It’s official, cold and flu season is now upon us. In the office, I am seeing as many as twelve cases a day of the “stuff” going around. Fever, congestion, cough, headache, sore throat – the works.

While each encounter is unique, I personally try and end my visits this time of year with some variation of the phrase: “remember to drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest.”

Tucked into a cozy bed, nose still running, and fighting to cram the recommended “fluids and rest” into the little amount of free time any of us have on any given day, most of us turn to an old favorite – chicken soup. But why?

The exact science behind the healing nature of homemade chicken soup has been difficult to pinpoint, but a few academics have tried.

Using his grandmother’s recipe in the year 2000, Dr. Stephen Rennard at the University of Nebraska saw that a blended version of the ingredients in her chicken soup slowed the movements of a specific type of inflammatory blood cell. While admittedly not a perfect experiment, he did publish the findings in the academic journal CHEST to share with his peers. Maybe it is this anti-inflammatory effect that gives a chicken soup its power.

An earlier study from 1978 in the same journal found a hot chicken stock to be better than hot water alone at helping the tiny hairs in our nasal sinuses physically remove viral infections from the nose. Perhaps this is the reason chicken soup makes us feel better.

Chicken stock – especially homemade and using bones – is nutrient dense and high in protein, and in a form that is easy for the gut to digest.  Electrolytes and gelatin in bone stock have been shown to help improve hydration, heal the gut, and reduce inflammation.

The vitamins and minerals in the rainbow of herbs and vegetables added to chicken soup variations read like a high-end multivitamin. Onions and celery are high in antioxidants, while carrots are rich in beta-carotene and vitamin A. Parsley has antibiotic properties. Cabbage has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Nontraditional ingredients like kale, spinach, mushrooms, and turmeric can all be added and are considered “superfoods” in most nutrition circles.

Maybe it is all of these reasons, and maybe it is none of them. In the big research institutions, chicken soup probably takes a back burner to things like cancer and heart disease. Pun intended. 

Critics could rightly say that heat denatures some of those vitamins and minerals, and that warm liquid, not just soup, has a calming effect and helps soothe irritated throats. I’ll choose to be a bit more optimistic.

Even without all of the biochemistry, chicken soup is good for the soul. The loving intention behind a homemade soup has clear emotional and psychological benefit. The contents may even be irrelevant – someone is taking care of you and wants you to feel better – and that alone has the power to heal.