Under the weather? These foods may help you get back on top

Key takeaways:

  • Ancient Greek visionary and the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, believed that food could be medicine.
  • Chicken soup, broth and ginger have soothing and healing properties.
  • What about tried and true foods when you’re sick? You can skip the lemon-lime soda and stick with saltines.

[3 MIN READ]

Thousands of years ago, people believed that superstition and magic were the sources of healing. Then a Greek visionary named Hippocrates appeared on the scene. Known as the founder of western medical science, Hippocrates was interested in using dietary principles to achieve balance and wellness for the body and mind. It was Hippocrates who said, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.”

As modern science has shown, Hippocrates was right. Certain foods can help support your body in the fight against illnesses such as colds, flu and even COVID-19. They may also ease symptoms, comfort you and help you heal more quickly.

Try these foods when you’re sick

It’s important to note that there’s just a small amount of scientific data to tell us which foods are effective. That’s why there’s one thing to keep in mind above all: people go through illness in different ways, so it follows that they process food differently as well. What helps one unwell person may not help another.

The point then, is to remember that your body — especially your immune system — needs some form of nourishment when you’re ill. Don’t force the food if you’re nauseous or you have no appetite, but if you can, try to hydrate and put calories into your body. Your immune system needs the nutrients.

When you’re feeling under the weather, channel your inner Hippocrates and go for foods and drinks that may help you feel better. These three are a good start.

Chicken soup

 This soup isn’t just good for the soul, it’s soup that’s good for the sick. For centuries, loving grandmas have been giving chicken soup to ailing kiddos (and willing adults) — and it’s a smart move. Here’s why chicken soup rightfully tops the list of foods to try when you’re sick:

  • Helps keep you hydrated. Staying hydrated with liquids, whether it’s water or the broth in soup, can ease headaches and help you absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. Most importantly, fluids keep you from getting dehydrated, which can make you feel worse than you already do.
  • Supplies needed nutrients. Your body needs more nourishment than ever when you’re sick. The liquid form makes it easy to take in essential protein, minerals, vitamins and calories. The protein in the chicken helps fight bacterial and viral infections, and your body’s immune system cells and antibodies rely on protein to be most effective.
  • Clears mucus. Over the years, studies have shown that chicken soup is a natural decongestant. The chicken in the soup contains an amino acid called cysteine that breaks apart the mucus and has anti-inflammatory and anti-viral effects. Increasing hydration also helps to thin and clear mucus.

Broths 

Like their cousin, chicken soup, broths provide the hydration your body needs when you’re sick. Bone broth is a basic, very nutritious stock that’s made from simmered animal bones and connective tissue. A good broth may offer other healing benefits, too.

  • Serves as a natural decongestant. Drink broths while they’re hot and your body benefits from the hot steam to help decongest it.
  • Provides flavor and nutrients. A good broth is flavorful and contains needed calories, minerals, and vitamins.
  • Offers more benefits if made from scratch. If you’re up to it (or have a caring family member or friend) make your own broth. It may help even more because it has more calories, protein and nutrients than canned soup. Better yet, it can have lower sodium if you make it yourself. Try these simple recipes — one meat and one vegetable — to start.

Bone broth recipe (courtesy Healthline)

  • 2–3 pounds of chicken bones
  • 1 gallon of water
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 onion (optional)
  • 4 garlic cloves (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon of salt and/or pepper (optional)

Directions:

  1. Put bones and vegetables in a big, stainless steel pot.
  2. Pour water into the pot so it covers the contents. Add the vinegar, and then raise the temperature to bring to a boil.
  3. Reduce heat, add salt and pepper, and then let simmer for 4–24 hours (the longer it simmers, the tastier and more nutrient-dense it will be).
  4. Allow the broth to cool, and then strain the solids out. Now it’s ready.

You can also add other meat, veggies or spices to your broth. These can include parsley, bay leaves, carrots, celery, ginger, lemon rinds and liver.

Store the broth in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days, or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Vegetable broth recipe (courtesy The Spruce Eats)

  • 1 onion (chopped)
  • 2 stalks celery (chopped)
  • 1 carrot (chopped)
  • 1 medium potato (chopped into large chunks)
  • Optional: 1/3 cup mushrooms (chopped in half)
  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic (crushed or whole)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 8 cups water
  • Dash salt
  • Dash pepper

Directions:

  1. Place all of the ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce the heat and let your vegetable broth simmer for at least an hour, covered with a lid.
  3. Once your broth is done cooking, strain out the vegetables and garlic and remove the bay leaves.

Store the broth in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days, or in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Electrolytes

"When you are sick, like with fever or diarrhea, your body can become dehydrated and is in greater need of the electrolytes sodium and potassium,” says Niki Strealy, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Providence Sports Medicine. Electrolytes are minerals in your body that include sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and calcium. Fluids conduct these minerals through your body and produce electrical energy that helps rehydrate you.

Strealy notes, “While most people immediately think of a sports drink like Gatorade®, the electrolytes in that drink were formulated for sweat, not for illness. Oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte® or Liquid IV have specific amounts of easily digested water, carbs and electrolytes.”

Or you can make your own! Here's a recipe Strealy recommends for a homemade oral rehydration beverage.

Homemade oral rehydration solution (courtesy The Diarrhea Dietitian)

Mix together:

2 level tablespoons (TBSP) of sugar

½ level teaspoon (tsp) of salt (sodium chloride)

½ level teaspoon (tsp) of salt substitute (potassium chloride)

½ level teaspoon (tsp) of baking soda, dissolved into

4¼ cups (1 liter) of clean water

NOTE: You can also add a sugar-free powdered beverage mix to improve taste.

Keep in mind that if you’re severely dehydrated, electrolyte drinks may not work. And it’s especially important that you contact your doctor if you have diarrhea or vomiting that lasts more than 24 hours.

Ginger 

Hippocrates would approve of this plant, which is sometimes called a spice and sometimes an herb. By any other name, ginger’s long history of use as a medicine is well-placed. Here’s why.

  • Contains gingerol. This bioactive compound is responsible for much of ginger’s benefits as a natural medicine. Research shows it has powerful anti-inflammatory effects. Fresh ginger may be effective against common respiratory infections caused by certain viruses.
  • Fights nausea. Ginger is well-known as a way to settle a queasy stomach. It contains compounds that help digestion and speed up the process of emptying the stomach internally, which calms and soothes it.
  • Makes a great tea. Be sure to use real ginger if you brew tea. Store-bought ginger tea should have the real thing to help you see the benefits. Ginger ale, a long-time home remedy for nausea, will also do the job — again, as long as it contains real ginger and not just flavoring.

In addition to ginger, the are other herbs and spices, like turmeric that can be used in tea, that are rich in certain compounds that boost well-being.

A word about “tried and true” foods when you’re sick

We’ve probably all had them when we’re sick: fizzy lemon-lime soda and saltines. Yes, they’ve been tried, but are they true when it comes to helping you feel better when you’re under the weather?

  • Lemon-lime soda. It’s generally thought that high-fructose corn syrup and carbonated water don’t have medicinal benefits. In fact, the acid in soda can make you feel queasier instead of easing the discomfort of nausea and indigestion. In one study that compared flat soda to oral rehydration beverages, researchers found the soda just provided a lot of unhealthy sugar and no real benefits.
  • Saltines. These crackers have a little more going for them than lemon-lime soda when it comes to helping you when you’re not feeling well. Saltines are bland, fairly low-fat and a bit salty. Those elements allow them to soak up some of the acid that causes irritation in an empty stomach and replace lost electrolytes. Give them a try to bring relief when you’re having stomach troubles or a low appetite.

Food can help — but you must rest and hydrate as well

Staying hydrated is just as important as eating well. When you’re fighting infections, you should drink plenty of water and take in other fluids through soups, broths and tea. If plain water isn’t your favorite, try adding some flavor with fresh lemon, cucumber, mint leaves or an orange slices.

There’s no one food that can cure what ails you, but the right foods can help relieve symptoms, prevent illnesses and support your immune system. Get your rest and, when you can, add food and water to ease your discomfort while you heal.

What are some food home remedies that have helped you when you’re sick? Share your thoughts with readers @providence.

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Related resources

Get relevant, up-to-date information on the coronavirus (COVID-19) from Providence.

If you need care, don't delay. Learn more about your options.

Treat Your Immune System to Healthy Foods

How to Treat Colds at Any Age

The Science of Chicken Soup

Healthline: What is Bone Broth, and What Are the Benefits?

Electrolytes keep your body balanced

Turmeric, the ancient golden spice with healing properties

The Claim: Drinking Flat Soda Can Ease an Upset Stomach

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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