Surely you experienced it. Maybe you remember it fondly. Maybe it got on your nerves. But at some point during your childhood, chances are your grandmother—or Grammy, Gramma, Nana, Nonna, Bubby, or simply G-ma—used a remedy that didn’t come from a medicine cabinet to “cure” your cold.
Maybe she was from the old country and brought the knowledge with her or maybe the remedies were part of the culture at large. Wherever her advice to drink ginger tea, sip chicken soup, or eat a bunch of garlic, came from, it turns out, she was right. Increasingly, science is showing that sometimes old advice is the best advice.
Fighting Off Colds, Granny-Style
It’s pretty well established by scientific study that chicken soup actually helps relieve cold symptoms, for physical—not just psychosomatic—reasons. The tasty concoction helps first by limiting the movement of cells that contribute to the body’s hyperdrive inflammatory response in the presence of a cold virus (it’s this response that leads to the sniffles). Second, chicken soup, like this recipe for hearty chicken noodle, speeds up the mechanisms that move mucus, providing temporary relief akin to an over-the-counter decongestant.
Green Chile Stew
My New Mexican grandmother swore she could one-up chicken soup with a hearty bowl of green chile stew. Her instincts may have been more maternal than scientific, but she was dead-on: green chiles (and other chile types) are overflowing with vitamin C -- each one of these bad boys contains more than 100 percent of the vitamin, a potent antioxidant. The kicky bite of the green chiles provides an extra benefit: it will clear your nose and head due to the fact that the capsaicin in hot peppers dilates blood vessels and causes your nose to produce a watery secretion that helps clear out phlegm.
While my gramma’s green chile stew recipe is lost to the ages, this Green Chile Stew recipe from the Pink Adobe restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico is almost as good as hers.
Garlic has long been held to have healing properties. While not completely definitive, a 2001 study in England found evidence that garlic consumption helps to ward off colds as well as shorten their duration. Just make sure you prepare it correctly: a University of Alabama study found that the best way to unleash garlic’s healing powers is to crush it and allow it to sit for about 15 minutes before cooking it. When utilizing garlic to fight a cold, Prevention Magazine suggests a rather stark tactic: the “Spanish Cure,” which is a tea made of garlic, lemon, and honey. If that sounds difficult to, er, swallow, try James Beard’s recipe for a comforting, savory garlic soup instead.
If you have an upset tummy, perhaps your grandmother would hand you a mug of steaming ginger tea, and if her arthritis was flaring up, she might have joined you in a cup. Ginger has both anti-nausea and anti-inflammatory properties. To make ginger tea, simply steep a quarter cup of grated fresh ginger in four cups of very hot water. Strain and add honey, sugar, or other sweetener to taste.
Granny Knows How You Can Stay Well, Too
Maybe you’re not sick, but when everyone around you is hacking, sneezing, and popping DayQuil tabs like Skittles, how do you keep yourself from succumbing? Turns out a little gramma-style wisdom helps out there, too.
Your gramma always said, “An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away.” (Or, if she was a weight-conscious granny, “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not hungry.”) This one may be the most intuitive––of course you know apples are good for you. But why? In a 2012 study, a test group of healthy middle-aged adults lowered levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol in their blood by 40 percent after eating an apple a day for four weeks straight, and a 2011 New York Times article reported that eating both apples and pears reduces the risk of stroke in healthy subjects. There was a healthy 7 percent decline in risk for every 25 grams eaten daily. In addition, an average-sized apple is rich in vitamin C, and provides 17 percent of the FDA’s recommended daily fiber intake.
“Eat your greens.” When I was young, this particular bit of advice was administered alongside a gloppy heap of overcooked spinach (my mom was great at many things, but cooking leafy things was not one of them)––often people’s formative interaction with greens––so no wonder folks don’t like them! That’s a shame, however, because greens are actually a versatile and tasty food, positively jam-packed with vitamins. One cup of kale, for instance, contains 1,327 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin K, 354 percent of vitamin A, and 90 percent of vitamin C. Numerous studies have shown that greens are also dense with cancer preventing and cancer fighting components. Plus, eating spinach and other greens can boost your immune system so you can ward off the sniffles.
Greens come in an amazing variety: kale, collard greens, spinach, chard, and arugula, to name a few––that vary widely in flavor. You might find one bitter and the next one earthy or sweet. You’re sure to find one quite suited to your palate. Try experimenting for every meal, from Healthy Greens Egg Strata for breakfast to White Beans and Greens for dinner.
My grandmother liked to tell the same joke every time we ate carrots: “How do you know carrots are good for your eyes?” Pause. “Have you ever seen a rabbit wearing glasses?” It may have been funny (at least the first 100 times), but it also happens to be true, to some extent. Carrots are a veritable storehouse of vitamin A––an average-sized carrot provides 200 percent of the recommended daily value of the nutrient. Vitamin A, of course, is essential for good eyesight. But carrots aren’t just helpful when it comes to seeing 20/20. The veggie is a good source of potassium and vitamin K and is a known immune-system booster. Although chomping noisily on a raw carrot, Bugs Bunny-style, is very satisfying, carrots are also a versatile ingredient. The World Carrot Museum (you read that correctly) has some “24 Carrot Recipes.”
Grandma knew some of the best ways to ease cold symptoms and boost your immunity are found in the produce aisle and not the drugstore or medicine chest. Instead of drowsiness, the main side effect from cures like chicken soup, ginger tea, and green chile is deliciousness.
Always consult with your healthcare professional before starting a new health or exercise regime.
Jonanna Widner lives in Portland, OR, and writes about sports, fitness, and other topics.