Cold Comfort

There's no cure for the common cold. But the healing properties of nutritional remedies can help manage its symptoms.

Cold Comfort

Photography: Rita Maas / Styling: Susan Ottaviano/Ennis

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There's an old saying: "A cold lasts seven days, but with proper treatment it can be shortened to a week." Since there's no cure for the common cold, the saying usually rings true.

Standard over-the-counter remedies provide, at best, temporary relief of symptoms; drug manufacturers have yet to formulate a product that can prevent a cold or shorten its duration. Antibiotics, appropriate for bacterial infections, are ineffective―even detrimental―in treating the flu or cold viruses, of which there are more than 200 strains. They eliminate all bacteria―much of it helpful―and can actually interfere with the body's efforts to battle a virus.

There is good news, though. Time-honored, food-based folk remedies offer sound nutritional strategies for managing a cold. "Diet keeps our internal mechanisms at peak production. And when you're seeking relief from cold symptoms, many traditional food remedies can be effective," says Samuel D. Caughron, M.D., a family practitioner specializing in clinical preventive medicine at the Charlottesville Wellness Center in Virginia. "Many of these remedies have given symptomatic relief for centuries; some now even have science behind them."

Chicken Soup Superlative
Consider chicken soup, which has a long history as a doctor-approved remedy. In a.d. 60, Pedacius Dioscorides, physician under the Roman emperor Nero, recommended chicken soup for respiratory illness. Eminent 12th-century rabbi and physician Moses Maimonides also prescribed chicken soup when Sultan Saladin, the Muslim military leader he served, complained of a cold.

The late 1970s brought the first modern scientific evidence touting chicken soup's cold-fighting properties. A 1978 study in the medical journal Chest reported that chicken soup is the most effective hot liquid for clearing mucus from the nose. The hot soup nourishes, hydrates, and steams open clogged nasal passages. The faster mucus flows, the better: These nasal secretions help expel viruses.

Recently, another study has revealed that chicken soup contains anti-inflammatory properties that can also ease congestion. In his research, Stephen Rennard, M.D., a pulmonary specialist and professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska, focused on how neutrophils, white blood cells that gather to fight infection, respond in the presence of chicken soup. Neutrophils usually rush to airways to destroy an invading virus, but they also trigger inflammatory response symptoms, like coughing, sneezing, and nasal congestion. The results: Rennard found that his wife's homemade chicken soup (and most store-bought brands) slowed this cell migration and reduced congestion, thereby helping eliminate one of the symptoms, if not the source.

Still, he has not yet identified the beneficial compounds causing this neutrophil response. "Things in the soup besides the chicken may have been helpful," he says. "Vegetables, for instance, have lots of potentially medicinally active compounds, like vitamins and antioxidants." And so his research continues, but the basic conclusion remains: Chicken soup does indeed help.


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