When you have a cold, or you’re just feeling cold, nothing satisfies like a cup of hot soup. It’s a meal you can drink, both savory and comforting, and perfect for chilly days and sniffly nights.
But soup’s benefits may go beyond the simply epicurean. Some scientific research has found real, measurable effects of drinking soup when we’re sick, from calming inflammation to helping clear out stuffy nasal passages. And there are benefits from getting extra liquids and healthy proteins and vegetables when we’re feeling under the weather.
As cooler weather has us turning to our favorite soup recipes (or opening a can or just-add-water packet), we round up the evidence for soups-as-medicine — as if we needed another reason to enjoy them!
Prescribing a bowl of steaming broth to the sick dates to ancient times. In the 12th century, Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides recommended soup as a curative, listing among its properties the rectification of “corrupted humors” (Rosner, 1980).
Today, we may use more modern terms to ascribe benefits to a hearty bowl of soup, but the recognition of its restorative powers remains. In one study, scientists measured how hot liquids, including soup, helped the flow of nasal mucus in 15 people. They found hot soup helped mucus move more easily after ingestion compared to before. It’s a likely explanation for the common experience of feeling less congested after some hot soup or tea when we’re sick (Saketkhoo et al., 1978).
Another study assessed the effects of a hot drink, like soup, on people with the common cold or flu. Hot liquids helped ease symptoms of sore throat, chills, and tiredness, the researchers found, though they couldn’t say for sure why. That hot soup makes us feel warmer makes sense, but the other outcomes may be a placebo effect, they wrote. Or, it could have something to do with how heat affects the mucus in our throats (Sanu et al., 2019).
There are some evidence soups might also help control inflammation in our bodies. Inflammation is the result of our bodies’ immune system ramping up to fight infections, such as a cold virus. It’s an important defense mechanism, but inflammation that escapes its proper bounds is also the reason why we can suffer from excessive fever and aches when we’re sick. And, over the long-term, whole-body inflammation resulting from poor diet, stress, or other lifestyle factors is thought to lead to a range of health problems including cardiovascular disease and dementia.
In a laboratory study, scientists found that chicken soup helped to quiet the activity of white blood cells called neutrophils. In the presence of the soup, the neutrophils moved more slowly, which, according to the researchers, translates into reduced inflammation. It’s evidence, they wrote, for the folk wisdom that chicken soup helps soothe sore throats and other symptoms of upper respiratory infections (Rennard et al., 2000).
You don’t have to feel under the weather to enjoy the health benefits of soup. In addition to providing a dose of hydrating liquids with our meal, soups are often packed with healthy vegetables, lean proteins, and other important nutrients.
However, not all soups carry the same health benefits. When scanning the soup aisle, avoid products high in sugar, which can suppress the immune system and cause inflammation (Frazier et al., 2011). In addition, many cheese-based soups are high in fat that can be hard for the body to digest. However, while many people try to avoid dairy when they’re sick, and may steer clear of creamy soup broths, studies actually show that dairy doesn’t make us more congested or increase mucus in the throat and nose (Wüthrich et al., 2005).
So, if you're feeling under the weather, you can still take comfort in clam chowder. Alternatively, try a seafood cioppino, a delicious tomato-based substitute for creamy seafood bisque.
When looking for a healthy soup recipe or pre-made soup, there are a few things you should keep in mind for optimal health benefits. Broth-based soups can hydrate the body and be easy to digest. Bone broth in particular is especially rich in protein, collagen, and key amino acids.
And enjoying fish-based soups such as ones using Vital Choice’s Wild Fish Broth can be an easy and cost-effective way to incorporate seafood and the omega-3 fatty acids they contain into your diet. Seafood such as wild-caught salmon, sardines, and mackerel supply us with two important omega-3 fatty acids called EPA and DHA. These essential fats form the building blocks for our cells and help provide energy to the heart, blood, and lungs (NIH ODS). They’re also key to our body’s immune system and to our defense against unhealthy levels of inflammation.
Finally, choose a soup packed with vegetables and protein. Carrots, peas, and broccoli are loaded with nutrients and keep our bodies strong and resilient. And if you add in healthy protein from fish, beef, or chicken, you can give your body an extra-hearty serving of nutrients such as iron and selenium.
Though there’s solid scientific evidence that soups truly do make us feel better when we’re sick, we shouldn’t turn to them only when we’re under the weather. Enjoying soup can be a way to add healthy vitamins and essential fats to your diet regularly…not to mention keeping you warm on a chilly day.
Rennard BO, Ertl RF, Gossman GL, Robbins RA, Rennard SI. Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro. Chest. 2000;118(4):1150-1157. doi:10.1378/chest.118.4.1150
Rosner F. Therapeutic Efficacy of Chicken Soup. Chest. 1980;78(4):672-674. doi:10.1378/chest.78.4.672
Saketkhoo K, Januszkiewicz A, Sackner MA. Effects of Drinking Hot Water, Cold Water, and Chicken Soup on Nasal Mucus Velocity and Nasal Airflow Resistance. Chest. 1978;74(4):408-410. doi:10.1016/s0012-3692(15)37387-6
Sanu A; Eccles R. The effects of a hot drink on nasal airflow and symptoms of common cold and flu. Rhinology. 2019;46(4). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19145994/. Accessed September 29, 2020.
Frazier TH, DiBaise JK, McClain CJ. Gut microbiota, intestinal permeability, obesity-induced inflammation, and liver injury. JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr. 2011 Sep;35(5 Suppl):14S-20S. doi: 10.1177/0148607111413772. Epub 2011 Aug 1. PMID: 21807932.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: Omega-3 Factsheet. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/#h1
Brunello Wüthrich, Alexandra Schmid, Barbara Walther & Robert Sieber (2005) Milk Consumption Does Not Lead to Mucus Production or Occurrence of Asthma, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 24:sup6, 547S-555S, DOI: 10.1080/07315724.2005.10719503