Q&A with Dr. Weil: Can Chicken Soup Banish Colds?

Question: Is chicken soup really good for colds, or is this just an old wives’ tale?

Answer: 

In some cultures, chicken soup has long been a traditional cold remedy. I've read that Maimonides, the Jewish physician and philosopher, recommended it back in the 12th century.

But there's more than folk wisdom at work here. At least one scientific study suggests that a steaming bowl of chicken soup affords more than comfort—although it's important not to sell comfort short. Hot liquids in general can be soothing, if only because they require you to slow down, sit still, and sip patiently in order to consume them without scalding yourself. What's more, a study published in the journal Chest in 1978 showed that sipping both chicken soup and hot water can help clear clogged nasal passages.

The best scientific evidence we have for chicken soup's cold-fighting capacity, however, comes from a study at the University of Nebraska, where researchers exposed neutrophils, the white blood cells that fight infections but also cause inflammation, to diluted chicken broth. The liquid slowed the movement of the cells, suggesting that in the body chicken soup can do the same thing. The result, if you have a cold, would be relief of some symptoms.

The soup used in the study was from a family recipe provided by Stephen Rennard, M.D., the lead researcher. When the study was published in the October 2000 issue of Chest, Dr. Rennard included the recipe, which came from his wife's grandmother. But he and his colleagues also tested canned soups from the supermarket and found that all but two worked as well (but didn't taste as good) as Grandma's.

If chicken soup isn't your cup of tea, you could try some other kind. In some cultures, fish soup is as revered as chicken soup. And, I'm told, on the advice of their physicians, some New Yorkers phone for delivery of hot and sour soup from local Chinese restaurants when they're fighting colds. The spicy soup is said to clear your sinuses. Finally, here's a recipe from my book, Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, that may do the trick:

Tonic Soup Recipe

Instructions:

  • 8 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4-8 cloves garlic, minced
  • One 1-inch piece of fresh gingerroot, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 cup sliced carrots
  • 1 slice astragalus root
  • 1 cup shiitake mushrooms (fresh or reconstituted), sliced
  • 1 cup broccoli florets

Directions:

Bring the vegetable broth to a boil in a large pot. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the onion, garlic, and ginger. Sauté over low heat until soft and aromatic.

Add contents of skillet to broth along with carrots, astragalus root, and shiitake mushrooms. Simmer, covered, 1 hour.

Add the broccoli flowerets in the last 5 minutes, and remove astragalus before serving.

Serves 8

~Andrew Weil, M.D.

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About the Author
Dr. Andrew Weil
Andrew Weil was born in Philadelphia in 1942, received an A.B. degree in biology (botany) from Harvard in 1964 and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1968. After completing a medical internship at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, he worked a year with the National Institute of Mental Health, then wrote his first book, The Natural Mind. From 1971–75, as a Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, Dr. Weil traveled widely in North and South America and Africa collecting information on drug use in other cultures, medicinal plants, and alternative methods of treating disease. From 1971–84 he was on the research staff of the Harvard Botanical Museum and conducted investigations of...Read more