is likely to contribute to a strong placebo effect.” In effect, chicken soup works because our mothers and the mothers before them truly believed in its healing powers, for whatever reason. This notion of chicken soup as the classic cure-all is so engrained into our society, almost regardless of cultural background, that it is prominently displayed on a website advertising a “natural” home remedy for a cold: “A hot liquid can lessen the symptoms of colds. Hot chicken soup is most recommended.” No medicinal proof is given, but none is needed: everyone will heat up the familiar can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup regardless. If nothing else, the comforting smell and taste will remind us of the good old days, when getting sick meant mother’s undivided attention and concern—the soup was just a bonus.



Psychology Department

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