When La Grange Park resident Venessa Tornabene felt "under the weather" as a child, her mother soothed her with chicken noodle soup or honey-sweetened hot tea. Today she serves her own two daughters Grandma's homemade minestrone soup recipe loaded with fresh vegetables whenever they show signs of any illness.
During the winter months, it's not uncommon for multiple children or even the entire household to fall sick with a nasty cold or the flu. Can food help?
Yes. There are many plant foods that can boost your immune defense, says registered dietitian Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant-Powered Diet. "Plant foods have potent phytochemicals-plant compounds-that appear to offer particular healing properties," she says.
It's not only the phytochemicals. "Fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds are also rich in fiber, which can help feed your `healthy' bacteria, which in turn can boost your immune defense," she says.
For example, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 concluded a high fiber diet contributes to preferential gut microbiota, which is linked with better immune function.
It's important to start with a healthy plant-based diet, rich in nutrients, phytochemicals and fibers that promote a good immune defense to protect against acquiring a disease.
"The beauty of whole foods for healing is that they offer no adverse effects when eaten in moderation, compared with the potential for drugs," adds Palmer.
Luckily for us, it happens to be the tastier option as well.
Chicken soup. A study published in 2000 in Chest found that chicken soup may contain substances with a variety of medicinal properties, including anti-inflammatory effects, that could help ease symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections. The study found it may inhibit immune cells, called neutrophils, which play a role in the discharge from mucous membranes that lead to coughs and excess sputum during a cold or flu. Both homemade or canned chicken soup worked, as did vegetable soup.
Extra virgin olive oil. It contains the compound oleocanthal, which provides a similar anti-inflammatory property as ibuprofen.
Fresh ginger. A decongestant, ginger can reduce the pain associated with muscle injury after intense exercise. It also quells upset stomachs, nausea and motion sickness.
Herbal tea. People have been sipping herbal teas as a health remedy for eons, and now research shows that some of these botanicals may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Mushrooms. These fungi help fend off viral infections. White button mushrooms provide significant levels of selenium, niacin and riboflavin.
Tart red cherries and pomegranates. These fruits can reduce muscle soreness after intense physical activity.
Tea with honey. Honey contains phenols, which possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Other compounds help prevent bacterial growth and reduce inflammation.
Yogurt. Yogurt with active cultures of beneficial bacteria can help prevent and treat certain types of diarrhea. If the diarrhea is a side effect of antibiotics, which kill both good and bad bacteria, it's especially important to replenish the good ones.
Tornabene is convinced of the healing power of homemade soup for her girls.
"We absolutely feel it helps them. My husband says it's evidence-based feeding. We've seen it work first-hand," she says.
Christine Palumbo, RD, is based in Naperville. She swears by any type of soup when she’s under the weather. Contact her at Chris@ChristinePalumbo.com. Her Facebook page is Christine Palumbo Nutrition and her Twitter handle is @PalumboRD.