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What should I eat or drink when I have a cold?

NEW YORK — Q: What are the best foods or drinks to consume when I have a cold?

From hot toddies to chicken soup, there are a few important things to keep in mind in deciding what to eat or drink when you have a cold, experts say.

From hot toddies to chicken soup, there are a few important things to keep in mind in deciding what to eat or drink when you have a cold, experts say.

NEW YORK — Q: What are the best foods or drinks to consume when I have a cold?

If you search for the answers online, you will find plenty of articles claiming that certain “immune-boosting” foods or drinks — like garlic, citrus, cranberries, chili pepper and pomegranate juice — can ease symptoms or speed recovery from a common cold.

But “we do not have strong enough information suggesting that everyone should be eating specific foods during a viral infection,” said Dr Colleen Tewksbury, an assistant professor in nutrition science at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

That said, it’s important to feed yourself well, Dr Tewksbury said. A cold — especially if it affects your sense of taste and smell — can squelch your appetite, yet your body still needs calories and nutrients to function and fight the infection, she said. “Anything you can do that will help you feel a bit more comforted and meet some of your nutritional needs during that time will be helpful.”

Dr Tewksbury suggested turning to hydrating and nourishing foods and drinks that are also comforting, such as the ones you were given when you were sick as a child or those grounded in your cultural traditions.

SOUP IS SOOTHING, AND BACKED BY A BIT OF SCIENCE

“Soup tends to be a good go-to,” Dr Tewksbury said — especially if it includes a healthy balance of nutrients, including protein (such as beans or chicken), carbohydrates (rice, noodles or potatoes), some fat (from meat, oils or dairy) and “veggies that will pack in some additional vitamin and mineral punches.”

Soup is “filling, it’s nourishing, it helps with fluid intake,” Dr Tewksbury said.

And in fact, said Dr Stephen Rennard, a professor of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, there’s a little bit of lab-based science to back it up.

In 2000, Prof Rennard and his team published a study that investigated how chicken soup affects the body’s neutrophils, immune cells that travel to the site of infection and initiate inflammation, contributing to symptoms including sore throat and cough.

In the lab, researchers placed neutrophils in small plastic wells and added a substance that usually attracts them, similar to what happens during an infection. But when the cells were bathed in chicken soup, they didn’t migrate nearly as much toward the substance.

In theory, Prof Rennard said, this reduced neutrophil movement could translate to lower inflammation and fewer symptoms. But cells in a lab dish can’t explain what, if anything, happens to cells in a body. And understanding how — or even if — chicken soup might influence cold symptoms requires expensive and time-consuming clinical trials, which haven’t been done, Prof Rennard said.

Still, Prof Rennard believes in the therapeutic value of chicken soup, which has been a recommended remedy for hundreds of years. He thinks that some of chicken soup’s benefits may stem from the emotional, rather than physical, experience. If “somebody makes you some chicken soup, especially if you really like the way it tastes, you’re going to feel better because they’re taking care of you,” he said. “And that’s independent of whether there’s any medicinal activities in the soup.”

In the study, Prof Rennard used a recipe from the family of his wife, Barbara, who was also a co-author: It calls for a whole chicken simmered with carrots, celery, parsnips, onions, turnips and sweet potatoes, served with matzo balls. Prof Rennard also tested 13 canned or instant soups in the study, including a few vegetarian options, and most slowed the movement of neutrophils to some degree.

A couple of small human studies have also suggested that sipping soup or a hot drink, even just hot water, can help loosen nasal mucus and make breathing feel easier. And of course, any liquid provides fluids, and “hydration makes it easier to clear secretions,” Prof Rennard said.

HONEY CAN HELP

Multiple randomised controlled trials have found that honey can reduce the frequency and severity of night-time coughing in children, in some cases better than over-the-counter cough syrups. There’s less research among adults, but a systematic review published in 2020 suggested that honey’s benefits may extend to other age groups.

It’s not clear how honey helps to quell a cough, but researchers have hypothesised that its throat-coating, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties may contribute.

Don’t give honey to infants who are younger than 12 months old, though, because it might contain bacteria that can cause a serious condition called infant botulism. For children older than 1 year, the American Academy of Paediatrics recommends giving half to one teaspoon of honey as needed; eat it right out of the spoon or stir into a cup of hot tea.

GO EASY ON ALCOHOL

Some cold sufferers may seek comfort in a hot toddy, which traditionally includes a splash of whiskey and honey in hot water. But keep in mind that drinking alcohol when you’re also taking medications for cold, cough and allergy symptoms can be dangerous, especially if the medications include acetaminophen, which can cause liver damage if mixed with alcohol, Dr Tewksbury warned.

Alcohol can also be dehydrating, and though there isn’t much research on this point, it stands to reason that drinking while sick with a virus might worsen how you feel, Dr Tewksbury added.

That being said, if a hot toddy is what you’re craving when you have the sniffles and you’re not taking any medications that will negatively interact with alcohol, Dr Tewksbury said she wouldn’t discourage mixing a drink. Just remember that it probably won’t help you heal any quicker.

You can also make a non-alcoholic hot toddy using tea instead of liquor and adding flavour with honey, lemon, ginger or other spices.

THE MILK-MUCUS EFFECT IS MURKY

Many people believe that drinking cow’s milk increases mucus production, but research testing this belief is limited, with mixed results.

Several Australian studies published in the 1990s found no link between milk drinking and mucus, including among people infected with a common cold virus. Yet in a recent trial of 108 adults who didn’t have colds but who suffered from chronic overproduction of mucus, researchers found that those following a dairy-free diet for six days had reduced self-reported snot secretions.

“There is little evidence that dairy universally increases mucus production for everyone,” Dr Tewksbury said. But this may vary from person to person, so if dairy makes you feel phlegmy, avoiding it when you have a cold is reasonable, she said. Otherwise, dairy products can be a convenient and balanced source of nutrition. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends blending frozen fruit with milk (or soy milk) for a nutritious and hydrating smoothie for children when they are sick.

In the end, “food is so personal,” Dr Tewksbury said. When you’re feeling flattened by a cold, she suggested asking yourself: “What are the things that can help me feel most nourished during this time, to help support myself? And that’s different for everybody.”

 

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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