For centuries, the herbs and spices utilized for cooking and eating were also used to cure disease. Though less frequently endorsed, those same healthy properties still exist in herbs and spices today, whether consumed as food or medicine.
As part of a balanced diet, vegetables, fruits and herbs have health benefits that scientists are just beginning to understand. This article pulls together a bit of the basic science behind potential health benefits of some promising herbs and spices.
Basil has a number of potentially beneficial properties, in addition to its pungent, sweet flavor. It contains essential oils and phytochemicals with anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, and the varieties of basil have assorted quantities of these chemicals.
As good source of magnesium, basil has also been used as a folk remedy for numerous illnesses — ranging from constipation to epilepsy — so it holds promise if it continues to capture the interest and imagination of scientists and chefs.
Cayenne pepper is a spicy addition to many different dishes. What gives cayenne and other hot chili peppers their peppery kick is a substance called capsaicin. Capsaicin is also an effective pain reliever and found as an ingredient in some over-the-counter and prescription pain relieving creams and patches.
Cayenne pepper also contains vitamin A, and as part of a diet high in fruits, vegetables and fiber may also help reduce cholesterol levels.
Cinnamon is a spice that is widely used in both sweet and savory dishes. In addition to being tasty, cinnamon might benefit some people with diabetes, but studies don’t offer a definitive answer, and no authority has ever suggested cinnamon, alone, be relied upon to manage blood glucose levels.
This pungent, “cooling” herb has a variety of uses. Potential health benefits from dill might derive from two basic components: monoterpenes, and flavonoids. Both are thought to be chemoprotective. A half a cup of fresh dill contains a good amount of vitamin A, too. Dill might have some benefits in the digestive system and has been used since ancient times to treat heartburn and diarrhea.
Garlic is a staple in nearly every cuisine on earth. Benefits in cardiovascular health may include a little bit of help against hypertension and hardening of the arteries, though no one is recommending garlic as an antihypertensive.
Laboratory research shows that substances in garlic also destroy cancer cells and may disrupt the metabolism of tumor cells. Whether this translates to protection against cancer is unknown; so far the evidence is not strong, but it’s another possible benefit, and a lot of reasons to be a garlic lover.
Ginger is a spicy herb that, like cinnamon, is used in both sweet and savory dishes. It has substances believed to work against nausea and perhaps some types of inflammation. It is excellent for upset stomachs and is still recommended to pregnant women today as a way to combat morning sickness.
How ginger helps fight nausea is unclear, but it might inhibit serotonin receptors in the gastrointestinal system, according to one study. Ginger has also been used for gas and bloating, sore throats and colds, and to stimulate appetite.
A study conducted by the USDA found that oregano has the highest levels of antioxidant activity when compared gram for gram with 27 other culinary herbs. Oregano is a rich source of vitamin K, iron and manganese. It also contains antibacterial properties and in centuries past, the oil of the herb was applied directly to wounds to prevent infection and aid healing. It also contains a healthy dose of fiber.
Paprika is a spice that many people are unfamiliar with. We know it as the red stuff that is sprinkled on top of deviled eggs, but it has so many more uses and a number of health benefits. Like the super spice, cayenne, paprika contains capsaicin, which is an anti-inflammatory as well as a pain reliever. It is also a powerful antioxidant.
Rosemary is a distinctive spice that grows in a low bush. In laboratory research, rosemary has been shown to help stop the gene mutations that lead to cancer.
Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, sage, basil, and oregano have garnered interest in part because of the Mediterranean diet and its association with reduced heart disease risk. While most of the focus has been on fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil, unrefined grains, and low consumption of meat, some scientists have also taken an interest in the antioxidant activity of the substances carnosol and carnosic acid in Mediterranean spices such as rosemary and sage.
Turmeric is a herb that is very popular in Indian dishes, but many people are unaware that turmeric is also what gives common deli mustard its yellow color. Turmeric contains curcumin, which according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, may help inhibit the growth of some types of cancer cells.
Herbs and spices not only enhance flavor and enjoyment, but also hold a lot of promise when it comes to health and wellbeing. However, experts have a few warnings about using herbal supplements and botanical extracts in the treatment of any particular disease or condition. It’s important to research the effectiveness of these supplements and extracts before using them. One must also follow safe, therapeutic doses – and also be aware of possible side effects, interactions and toxicities, just like any medication.
Herbs and spices make for healthy and tasty dishes, but there is another facet of health and nutrition to consider when caring for someone who may be elderly or suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, or dementia. Decreased ability to smell, taste, and enjoy food can be part of a degenerative process and can lead to a lack of interest in food and inadequate nutrition.
Although lack of interest in food is complex and can’t always be addressed in this way, caregiving advocates suggest trying to encourage appetite by making the food look and smell appealing, with different textures, colors and flavors. Herbs and spices can help create different tastes, smells and appearances to help encourage more interest and pleasure in food.