Spice Up Your Life

by Danielle Charles

You may not know it, but your kitchen is already well stocked with a variety of medicinal herbs – if you don’t believe me just open up your spice cabinet. While we don’t often think of our spice cabinet as providing anything more to our lives than flavor, researchers have found that simple kitchen herbs like cinnamon, ginger and turmeric are capable of enormously useful impacts on our health – from reducing inflammation to normalizing blood sugar levels and protecting against Alzheimer’s.

Humans have been using small amounts of highly fragrant plant parts (seeds, roots and leaves) to flavor their food for thousands of years. In fact, one could almost define a culture based on the spices they select in flavoring their foods – Italians with their basil, sage, oregano and garlic – the Indians with turmeric, ginger, cumin and mustard seed. But apart from creating a sense of cultural culinary identity and making food taste delicious, the use of herbs and spices fills many important roles for our health.

The same plant constituents that are responsible for the fragrant aroma of most herbs and spices (known as volatile oils – from Latin volare – to fly) have a variety of medicinal effects. For one, they happen to be quite effective at killing harmful bacteria and other micro-organisms lurking in our food. By consuming such herbs and spices with meats and other potentially bacteria ridden foods, humans we’re able to protect themselves against infection (think wasabi after raw fish).

The volatile oils also help to relax smooth muscle in the digestive tract – reducing cramping and easing the passage of gas by relaxing sphincters. Often, people who have suffered a good part of their lives with gas and cramping after meals find miraculous relief from adding a few more warming aromatic spices to their foods. By bringing blood flow to the stomach and triggering the release of digestive juices, such herbs and spices also improve our digestive capabilities and absorption of nutrients from our food.

If that wasn’t enough, most aromatic herbs and spices also contain high levels of antioxidants, which protect us against carcinogens, whether formed in the cooking of our food (think rosemary on charred meat), or inhaled in cigarette smoke or city smog. By reducing oxidative damage, they help to reduce the effects of inflammation on the body, particularly in the blood vessels and joints. Rosemary, ginger and turmeric in particular have been getting a good deal of attention for their ability to protect against joint inflammation. Garlic has long been studied for its protective effects against cardiovascular disease. The antioxidant power of many herbs is also helpful at protecting against the development of cancer. Turmeric (the shining star of the spice cabinet) has been found to actually kill cancer cells, and along with Rosemary, has been shown to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy by protecting healthy cells and increasing the susceptibility of cancerous cells.

Many herbs also have unique health attributes. Cinnamon and fenugreek, for example, have been found to support normal blood sugar and healthy cholesterol levels by slowing and modulating the absorption of sugar and fat into the bloodstream. Cilantro has been found as effective as many conventional therapies for chelating lead and other heavy metals from the body (making it very useful to consume with mercury laden fish). As more common kitchen herbs are studied, the list of medicinal effects is sure to keep growing.

Now, go to your spice cabinet and start playing. As Hippocrates said, “let your food be your medicine.” The best medicine is not what we take when we are unwell, but what we consume in our every day diets to support our health and prevent disease. And medicine doesn’t get much more delicious than this.

Some deliciously clever ways to use your spices:

  • Add antioxidant herbs like rosemary, sage, ginger and thyme to your meat before cooking. The antioxidants in these herbs can cut cancer causing carcinogens in charred meat by up to 80%
  • Add cinnamon to your sweet recipes to reduce the glycemic index (ie the food’s impact on your blood sugar levels). Cinnamon in your chocolate cake or cookies? Doesn’t sound too bad to me!
  • Serve cilantro pesto with fish to help bind mercury and other potential heavy metals and prevent their absorption into your body.
  • Eat turmeric rich curry once or twice a week to protect against the development of Alzheimer’s
  • Eat 4-6 cloves of garlic each day to significantly reduce your risk of cardiovascular mortality