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Does chicken soup really help you feel better? Experts weigh in.

A hearty bowl of chicken soup.
Chicken soup is a remedy that dates back to at least the 12th century. (Photo: Getty Images)

Chicken soup tends to be the go-to comfort food when people feel sick. It’s a remedy that dates back to at least the 12th century, when Moses Maimonides, a Jewish physician and scholar, recommended it for respiratory tract symptoms.

But does it actually help people feel better when they’re fighting a cold? Here’s what experts say.

The science behind chicken soup

In perhaps the most famous study that has been done on chicken soup, researchers found that the soup might have a mild anti-inflammatory effect. This study tested the impact of each ingredient and various concentrations of chicken soup on neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that causes inflammation in our bodies.

Dr. Stephen Rennard, an author of the study and a professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life, “I can say with real confidence that there’s something in chicken soup that will inhibit neutrophil migration” — essentially, reducing the movement of these cells and possibly inflammation. Rennard explains that not only did chicken broth show slight detrimental effects on neutrophils, so did each individual vegetable used in the recipe tested. The effect of both the broth and the ingredients together showed the greatest activity.

“I’m easily convinced that there’s potentially things coming out of every single vegetable and the chicken that have potential medicinal activities,” says Rennard. “Now we don’t know — they could be the same thing, something common to all ingredients, or they may be unique ones.”

Rennard emphasizes that his research was done in the lab and did not evaluate chicken soup in sick people. “If you were really wanting to test this as a medicine, you’d actually have to show if you give it to sick people they get better. We didn’t do any of those things,” he notes.

An older study found that sipping hot chicken soup helps loosen nasal mucus and clear up sinuses even more than sipping plain hot water. The study authors suspected that chicken soup’s aroma, "sensed at the posterior nares or through a mechanism related to taste” plays a part in this.

What experts can agree on is that more research is needed to understand the beneficial effects of this home remedy.

Health benefits of chicken soup

Meanwhile, chicken soup still checks out as a valuable part of a treatment plan when you’re feeling under the weather. That’s in part because it's packed with health-promoting nutrients, and “it hits all points for a balanced meal,” Kelsey Kunik, a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition adviser for Zenmaster Wellness, tells Yahoo Life.

Chicken provides protein, fat, minerals such as zinc and selenium, and “is rich in the amino acid cysteine, which can help to break down mucus in the body,” explains Kunik. It also contains a peptide, carnosine, which has natural antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties and helps protect your nervous system.

In addition to chicken, many of the vegetables and spices used in chicken soup are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the body.

It also helps you stay hydrated and replenishes lost fluids, especially if you are suffering from a fever, diarrhea or vomiting.

Apart from its nutrient benefits, chicken soup is easy to eat if you don't have much of an appetite or much energy to chew, or if your throat hurts when swallowing. “Drinking warm fluids can help provide immediate relief, by soothing a sore throat,” says Kunik.

The power of comfort food

“There’s no doubt that there’s something in there [chicken soup] that has the potential to affect cells in a way” that could be beneficial, says Rennard.

While the mechanisms chicken soup has to fight colds aren’t fully understood or proven, there are some things we do know. “If somebody takes care of you when you’re sick, that makes you feel better,” says Rennard. “And that's not a placebo effect — that’s real, positive support. Nobody should underestimate the benefits of being cared for.”

A hot bowl of chicken soup is soothing and it may also improve your mood. Chicken contains tryptophan, which raises your levels of serotonin, and that, in turn, can make you feel good.

While there’s some debate about whether chicken soup can actually cure a cold, at the very least, as Rennard points out, “The soup really does taste good!”

Maxine Yeung is a dietitian and board-certified health and wellness coach.

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