This article contains general information only and does not recommend or endorse any particular treatment. It is not intended to replace the advice provided by your own doctor or medical or health professional.
It doesn’t matter how bad your bones are aching or how intensely your cold-ridden chest hurts – slurping the hot liquid of a hearty bowl of chicken soup will most certainly make you feel better.
Chicken soups are internationally regarded as beloved comfort food with remedial powers. All you need to do is choose your soup style – aMalaysian chicken laksa, a Balinese soto ayam, Korean samgyetang, Greek lemon chicken soup (avgolemono) or a Persian chicken meatball soup (gundi) – and wash it down with an extra serve of vege for good health.
Once you finish your poultry-based dish, take some time to reflect. Did you feel better because the chicken soup you just devoured was healing or did your belief in a soupy myth produce a placebo effect?
“It’s also known as Jewish penicillin. My grandmother used to make chicken bone broth all the time. And it really did work.”
Does chicken soup really make you feel better?
Sharon Selby is a big advocate for the healing power of chicken soup. She tells SBS that her grandmother’s Israeli recipe for chicken and matzo ball soup helps her battle the common cold.
“It’s also known as Jewish penicillin,” Selby says, touting the alternative treatment on episode three of Medicine or Myth? airing on SBS on Monday 3 June at 8.30pm. “My grandmother used to make chicken bone broth all the time. And it really did work.”
As Selby explains on the new SBS series, she used to suffer from bad colds and flu, which later escalated into pneumonia. Fed up with the state of her health, she revived her grandmother’s bone broth remedy in the kitchen. Selby says the soup has prevented the onset of colds and flu in her household ever since.
“When I make broth it's just so much love goes into making it because I know my kids are going to get all the amazing nutrients that come from the bones.”
An anti-inflammatory effect
The age-old belief in the ability of chicken soup to help with a cold dates back to Greek writings and later, the Egyptian Jewish physician and philosopher, Moshe ben Maimon. He suggested the dish could help improve respiratory tract symptoms back in the 12th century.
Maimon’s theory has since been supported by research, in particular, a study published in 2000 in the scientific journal, CHEST. The evidence found that chicken soup may produce an anti-inflammatory effect.
Researchers found that chicken soup reduced the movement of neutrophils – the most common white cell in the blood that defends the body against infection. This may reduce activity in the upper respiratory tract that can cause symptoms associated with a cold.
A spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, Joel Feren, explains that chicken contains a number of key nutrients that can help support a healthy immune system.
“That’s iron, zinc and protein,” Feren tells SBS. “And then if you can get some vegetables into your soup, you will get more plant-based antioxidants and even some vitamin C. So chicken soup does tick a lot of nutritional boxes.”
Hydration for your body
Let’s not forget about the water content behind chicken soup. Feren reminds SBS that the dish can also act as a tool for hydration.
“Chicken soup is also hydrating,” he says. “We have to keep that in mind especially when someone’s unwell and they need to keep their fluids up.”
"The carbs in the soup's noodles can help you to fill more full, which again will help sleep.”
Sleep consultant and co-founder of Sleepy Starz, Emily Duffell, says that a good bowl of warm chicken soup can put you to sleep. “Chicken is a protein that is known to be high in tryptophan levels,” explains Duffell. “Tryptophan helps produce serotonin, which promotes sleep. After eating, there is a multi-step process where the tryptophan is broken down before becoming serotonin.
“The broth can also have high tryptophan levels depending on how it’s made and what ingredients have been used.”
Duffell recommends having chicken soup a few hours before you want to sleep at night.
"Eating too late can cause the opposite effect if the soup hasn’t been digested properly," says Duffell. "Adding lots of vegetables can be satisfying as well as some noodles. The carbohydrates in the soup's noodles can help you to fill more full, which again will help sleep.”
A hearty dish after childbirth
Hakka cuisine, the cooking style of Hakka peoples who originated from North China before moving to the South Chinese provinces in the 1270s, features a signature chicken soup called niang jiu ji [娘酒鸡].
Sydney-based Hazel Xing, who is of Hakka descent and speaks Hakka dialect, says the name of the soup directly translates to "mother's wine chicken".
“We believe this chicken soup can [restores the health] of women who have given birth,” says Xing.
“It is made with chicken and a local brewing glutinous rice wine – which you cook together with ginger and red dates. This glutinous rice wine has been called ‘mother's wine’ [niang jiu] because it’s believed to be good for women/mothers.”
“We believe this chicken soup can [restore the health] of women who have given birth."
Although there is no one dish that can cure all, Feren agrees that chicken soup may replenish depleted energy stores in women who have just given birth.
“Once we look at immune function and hormone production we also look at the key nutrients – iron, zinc, protein, vitamin C, [which is found in chicken soup],” says Feren.
“So there is some truth in providing chicken soup to a woman who has just gone through the ordeal that is childbirth.”
However, Feren adds, there’s no one dish or superfood ingredient that can help everyone feel good all of the time. “The Jewish penicillin, chicken soup, is certainly comforting when we are unwell but it’s no panacea.”
Are alternative remedies simply a myth or do they have a place alongside modern medicine? Medicine or Myth? follows everyday Australians as they pitch their diverse and sometimes divisive health remedies to a panel of medical experts, led by Dr Charlie Teo, in the hope of being selected for a real-world trial.
#MedicineorMyth is an eight-week series airing Monday nights at 8.30 pm on SBS and then all the episodes are available on SBS On Demand.
Pear brings a sweet and buttery quality to this vibrant fruit and vegetable juice.
On the island of Hainan, the hele crab (crab of joyous harmony) is famed for its bright orange and red tomalley. Combined with the local sand ginger it makes a delicious sauce for oysters. Destination Flavour China
Here's a great way to use turmeric, in this zesty chicken skewers.
This is a great way to use up leftover pork – and you can vary the salad ingredients to suit whatever is in season.