A Guide To The Medicinal Use Of Herbs And Spices

By:    Published: April 18, 2012

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The medicinal use of herbs and spices has been around for millennia, but, until recently, science has largely ignored these benefits. The reason is that demonstrating the medicinal uses of foods in a scientific way is a challenge for researchers, particularly because the same techniques and standards that are applied to pharmaceutical research can't necessarily be applied to food products like herbs and spices. But emerging evidence is giving herbs and spices the credence they deserve and the medical community is taking notice. And while doctors aren't going to start prescribing cinnamon or turmeric anytime soon, adding some beneficial spices and herbs to food can help accomplish a variety of outcomes.

(For information on the best herbs and spices, check out 10 Super Herbs And Spices With Health Benefits.)

Pain Relief

There are a number of herbs and spices that are effective at relieving pain. Some are quite common while others may not be as well-known, but they are just as effective.

Nearly every one suffers from pain at some point while some people suffer from ongoing, debilitating pain. However, there are several herbs that can help them find relief:

  • Willow bark: The active ingredient in willow bark is the same active ingredient that we find in aspirin today. Willow bark is typically not a spice that is added to food, but it can be brewed into a tea.
  • Turmeric: This spice is heavily used in Indian cuisine and there is extensive evidence that supports its anti-inflammatory properties, making it just as effective as many of the over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) at relieving pain associated with inflammation, and most of the pain that people experience is the result of some type of inflammation.
  • Ginger: This spice is added to both sweet and savory dishes, and like turmeric, it is a powerful anti-inflammatory, in addition to its other properties. Ginger can be added to food or brewed into a tea.

Disease Treatment And Prevention

While infections are showing signs of mutation to resist antibiotics, some people have turned to alternative forms of treatment. These are some herbs and spices that have been found to be natural antibiotics:

  • Garlic: This much used vegetable seasoning and its close cousin, the onion, have extremely powerful antibiotic properties. This can be prepared in a variety of ways and is used in nearly every cuisine in the world.
  • Echinacea: This herb is not typically added to food, but instead is made into a tea and it is extremely popular with those looking to treat colds, the flu and upper respiratory infections.
  • Manuka honey: While regular honey has antibacterial properties, manuka honey has been shown to be particularly potent at preventing infections. Some hospitals are applying to wounds several times per day and are finding it has positive results.

Cardiovascular Health

Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, but there are several spices and herbs that research has shown to be effective at reducing a person’s risk:

  • Garlic: This powerful little bulb also has some positive effects on bad cholesterol levels in addition to being a powerful antibiotic. Garlic has been shown in studies by the National Institutes of Health to decrease the incidence of atherosclerosis as well as having some anti-clotting properties. It also helps to reduce blood pressure.
  • Hawthorn: Traditionally referred to as a berry, the leaves, berries and flowers of the plant are utilized for their multiple medicinal uses. In fact, there is significant evidence to suggest that hawthorn has a host of cardiovascular benefits. While it is not typically added to food, it is often added to tea, although it is quite bitter so it is usually blended with other herbs to make it more palatable.

Digestive Health

Many people with digestive problems look to alternative forms of treatment outside of prescription medication. Fortunately there are several natural ways to help with certain digestive problems:

  • Ginger: This gnarly root is a digestive powerhouse. Often used for treating nausea, ginger is also good for diarrhea and the irritation that is caused by intestinal parasites. Ginger can be used in a variety of ways including fresh, dried, candied or steeped into a tea.
  • Peppermint: This herb is seen more during the holidays in candies, but peppermint can be quite soothing to an upset digestive system. It is usually steeped into a tea or added to a dessert dish of some kind.

Reproductive Health

There are a number of reproductive issues that are quite common in women. Whether a woman has heavy menstrual periods or she wants to increase the production of breast milk after giving birth, there are some very reliable, natural ways to do that.

  • Soy: This is probably the most common and widely available product used to treat reproductive issues; typically, menopause symptoms in women. Soy comes in many different forms and it is even added to some of the foods that people consume every day without them even knowing it.
  • Chaste berry: Though it is hard to find in most places, this berry is one of the best all-around reproductive products available. It can be found in supplement form but it can also be eaten as a berry.
  • Fenugreek: This herb is common in Indian dishes and is excellent for increasing breast milk production after birth. It does have a rather strong smell and taste, but it is very effective. If the smell or taste is offensive, it can be taken in capsule form but is most often used in food or made into a tea.

Mental Health

Mental health continues to concern many Americans. The rate of depression is on the rise and aging Americans find themselves confronted with conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia. However, there is emerging evidence that suggests that several of the herbs and spices that have antioxidant properties also help to supplement psychological and cognitive functions.

  • Turmeric: Some scientists believe that this spice can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. To help aid in the absorption of turmeric, which is not well absorbed by the digestive tract, add some black pepper, which is another good antioxidant.
  • Rosemary: Another powerful antioxidant, rosemary is used in the world of natural medicine to treat memory problems. This woody herb can be added to a great number of dishes, but the leaves should be ground first to make them palatable.

These are just a few examples of how herbs and spices can be used medicinally. There are thousands of spices that add a world of exciting flavors to meals. Perhaps the best benefit that spices offer is that they add flavor, which can cut down on the use of ingredients like salt, sugar and fats, which contribute to health problems. Remember, this guide is not meant to replace medication and/or treatment from a medical phyiscian. You should discuss with your doctor the benefits of supplementing these herbs and spices with your regular treatment.

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