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Chicken Soup Does Soothe a Cold

A cure for the common cold may still be out of reach, but temporary relief could be right in your kitchen cupboard.

Chicken soup apparently does more than work wonders on the soul. Some doctors and researchers -- not to mention grandma -- say chicken soup actually helps reduce the inflammation and mucus production so characteristic of a cold.

They think it may help flu sufferers, too.

"Does it cure you? No. But it makes you feel a lot better, and that's the bottom line," says Dr. Jordan S. Josephson, an otolaryngologist and sinus specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "As anyone who's ever had the flu will tell you, you sit there praying to God [for] anything that will make you feel a little bit better."

This winter, that message may pique the interest of more people as the "flu season" has gotten an early start, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For the past two decades, CDC data show, February has been the peak month for flu cases, but outbreaks began this year in October.

And with 36 states reporting flu activity, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding on Dec. 19 formally declared this year's outbreak an "epidemic."

The flu -- which actually is a contagious, respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses -- strikes the nose, throat and lungs just like the common cold. However, medical experts say it comes on more quickly and severely, usually accompanied by more intense aches, fever and tiredness. Both ailments feature coughing, nasal congestion and sore throat.

And that's where chicken soup can help, Josephson says.

"Colds and the flu naturally make you produce mucus," he says, "but research showed that chicken soup inhibits the mucus production."

"That means my nose will be less stuffy, my throat won't be as sore, I won't be coughing as much, I won't be as congested and I will feel better," Josephson says.

Indeed, a doctor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center tested his wife's grandmother's chicken soup recipe in his laboratory, finding it did have medicinal value because it limited the movement of neutrophils, the white cells in the blood that fight infection. Neutrophils actually remove bacteria from the body, but in the process they stimulate the production of mucus -- one of the irritating symptoms of colds and the flu.

The Nebraska study, published in the October 2000 issue of Chest, did not clarify what in the soup produced the health benefit. But it suggested the ingredients -- which included chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery, parsley, salt and pepper -- somehow worked together to create a beneficial brew.

Josephson speculates it's a combination of things, from the vitamins and minerals in the ingredients to the heat of the soup -- although the study found hot water didn't produce the same results, he says. Even the soup's fat content, which "has a soothing effect on the throat," could play a role, he says.

And, of course, soup is a liquid, and medical experts always recommend fluids for cold and flu sufferers to stave off dehydration.

"The take-home message when you have a cold or the flu is to bundle up, stay warm and drink plenty of fluids, and chicken soup is a real good one," Josephson says. "It tastes good and it hydrates you."

Jay Parker, who owns Ben's Best Kosher Deli in the Rego Park area of New York City, calls it the "Jewish penicillin."

It's what you always take people who are sick, he explains.

His deli offers a "get-well flu basket" -- two quarts of chicken soup, with four matzo balls on the side, a mug to drink it from and a box of tissues, all in a basket. "We've been doing it for years," he says, "but this year the need is just a little bit greater."

It's fun, Parker says, and of course there's the nutritional value. But chicken soup has something more to offer as well, he says, touting a psychological connection that makes it a true comfort food.

"When mom gave you chicken soup, she felt like she was helping you," Parker says. "You felt the love that came through the soup."

More information

For more information on holding your own against colds and the flu, take a look at information from FDA Consumer magazine. Or, for a chart to help you decide just what ailment you have, visit the American Academy of Family Physicians.


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