Winter Herbs, Kidney Yang, Evidence-Based Medicine…and Chicken Soup?

Woody, wintery herbs like sage, rosemary, and thyme (thank you, Art Garfunkel!) can add delicious depth of flavor to a dish, but they are more than just tasty. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, these plants play an important role in normalizing digestion, and Western medical evidence suggests that these plants have antibacterial, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory properties. Hence, regardless of the system of medicine to which you subscribe to, cooking with herbs is another effective strategy for the prevention of chronic illness.

Traditional Chinese Medicine: Kidney Yang

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), food is medicinal, and winter herbs are used for their warming qualities, particularly when there is a kidney yang deficiency. Kidney yang does not have a Western counterpart, and is described as an energy or heat source for the entire body. This energy powers many organ systems, including digestive peristalsis and nutrient absorption. When kidney yang is strong, digestion is empowered to distribute the necessary fluids, nutrition, and hormonal precursors to numerous organ systems, including the brain. When kidney yang is deficient, digestion stagnates, which sets the stage for mental stasis, physical fatigue, joint pain, susceptibility to viral infections, and osteoporosis.

The Use of Winter Herbs in Kidney Yang Deficiency

Kidney Yang deficiency is treated with warming, herbaceous plants, including rosemary, oregano, bay leaf, and ginger, cooked into chicken soup and stews.  These plants address the digestive process on multiple levels by stimulating saliva production, enhancing peristalsis, increasing bile secretion and improving nutrient absorption. In doing so, food and fluid absorption from the gastrointestinal tract is optimized, and organ and cognitive function is restored, thus giving us both physical vitality and creative energy.

The Use of Winter Herbs in Evidence-Based Medicine

Unlike Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western medicine lacks the narrative required to discuss winter herbs in terms of their energetic properties. However, Western medicine has elegantly identified many important phytochemicals derived from winter herbs including carvacrol, carnosic acid, and thymol. These mediators, found predominantly in rosemary, thyme, and oregano, drive the antimicrobial, anti-tumor, and anti-inflammatory properties demonstrated in laboratory studies of these plants.  Carnosic acid has been found to lessen inflammation in rat models of rheumatoid arthritis.  Carvacrol is the phytochemical noted for its antibacterial properties, and is often used to treat gastrointestinal infections. These herbs are also undergoing evaluation for a role in cancer prevention, as they have been found to cause destruction of cancer cells in laboratory studies.

Two Systems of Medicine Come Together: Chicken Soup with Herbs

Interestingly, two separate whole systems of medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Evidence-Based Medicine have identified leafy herbs as key elements for health maintenance, albeit through decidedly different mechanisms. Perhaps there are other parallels between Eastern and Western medicine…enter chicken soup! Long cooked soups and stews have long been considered the basis of healthful eating in TCM, and Western medicine has identified carnosine, abundantly present in chicken soup, which limits the progression of the influenza virus. With so many differences, who would have guessed that Eastern and Western medicine could come together on anything? But, luckily for us, we get nods of approval from both sides over what grandmothers have long advised, a delicious bowl of chicken soup.

bowl of soup
Photo by Jenvit Keiwalinsarid

Kitchen-Prescription Recipe: Herbaceous Chicken Soup


One 3 ½ pound organic, free range chicken, breast meat removed, and set aside
One large onion, cut in half, and studded with three cloves
Three large carrots, cut into large pieces
Three stalks of celery, cut into large pieces
One large leek, quartered and cleaned thoroughly of grit and dirt
Two springs of fresh rosemary
Two springs of fresh thyme

Two dried Bay leaves
Ten whole, black peppercorns
Stems from Shiitake mushrooms, or 3 dried shiitake mushrooms-optional

Combine all the ingredients in a large stock pot, and cover with filtered water by 1 inch. Set the pot over high heat, and bring to a boil. Skim off any foam that rises to the top. Reduce the heat, and allow to simmer, uncovered for 3 to 4 hours. Turn off the heat, and allow to cool. Strain the soup through a fine sieve into a glass container, and season to taste with sea salt. Discard the solids.

To serve, reheat 6 cups of broth in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Add the reserved chicken breast meat, if desired, turn down the heat to low, and cover the pan. Check for doneness in about 10 minutes. The chicken breast should be white throughout, with no traces of pink. Remove the chicken, slice, and return to the pot. Add cooked vegetables, leafy greens, fresh ginger, and noodles, as desired.

Medical Mentions:

Use antibiotic-free chicken. Ingesting antibiotics negatively effects the normal bacteria in your microbiome, and may increase the rate of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, one consumes chicken soup to prevent a viral respiratory infection, and to recover from it. However, one does not consume this during the active, febrile phase of an infection, as it is thought to increase heat during this phase.

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