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Before she became a full-time mom, my mother was a registered nurse. It was a career she had been proud of and whenever my sister or I got sick, she jumped right back into that role, doing everything short of donning her starched white nursing cap. She’d examine the thermometer critically and shake it down with a crack of her wrist, and announce, “You’ll be spending the day in bed!” No child could have been better cared for. A glass of ginger ale (with a bendy straw) was always placed in easy reach. And I can still taste her chicken soup, with its perfectly cooked noodles.
Mom was following a timeless tradition: people have always looked to food as medicine. This cold and flu season, I decided to look into the beliefs long held by my mom and many others to see which are nutritionally valid and which are merely folklore.
It turns out there is something to chicken soup after all. In one study, researchers measured nasal mucus velocity (science-speak for “runny nose”) and nasal airflow resistance (stuffy nose) after volunteers drank cold water, hot water or chicken soup. Of the three, hot chicken soup was the most effective at making noses run—a good thing since nasal secretions help rid the body of pathogenic viruses and bacteria. Like any hot liquid, soup also helps hydration and raises the temperature of the airways, both important for loosening secretions. Adding a few hot chiles might help loosen things up even more.
Ever since biochemist Linus Pauling proposed megadoses of vitamin C to stave off cold symptoms, research has been piling up to assess its effectiveness. For perspective, I turned to a well-regarded review of 29 studies that involved more than 11,000 participants. The reviewers found that vitamin C failed to reduce the incidence of colds. But overall, with doses of 200 mg or greater (more than twice the 60-75 mg current recommended dietary intake for adults), the duration of colds was shortened by about 8 percent—not a huge difference, but something. There was also a significant reduction in the number of days subjects took off from work or school, which suggests vitamin C might help reduce a cold’s severity. The likelihood of success seems to vary with the person—some people improve after taking vitamin C supplements, others don’t. Try it and see for yourself but don’t exceed 2,000 milligrams per day. More than this can cause an upset stomach.