10 Healing Herbs and Spices
The benefits of cooking with herbs and spices go way beyond a flavor boost.
Healthy herbs and spices
Herbs and spices like ginger, garlic, and sage don’t just add zip to your favorite foods. They also may have some surprising healing properties and may even help fight disease, says registered dietitian Frances Largeman-Roth, nutrition and wellness expert and author of Eating in Color. “Herbs and spices are a wonderful way to add flavor and nutrients to your meals without adding additional calories,” she says. Here are 10 to add to your healthy eating plan.
Capsaicin, the oily compound in cayenne and its peppery cousins, is the active ingredient in many prescription and over-the-counter creams, ointments, and patches for arthritis and muscle pain; it’s also used for treating shingles pain and diabetes-related nerve pain. Cayenne is thought to act as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. 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. While cayenne and other herbs and spices taste great, you may not get all the benefits from food, warns Erica Matluck, a licensed naturopath and nurse practitioner in San Francisco. “If you are using herbs for prevention, cooking with them and teas are often a good option for most herbs,” she says. “However, if you are using herbs to address health issues, often supplements are needed to get a therapeutic dose.”
Cinnamon isn’t just delicious sprinkled on oatmeal or your latte. It’s also a potentially healing spice, and has gotten a lot of buzz for its potential to improve blood sugar control in people with diabetes. Cinnamon has also been linked to improved cholesterol profiles in people taking it as a supplement, and, like many other spices, it has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also been shown in studies to cause cell damage to harmful bacteria like E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Cinnamon also has other surprising health benefits.
Cloves contain an anti-inflammatory chemical called eugenol. Some research suggests that this chemical inhibits a protein that spurs inflammation, which causes pain and other health issues. The combination of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties indicates other possible health benefits, such as boosting protection against heart disease. Compounds in cloves, like those found in cinnamon, also appear to improve insulin function. It’s usually fine to add cloves and other spices in food without consulting a doctor, unless you have an allergy, notes Matluck. However, “When using herbs at higher doses and/or to address symptoms, I always recommend consulting with a professional,” she adds.
Coriander seeds yield cilantro, also known as Chinese parsley, a staple herb in Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian cooking. The herb can be helpful for some people with irritable bowel syndrome, as it calms intestinal spasms that can lead to diarrhea. A 2018 review of studies on coriander published in the journal Food Research International suggested that this humble herb may have many benefits, including potential for pain relief, as a migraine-reliever, and to improve heart health. You can add the leaf to anything from guacamole to eggs, and try making a strong tea from crushed seeds (strain before drinking) as a digestive aid.
You know that dragon breath you get when you eat raw garlic? The odor comes from byproducts of allicin, the sulfur compound believed to be responsible for most of this herb’s medicinal benefits. Garlic has been found to reduce blood pressure and total cholesterol in a range of studies, although it should never be used as a substitute for heart medication. This healing herb may also be associated with a reduced cancer risk, according to 2019 research published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer. Despite it’s slightly, ahem, antisocial connotations, eating more garlic may have surprising benefits for your health.
Ginger isn’t just a delicious ingredient in cookies and candy. This root has played a major part in Asian and Indian medicine for centuries, primarily as a digestive aid, and Matluck notes that ginger is often added to herbal formulas to increase the potency of other herbs. Researchers are also excited by ginger’s ability to combat inflammation, and several studies have found that it reduces pain and swelling in people with arthritis. It may work against migraines by blocking inflammatory substances called prostaglandins. A study in Nutrition found that daily ginger consumption may help decrease your risk for high blood pressure. Ginger’s still good for the tummy, too. It works in the digestive tract, boosting digestive juices and neutralizing acids as well as reducing intestinal contractions, and several studies have shown that it reduces nausea for people on chemotherapy or women suffering from morning sickness. “Ginger is incredibly easy to add to dishes, either in powdered form or fresh,” adds Largeman-Roth. “You can add it to baked goods, like muffins, and smoothies very easily. A little does go a long way, so try adding it by a ¼ teaspoon and go up from there.”
Mustard isn’t just for hotdogs anymore. This powerful plant contains compounds that may reduce oxidative stress and potentially prevent the development of chronic diseases, including cancer, according to 2017 research published in the journal Molecules. Mustard poultices and treatments have traditionally been used to help break up congestion and increase circulation, and some research points to using mustard oil as an anti-inflammatory and to help reduce pain. Try mustard seeds in curries and pickling solutions.
Nutmeg contains eugenol, a natural plant compound that may benefit the heart. Some historians link its popularity in the spice trade to the hallucinatory effects that result from ingesting large amounts. The euphoria, which is due to nutmeg’s active ingredient, myristicin, is described as similar to that caused by the drug ecstasy, so don’t ingest large amounts. A better idea: sprinkle a little nutmeg into your hot chocolate or use it as a baking spice.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that “sage” describes a wise person; the herb is a known memory enhancer and has been shown in some lab studies to protect the brain against certain processes that lead to Alzheimer’s disease, and improve mood and memory. Like so many other herbs and spices, sage has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties as well as anticancer actions. Today sage shows potential as a type 2 diabetes treatment because it appears to boost the action of insulin and reduce blood sugar.
Turmeric, the spice that gives curry powder its yellow hue, is used in Indian medicine to stimulate the appetite and as a digestive aid. But lately it’s getting attention as a potentially powerful cancer fighter, particularly for colon cancer. The chemical responsible for turmeric’s golden color, called curcumin, is considered a potential anticancer agent, helping to quell inflammation and repair damaged DNA. Studies have also linked turmeric to reduced inflammation in a number of conditions, including psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis. The absorption of curcumin is improved when combined with black pepper and a source of fat, “so having turmeric in a curry is a better option than just sprinkling it over your food,” says Largeman-Roth. (Here’s what happens when you eat more turmeric.)
- Erica Matluck, ND, NP, a licensed naturopath and nurse practitioner in San Francisco
- Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition and wellness expert and author of Eating in Color.
- Current Allergy and Asthma Reports: "Capsaicin for Rhinitis."
- Anticancer Research: "Anticancer Properties of Capsaicin Against Human Cancer."
- Nutrients: "Capsaicin Supplementation Improved Risk Factors of Coronary Heart Disease in Individuals with Low HDL-C Levels."
- Frontiers in Physiology: "Dietary Capsaicin Improves Glucose Homeostasis and Alters the Gut Microbiota in Obese Diabetic ob/ob Mice."
- Clinical Nutrition: "Efficacy of cinnamon in patients with type II diabetes mellitus: A randomized controlled clinical trial."
- Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine: "Effects of cinnamon supplementation on antioxidant status and serum lipids in women with polycystic ovary syndrome."
- Food Control: "Antibacterial activity and mechanism of cinnamon essential oil against Escherichia coliand Staphylococcus aureus."
- Current Medicinal Chemistry: "Dietary Polyphenols and Type 2 Diabetes: Current Insights and Future Perspectives."
- The Journal of Nutrition: "Garlic and Heart Disease."
- Nutrition and Cancer: "Onion and Garlic Intake and Breast Cancer, a Case-Control Study in Puerto Rico."
- Research Journal of Pharmacy and Technology: "A Review: Anti-microbial, Anti-inflammatory effect and Cardiovascular effects of Garlic: Allium sativum."
- Journal of Nutrition in Gerontology and Geriatrics: "Effect of Ginger Supplementation on Proinflammatory Cytokines in Older Patients with Osteoarthritis: Outcomes of a Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial."
- Cephalalgia: "Double-blind placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial of ginger (Zingiber officinale Rosc.) addition in migraine acute treatment."
- Nutrition: "Evaluation of daily ginger consumption for the prevention of chronic diseases in adults: A cross-sectional study."
- Food Science & Nutrition: "Ginger in gastrointestinal disorders: A systematic review of clinical trials."
- Mutation Research: "Inhibition of bladder cancer cell proliferation by allyl isothiocyanate (mustard essential oil)."
- Scientific Reports: "Systemic desensitization through TRPA1 channels by capsazepine and mustard oil - a novel strategy against inflammation and pain."
- Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity: "An Overview on the Anti-inflammatory Potential and Antioxidant Profile of Eugenol."
- Complementary Therapies in Medicine: "Nutmeg overdose: Spice not so nice."
- Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine: "Pharmacological properties of Salvia officinalis and its components."
- Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases: "Salba-chia (Salvia hispanica L.) in the treatment of overweight and obese patients with type 2 diabetes: A double-blind randomized controlled trial."
- Phytomedicine: "Turmeric extract, with absorbable curcumin, has potent anti-metastatic effect in vitro and in vivo."
- Cancer Prevention Research: "Inhibition of Glycolysis in Prostate Cancer Chemoprevention by Phenethyl Isothiocyanate."
- Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine: "Curcumin: An age-old anti-inflammatory and anti-neoplastic agent."