We often take for granted the healing power of spices that people use on a daily basis. People tend to think of them only as flavour for food. The ancient system of Indian medicine known as Ayurveda has been using spices to heal various illnesses for thousands of years. Spices were in the past, rare and worth great value. Fortunately for us today they are freely available. Here are some super spices and herbs that are good for you and taste good, too.
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 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 chilli pepper required less postmeal insulin to reduce their blood sugar, suggesting the spice may have anti-diabetes benefits.
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 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.
Cloves, an aromatic spice common in Indian cooking, contain an anti-inflammatory chemical called eugenol. 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. In Traditional Chinese Medicine the water form boiled cloves is said to greatly aid the kidneys. Compounds in cloves, like those found in cinnamon, also appear to improve insulin function. Have a toothache? 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.
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. 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).
This root has been a major player in Asian and Indian medicine for centuries, primarily as a digestive aid. Today researchers are most excited by ginger’s ability to combat inflammation. Several studies have found that ginger (and turmeric) reduces pain and swelling in people with arthritis. It may work against migraines by blocking inflammatory substances called prostaglandins. And because it reduces inflammation, it may also play a role in preventing and slowing the growth of cancer. Ginger’s also good for the tummy, too. It’s proven quite effective against nausea. In fact, at least one study found ginger to work just as well as other nausea-stopping drugs, with the added benefit that it doesn’t make you sleepy. The trick is to take ginger (in tablet, powder, or natural form) before you think you may become nauseated, when it works best. It’s also an effective, short-term treatment for morning sickness.
Turmeric, the spice that gives curry powder its yellow colour, is used in Indian medicine to stimulate the appetite and as a digestive aid. But lately it’s grabbing some serious attention as a potentially powerful cancer fighter. The chemical responsible for turmeric’s golden color, called curcumin, is considered a top anticancer agent, helping to quell the inflammation that contributes to tumor growth and working in much the same way as broccoli and cauliflower to clear carcinogens away before they can damage cellular DNA and to repair already damaged DNA. Lab studies show turmeric helps stop the growth and spread of cancer cells that do form. Research suggests that it may protect against colon cancer as well as melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey are investigating a combination of curcumin and phenethyl isothiocyanate (the anticancer compound in cruciferous vegetables) as a possible treatment for prostate cancer. Studies have also linked turmeric to reduced inflammation in a number of conditions, including psoriasis. In animal studies, curcumin decreased the formation of amyloid, the stuff that makes up the brain deposits characteristic in people with Alzheimer’s disease.