Culinary meds for colds and flu

Including chicken soup

click to enlarge Dr. Leslie Smith prepares oliebollen, a traditional Dutch New Year’s treat, during a pop-up dinner at Vincent restaurant in Chicago.
Dr. Leslie Smith prepares oliebollen, a traditional Dutch New Year’s treat, during a pop-up dinner at Vincent restaurant in Chicago.

Flu and cold season will soon be upon us, and with the COVID-19 pandemic still in full swing, many are increasingly concerned with their health and well-being. It's easy to worry over every little sneeze and sniffle, especially if you have kids in school or you yourself have to go out into the world to make a living. Getting a flu shot is especially important this year, not only to decrease your own chances of falling ill, but also to help protect others who are immune-compromised and can't get vaccinated themselves. And while getting the flu vaccine is critical in limiting the spread of illness, it is but one of the many tools that we can all use to stay well.

Dr. Leslie Smith, the director of Integrative and Culinary Medicine at SIU School of Medicine in Springfield, explains that the daily choices we make can greatly impact our body's ability to ward off infection. Listening to one's body is key, she explains, and prioritizing adequate sleep, water intake and exercise are essential factors to fortify oneself against infection. Likewise, it is important to avoid those things which are known to diminish the body's ability to fight infection, particularly alcohol and stress. When a person is stressed – whether physically or psychologically – the body generates more cortisol and other stress-related hormones. Those hormones suppress the immune system, she explains.

Some of the most powerful forms of culinary medicine are likely sitting in your kitchen cabinet. Eating for health involves consuming a rainbow of fruits and vegetables every day because they each have their own profile of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that our bodies need to stay well. While no one food will serve as a magic cure, there are some that have shown compelling results, both anecdotally and through peer-reviewed research. Smith highlighted some of her favorite ingredients for promoting health and wellness and explained the delicious way they help our bodies stay strong.

Onions and garlic

These members of the allium family have broad-spectrum antibacterial and antifungal properties. Studies have suggested they help to regulate the body's immune system and reduce the occurrence and severity of colds and flus. These properties can be enhanced, Smith explained, by crushing cloves of garlic and finely chopping onions and then allowing them to sit for 10 minutes before cooking. When onions and garlic are whole, sulfur-based compounds and enzymes are separated within the cell walls. When they are chopped or crushed, the cell walls are ruptured, allowing these two compounds to interact and form a new compound known as thiopropanal sulfoxide, which gives onions and garlic their powerful health-promoting properties. Allowing your chopped onions and garlic to rest before cooking ensures maximum synthesis of this new compound. Avoid the jarred pre-chopped and granulated types of garlic, Smith advises, as they are largely denuded. Luckily, she said, the pre-peeled fresh garlic is just fine and a great time saver.


Ginger has long been recognized for its anti-nausea effects and is much more potent when used fresh rather than dried. The volatile oils in ginger work similarly to anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs like aspirin), which make ginger helpful for cold symptoms like a sore throat or headache. Large knobs of fresh ginger are available in most grocery stores and can be frozen whole in a zip-close bag for longer storage. When it's time to cook, simply grate as much frozen ginger as you need for your recipe, then return the rest of the frozen knob back to the freezer for later use. It can also easily be used in a tea.

Shiitake mushrooms

These fragrant mushrooms have long been valued in Asia for their healing properties. They are a rich source of vitamin D, a nutrient lacking in many American diets, and have been shown to have antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties. Smith recommends buying whole mushrooms and eating the caps, saving the woody stems for a flavoring in sauces or broth base. Shiitakes are sold both in fresh and dried form and can be purchased at the Asian Market on Wabash Avenue in Springfield.


Citrus fruits are in peak season in the U.S. from November to April, which nicely coincides with the typical flu and cold season. Lemon and other citrus fruits are loaded with vitamin C, which has been implicated in helping to shorten the duration of colds when taken regularly before the onset of symptoms. Because it is acidic, Smith explains, lemon also has antibacterial properties. Try it warm with ginger and honey as a tea.


Capsaicin is the active component in cayenne peppers that gives them their burning heat. Ironically, it actually helps cool the body thanks to its stimulating effect on the hypothalamus. It also helps to stimulate the mucus membranes of the nose and sinuses and open sweat glands, which is useful when battling congestion.


More than just an essential ingredient in a savory pot of chili, cumin is high in zinc, which research has found to be helpful in fighting colds and flus. The oils in cumin are effective against multiple strains of bacteria, in some studies even superior to antibiotics. The cuminaldehyde in cumin is helpful for the upset stomach that often accompanies a cold, particularly in little ones. It can be used in cooking as well as in a tea. Smith advises using whole cumin seeds, as they are easier to strain in a tea than the powder, although the powder works just fine in a pinch.

Chicken soup

Grandma's chicken soup has more going for it than just typical comfort food. Research has shown that both the broth component of the soup and the particulate matter all have inhibitory effects. Truly a perfect storm of cold-fighting power, the ingredients that go into a great pot of chicken soup seem to play off of one another to result in a final product that is greater than the sum of its parts. You might even try adding some of the herbs above to your soup for a more powerful punch. For more on making chicken soup from scratch check out

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  • John Morgan

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