The Science Behind Chicken Noodle Soup When You’re Sick

chicken noodle soup
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Did your mom always make chicken noodle soup when you were sick? Turns out, it's a science-backed remedy for the common cold.

For many people, a classic bowl of chicken noodle soup is the go-to when they’re sick. It doesn’t matter if it’s homemade from scratch or poured out from a can. As soon as those cold or flu symptoms start setting in, it’s time to dive headfirst into that hearty, tasty bowl.

Is it because it’s a comforting reminder of our childhood? Or, is there actually some science behind why chicken noodle soup makes you feel a little better?

Nostalgia and Chicken Soup (And Other Foods From Childhood)

To be honest, it is probably a bit of both.

Campbell’s via GIPHY

We can’t ignore the power of nostalgia! It’s been known to influence purchasing decisions, rewrite our past into happier times, and even make us more optimistic. But nostalgia has also been proven to make people feel better, warmer, and more comfortable. Maybe that’s one reason why our memories are “heart-warming.” 

Clearly, this is key when it comes to feeling under the weather. Those fuzzy, heart-warming feelings could literally combat common physical cold and flu symptoms.

That being said, nostalgia isn’t the only reason why a bowl of chicken noodle soup when sick might help you feel better. There is actually some science behind why you should reach for this classic when you’re feeling ill.

The Science of Chicken Noodle Soup

Soups and warm drinks like tea have been used for healing since ancient times.

In modern times, we don’t always think of food as medicine, although I’ve seen a shift back toward it in recent years. With prescriptions, doctors, and therapies, it’s easy to forget that everything starts with what we eat. I mean, surely you’ve heard the old saying, “You are what you eat.”

The famous quote, “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food” is another one. It’s often attributed to Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician and founder of western medicine. He was a big proponent of eating well, noting that nutrition plays a central role in our health. Whether or not that quote actually came from him is debatable, but it’s still a quote worth repeating.

Woman sipping soup from a ladle
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Now, I’m not saying that we should throw modern medicine out the window or anything. We still need a lot of that stuff, and there are plenty of things that just food can’t do. However, there is plenty to be said for a healthy diet, because there are plenty of things that food can do.

That being said, the idea of chicken noodle soup healing you when you’re sick isn’t just a myth. Sipping on this soup may have actual health benefits that will help you boost your health. Especially a homemade chicken noodle soup made with quality ingredients, it can be packed full of more nutrients than you might realize.

Reducing Inflammation

Having a bowl of chicken noodle soup may help to reduce inflammation, which is associated with bacterial or viral infection (aka the cold or flu you picked up). The chicken and chicken broth used to make the soup contain a compound called carnosine, which is also naturally produced by the liver. It has been shown to have a mild anti-inflammatory effect.

You can boost the anti-inflammatory properties of your soup even more if you make it with certain vegetables. Dark, leafy greens provide plenty of health benefits, including reducing inflammation. This includes kale, spinach, collards, and more. Similarly, cruciferous veggies – that’s broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and more – are anti-inflammatory foods that will go well in a chicken noodle soup.

It’s Rich in Essential Nutrients

The full nutritional profile of your soup will depend on the other ingredients that you add. But, we can look at the basic ingredients traditionally used for chicken noodle soup, and the nutrients they provide that will give us a boost when we’re sick.

A good, healthy bowl of chicken noodle soup can be pretty nutrient-dense. The chicken itself and the chicken broth provide protein, which is an important nutrient for immunity and energy. You will also find essential fatty acids, iron, zinc, calcium, and selenium; plus, vitamins A, B3, B6, C, K, and more. Again, this depends on the vegetables you choose to add, but even basic chicken noodle soup utilizes veggies like carrots, celery, and onions that add these vitamins and other nutrients.

Related: The Difference Between Complete and Incomplete Protein

The noodles included in your soup may also bring other important nutrients to your bowl. These, of course, add carbohydrates, which are an important energy source that will help fuel your brain and the rest of your body. It can give you a much-needed energy boost for your body while it fights off infection. If making your soup from scratch, choose whole grain noodles over refined white pasta for even more health benefits.

HBO via GIPHY

It May Boost Your Mood

I know I talked about the effects of nostalgia on folks who grew up eating chicken noodle soup, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Chicken noodle soup can help stabilize your mood and boost feelings of well-being and happiness, too – which sounds incredibly helpful when you’re laid up on the couch with illness.

That’s because chicken is high in tryptophan, an essential amino acid that helps your body produce serotonin. It’s the same stuff in turkey that everyone blames for the after-Thanksgiving-dinner sleepiness. It doesn’t really make you sleepy, by the way. Although tryptophan does play a role in the sleep-wake cycle, it’s probably the massive amount of carbs that actually made you tired.

Providing Hydration and Electrolytes

It is widely known that we need to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated during bouts of illness. Luckily, the broth in chicken noodle soup can do just that. It’s important especially if you have lost a lot of liquids from loss of appetite, diarrhea, or vomiting.

Chicken broth does more than just provide hydration by being liquid, though. Because it contains relatively high amounts of sodium, chicken broth also provides a natural way to replenish your body’s electrolytes.

It Helps to Break Up Congestion

Upping your intake of fluids can also help break up congestion, which is a pretty common symptom of the common cold and the flu. Hot liquids like broth and soup will help mucus move, easing nasal congestion and clearing airways.

woman indoors sneezing into tissue
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I don’t know if it has to do with the ingredients, the temperature, the steam that comes off of hot soup, or a combination of all three. All I know is that there was a published study concerning the effects of drinking hot water, cold water, and chicken soup. Researchers measured nasal mucus velocity (ew!) and determined that hot chicken soup was the winner.

What to Look for in Chicken Noodle Soup

Okay, so the science definitely points to chicken noodle soup as the official food for sick people. But here’s the thing: to get all the benefits we’ve been talking about, your best bet is to go homemade.

When you (or your partner, parent, bestie, etc!) make chicken noodle soup from scratch with wholesome ingredients, you have control over everything that goes in the pot. That means no unwanted preservatives, more protein and other essential nutrients, and the ability to keep sodium levels in check.

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Of course, chicken noodle soup made from scratch isn’t always an option for everyone. You don’t have to be scared of store-bought options, but you do need to know what you are looking for – and what you should avoid – before just picking up the first can of chicken noodle soup you see.

Watch the Amount of Sodium

The problem with most store-bought cans of soup? The amount of sodium. Just a single can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup contains 2,225 mg of sodium!

I know I said sodium is a perk of chicken noodle soup because it helps replace lost electrolytes. While that is true, you don’t want too much sodium. That’s when we venture into really unhealthy territory. Consuming astronomical amounts of sodium is just setting yourself up for a wide range of ailments like hypertension, edema, heart disease, and stroke.

Check Out the Protein Content

The protein found in chicken and chicken broth is one of the reasons chicken noodle soup is so good for you. Clearly, you want your soup to have a good helping of the stuff. Unfortunately, one of the ways that companies cut corners is to include less chicken, which means less healthy protein for the consumer.

Don’t just rely on the name. Take a peek at the nutritional label and see how much protein you’re actually getting. Around 10g of protein per can is a good target to aim for.

Avoid Certain Ingredients

It’s a no-brainer to avoid highly-processed and artificial ingredients, but ingredient labels can sometimes be tricky. Look for ingredients such as modified cornstarch and soy protein isolate, which are heavily processed products made from GMOs. “Flavoring” or “natural flavor” might also be listed. These are concerning, because they could contain any combination of more than 100 chemicals, including solvents, emulsifiers, flavor enhancers, and preservatives. You might also find monosodium glutamate, or MSG, on the ingredients list. While most myths about MSG have been debunked, it’s still a source of sodium.

The best ingredients list will have easily-recognizable, natural ingredients, like chicken stock, vegetables, chicken meat, and sea salt.

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