5 food remedies backed by science

ginger tincture
© Oksana_Slepko

Does chicken soup help a cold? Does ginger ale quell the belly? Here's the science behind popular food cures.

It seems that every family has its own bag of magic tricks for treating the ailments that strike us all; chicken soup for the common cold being perhaps the most universal. There's ginger ale for stomach aches, prunes for digestive woes, and honey for coughs, among others. But have any of them been proven to really work? Let's take a look at some of the more enduring food cures and see what the science set has to say.

Chicken soup for a cold

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian and Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan, writes in The Globe and Mail that there is no evidence to prove that eating chicken soup is effective at treating the common cold. However, she explains that it's not a total bust. She writes:
"According to a 2000 study from the University of Nebraska, a homemade chicken soup – containing chicken, lots of vegetables, parsley, salt and pepper – was shown to inhibit the activity of inflammation-causing white blood cells in blood samples from volunteers. It was thought that this could reduce the flow of mucus and ease a stuffy nose. Another study (1978) found that sipping hot chicken soup increased the velocity of nasal secretions in 15 healthy volunteers, an outcome that might help clear a stuffed-up nose. However, the effect lasted only 30 minutes and drinking hot water had the same effect."

Although when I read that same 1978 study, I see a different conclusion: "Hot chicken soup, either through the aroma sensed at the posterior nares or through a mechanism related to taste, appears to possess an additional substance for increasing nasal mucus velocity."

Meanwhile, as UCLA notes, according to a 1998 report from Coping with Allergies and Asthma, "chicken soup may improve the ability of the tiny hairline projections in the nose (called cilia) to prevent infectious particles from afflicting the body."

Even though I don't eat birds – I would say chicken soup has some science in its court. That said, my family makes a spicy vegetable soup with ginger, garlic, chili peppers, and lime that I am SURE cures the cold!

Honey for coughs

In "What works best for kids' colds? Not medicine" I wrote about a study showing that honey outperformed the popular cough suppressant dextromethorphan (DM) in treating cough symptoms in children.

Dr. Shonna Yin from the N.Y.U. School of Medicine says that comfort for sick kids can come in the form of “plenty of fluids to keep children well hydrated, and honey for a cough in children over a year old (no honey for babies under a year because of the risk of botulism). Other measures may include ibuprofen or acetaminophen for fever and saline nose drops for congestion.”

Prunes for regularity

Poor prunes. It was the whole "grandma needs prunes for her constipation" vibe that necessitated their rebranding as "dried plums." But whatever you call them, they are delicious. And guess what, science backs up their efficacy in helping with regularity as well. Yay, prunes dried plums!

A 2014 study found that eating eight to 10 prunes daily increased stool weight and bowel movement frequency in constipated and non-constipated individuals. For constipation, the authors wrote, "prunes appear superior to psyllium for improving stool frequency and consistency."

Another study found that for constipation, prunes "should be considered as a first line therapy."

A half a cup of prunes has around 6 grams of fiber for around 200 calories; they also have the natural sugar, sorbitol, which can act as a laxative for some people.

Ginger ale for nausea

The ginger ale always came out at my childhood home for stomach aches, and I am pretty sure it helped because soda was otherwise verboten. Since there is no real ginger in most ginger ales, it couldn't have been the ginger. That said, ginger is commonly used for medicinal purposes in Asian, Indian, and Arabic herbal traditions. In China, ginger has been used to aid all types of digestion disorders for more than 2,000 years.

Currently, health care professionals commonly recommend ginger to help prevent or treat nausea and vomiting. It is also used as a digestive aid for mild stomach upset. Germany’s Commission E has approved ginger as a treatment for indigestion and motion sickness.

Drinking ginger tea – either hot or cold – is a wonderful way to soothe the tummy. Grate or slice fresh ginger and let it seep with boiled water for 10 minutes, or longer if you like it spicy. Hot, spicy ginger tea with lemon and honey does wonders for a stuffy nose as well – not sure science has looked into that one, but it definitely offers at least some temporary relief.

Also, here's how to make homemade ginger ale with real ginger: 8 homemade alternatives to unhealthy soda.

Lavender to induce slumber

This isn't a food remedy, per se, but since lavender is edible and this is a popular one, I couldn't leave it out. While it sounds too good (or too woowoo) to be true, “research shows that smelling lavender decreases heart rate and blood pressure, key elements of relaxation,” says sleep expert Richard Shane, PhD, told RD. “The two main chemicals in lavender have been shown to have sedative and pain-relieving effects.”

Meanwhile, a 2005 study found that exposure to lavender essential oil increased the percentage of deep or slow-wave sleep (SWS) in men and women; and the study's subjects reported "higher vigor the morning after lavender exposure, corroborating the restorative SWS increase." Along with the study's other findings, the authors concluded that "lavender serves as a mild sedative and has practical applications as a novel, nonphotic method for promoting deep sleep in young men and women and for producing gender-dependent sleep effects."

For the study, subjects received a presentation of essential oil for the first two minutes of each 10-minute interval between 11:10 p.m. and 11:40 p.m. So, you could try two minutes every eight minutes, three times, before you go to sleep.

And if you don't have lavender on hand you can try having a nightcap, which is known to help one fall asleep. The only problem is, science says it will make sleep during the second part of the night harder.

5 food remedies backed by science
Does chicken soup help a cold? Does ginger ale quell the belly? Here's the science behind popular food cures.

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