Chicken Soup: Not Just Good for the Soul

Chicken Soup: Not Just Good for the Soul

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A persistent winter’s-end cold has been making its way through my family these past few weeks. And I’ve got our third batch of chicken soup on the stove since it started. Making and eating chicken soup is soothing, comforting, and personal for so many of us.

But what is it about chicken soup that makes us feel better?

Back in medical school I presented a study on the medicinal properties of chicken soup, which had been published in the scientific journal Chest. It’s a down-home study that spotlights food, family, and tradition. Scientist Dr. Stephen Rennard at the University of Nebraska took his wife’s chicken soup to his lab to investigate their Grandma’s Chicken Soup Recipe. He found that chicken soup cooked with vegetables actually slowed down the movement of white blood cells. These are our immune system’s first line of defense against viruses and bacteria, but can also cause inflammation that leads to nasty cold symptoms. In other words, chicken soup could very well reduce cold symptoms.

This is what my mother-in-law, Lissu, an expert cook, has to say about chicken soup. “I feel that the chicken soup’s healing powers are firmly in the head. But also so firmly in my head that I bring it to sick friends as a powerful healing agent.” 

Dr. Bernard Lown, a renowned cardiologist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and a dear friend of my parents-in-law, says that Lissu’s chicken soup deserves the designation of “Jewish Penicillin”. When I asked him if he believes her soup is really medicinal, he replied, “If one relishes and believes in its healing qualities, indubitably it will be remedial for a multiplicity of ailments. Lissu somehow excavated an ancient Litvak recipe that is especially delectable and thereby no doubt therapeutic!” (here’s a wonderful NYT piece about Dr. Lown and his take on modern medicine, called Doctors, Revolt!)

Spending hours preparing and bringing a traditional family recipe to a friend is one of the most generous expressions of love, something that is often sorely missing in modern medicine as Dr. Lown illustrates in his book, The Lost Art of Healing. Science tells us that this kind of care and attention, a profound example of social connectedness, is its own form of medicine.

My mother-in-law and Dr. Lown’s perspective also capture the power of belief. This can be most concretely seen in the placebo response: Believing in the therapy you are receiving (whether it’s chicken soup or something else) can increase its efficacy. And improved results are found when the provider of the therapy shares her belief about its hopeful benefits with the recipient.

Given the side effects of cold medications, the overuse of antibiotics for viral infections, and the expense and hassle of unnecessary medical visits, chicken soup, prescribed since the middle ages for the sick and ailing, still has a place in modern medicine.

From the Ayurvedic perspective, chicken broth can help soothe the nervous system and is easily digestible and very nourishing. If you dare veer from your grandma’s recipe, you can vary the vegetables, herbs, and spices to keep your ingredients aligned with the season.

Kichari, made from mung beans, basmati rice, and vegetables, is known as “Ayurvedic Chicken Soup” and is often made for those who are ill or convalescing after surgery. This can be a great option if you’re vegetarian.

What’s really important about chicken soup (besides buying organic ingredients when possible) is that you enjoy every spoonful and that you recognize the love that goes into making the soup. Even when preparing it for yourself, make sure it’s with love.

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