Now is a time when I come upon the inevitable dread of the college year. It’s not the testing or the due dates of the first projects—it’s the time when I first start to hear the sniffles and coughs of sick students as they traverse our halls and sit just a little too close to me in class. And while I try to take as many precautions as possible to avoid getting sick with whatever disgusting illness people might be carrying, I still manage to catch a strain of it and feel miserable every single year. Once my fears have been realized, I find myself straining to breathe, under a constant pressure in my head, and feeling like I’m coughing up a lung on occasion. I take the usual medicines: the pills, the drops, the syrup, and lots of liquids and rest. But nothing makes me feel quite as well again as having a bowl of homemade chicken soup.
It has to do with the contents of the soup and the way it is administered. While hot liquids do help reduce congestion and to purge our systems of viruses, compounds in chicken soup tend to linger longer in the throat and mouth. This magnifies the effects by allowing the airways to stay open for longer as well as keeping the person hydrated. A study at the Nebraska Medical Center found that some of the healing power of chicken soup comes from its ability to inhibit neutrophils—cells in your body that cause cold symptoms while infected—which stops upper-respiratory problems like coughing and excess mucus.
Vegetables and meat are also essential to the power of chicken soup. Carrots provide a good source of vitamin A, which can bolster immune systems by strengthening white blood cells. White blood cells, in turn, hunt down and eliminate diseases in the blood stream. Onions contain calcium and sulfur, decreasing swelling and congestion in the head. This helps reduce headaches and maintain an alert awareness. Other vegetables, like celery and potatoes, help to keep the body healthy while sick. By eating these healthy foods, you’re allowing the rest of your body to stay fit and energized while the immune system does its work.
But the chicken itself (the reason the soup is called “chicken soup”) releases the amino acid cysteine when cooked. Cysteine thins mucus in the lungs, reducing coughing and allowing for better breathing. It is also a good source of protein, which strengthens one’s muscles that may feel weak while sick.
So while I probably will become sick within the next few days, constant hand washing and avoidance of infected individuals notwithstanding, I can always take heart in knowing that I’ve got a secret weapon: Mama’s home-cooked medicine (and if there were a soup actually called this, I would totally buy it).
BY BENJAMIN LABERGE labe0091@.d.umn.edu
ILLUSTRATION BY JOE FRASER.