Food & Drink

5 Healing Herbs and Spices

Spices not only make our food taste better with their kick of flavour, but the following mentioned on this list pack a nutritional punch, too.

There’s no doubt that herbs and spices add distinctive flavors to our cooking. But little do most people know that the red, yellow, and brown powders they sprinkle on their food – not to mention the fresh herbs they cook with – also add significant health benefits. After all, herbs and spices come from plants, and many plants, as scientists are learning, contain a variety of healing substances – often found in high concentrations in the seeds, oils, and other plant parts that make up herbs and spices.

Blueberries may come to mind when you think of antioxidants, but you should also think of cloves. You know by now that fatty fish combats inflammation, but so does ginger. Certain herbs and spices – garlic and turmeric in particular – may even help us stave off cancer. And many are potent killers of bacteria and viruses.

1. Cayenne

That burning sensation in your mouth when you eat foods spiced with cayenne (red) pepper comes from capsaicin, the oily compound behind most of the health benefits of cayenne and its peppery cousins. Capsaicin is the active ingredient in many prescription and over-the-counter creams, ointments, and patches for arthritis and muscle pain. Over time, it short-circuits pain by depleting nerve cells of a chemical called substance P, which helps transfer pain signals along nerve endings to the brain. It’s also used for treating shingles pain and diabetes-related nerve pain.

Cayenne’s benefits don’t end there, however. Sprinkle some onto your chicken soup to turbocharge that traditional cold remedy, since cayenne shrinks blood vessels in your nose and throat, relieving congestion. It’s also a metabolism booster, speeding up your calorie-burning furnace for a couple of hours after eating. Cayenne is thought to act as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Studies find that it also has some anticancer properties, and researchers are exploring its potential as a cancer treatment. Finally, in at least one study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that people with diabetes who ate a meal containing liberal amounts of chile pepper required less postmeal insulin to reduce their blood sugar, suggesting the spice may have anti-diabetes benefits.

2. Cinnamon

Cinnamon on toast or oatmeal is so tasty it’s hard to believe the brown powder has any health benefits at all, but it’s actually one of the most powerful healing spices. It’s become most famous for its ability to improve blood sugar control in people with diabetes. Some of its natural compounds improve insulin function, significantly lowering blood sugar with as little as 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon (1 ml to 2 ml) a day. The same amount could cut triglycerides and total cholesterol levels by 12 to 30 percent. The apple pie spice can even help prevent blood clots, making it especially heart smart.

Like many other spices, cinnamon has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s been shown to conquer E. coli, among other types of bacteria. Researchers have even discovered recently that it’s rich in antioxidants called polyphenols – another reason it’s good for your heart. It’s also high in fiber (after all, it comes from the bark of a tree) and can reduce heartburn in some people.

3. Cloves

Cloves, an aromatic spice common in Indian cooking, contain an anti-inflammatory chemical called eugenol. In recent animal studies, this chemical inhibited COX-2, a protein that spurs inflammation (the same protein that so-called COX-2 inhibitor drugs such as Celebrex quash). Cloves also ranked very high in antioxidant properties in one study. The combination of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties spells heaps of health benefits, from boosting protection from heart disease to helping stave off cancer, as well as slowing the cartilage and bone damage caused by arthritis. Compounds in cloves, like those found in cinnamon, also appear to improve insulin function.

Have a toothache? Put a couple of whole cloves in your mouth. Let them soften a bit, then bite on them gently with good molars to release their oil. Then move them next to the painful tooth and keep them there for up to half an hour. Clove oil has a numbing effect in addition to bacteria-fighting powers. In test tubes, cloves also killed certain bacteria that were resistant to antibiotics.

4. Cilantro

Coriander seeds yield cilantro, also known as Chinese parsley, a staple herb in Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian cooking. The seeds have been used for thousands of years as a digestive aid. Try making a strong tea from crushed seeds (strain before drinking). The herb can be helpful for some people with irritable bowel syndrome, as it calms intestinal spasms that can lead to diarrhea. Preliminary studies in animals support another traditional use for coriander – as an anti-anxiety herb. Its essential oil appears to fight bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella. It’s also being studied for its potential cholesterol-reducing benefits and has been shown to lower cholesterol in animals. Like many other herbs, this one acts as an antioxidant. According to one study, cilantro leaves provide the most antioxidant punch.

5. Garlic

Smash a clove of garlic and take in the pungent fragrance. That famous odor comes from byproducts of allicin, the sulfur compound believed to be responsible for most of the herb’s medicinal benefits. It’s what gives garlic its “bite.” When eaten daily, garlic can help lower heart disease risk by as much as 76 percent. How? By moderately reducing cholesterol levels (by between 5 and 10 percent in some studies), by thinning the blood and thereby staving off dangerous clots, and by acting as an antioxidant. Garlic’s sulfur compounds also appear to ward off cancer, especially stomach and colorectal cancer. The compounds flush out carcinogens before they can damage cell DNA, and they force cancer cells that do develop to self-destruct. Strongly antibacterial and antifungal, garlic can help with yeast infections, some sinus infections, and the common cold. It can even repel ticks (as well as friends and family, if you eat enough).

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