A pinch of this, a dash of that. Delicious! Not only does the world of spices add flavor and zest to your meals, but they often have proven health benefits as well.
First a little nomenclature lesson. The words “herbs” and “spices” are often used synonymously, interchangeably. But there is a physiological difference. A spice is obtained from the root, stem fruit, flower, bark or seeds of a plant; while herbs refer to the leaves or leafy parts of a plant. In this case, black pepper is a spice, while parsley is an herb.
Today, we easily enjoy herbs and spices from far-flung corners of the globe. For millennia, cultures relied upon these plant sources not so much for flavor but for healing. For example, cardamom, saffron, nutmeg, cassia, cinnamon and turmeric were consumed medicinally in ancient Persia, China and Egypt as well as surrounding areas.
Ancient texts discuss the link between consuming certain spices and health. For example, an Egyptian medical treatise from approximately 1550 BC, known as the Ebers Papyrus, discusses how coriander, cumin and fenugreek can help remedy ailments and conditions.
Later on in history, the silk road was established – also called the spice route, where Europeans traded goods for spices grown abundantly in Asia, the Middle East and India.
Common – and some uncommon spices – have been researched for health benefits for people of all ages (including your kids), so you might want to stock up!
Rosemary: One 2017 study by the British Psychological Society found that exposure to rosemary essential oil can significantly enhance working memory in children. In the study, 40 children aged 10 and 11 took part in a class-based test. They were randomly assigned to a room that had either rosemary oil diffused in it for 10 minutes or a room with no scent. The team found that those children in the rosemary-scented room achieved significantly higher scores than those in the non-scented room.
Rosemary has an ingredient that is also good for vision support, according to one study. Carnosic acid, found abundantly in rosemary, was found to protect retinas from toxicity-causing degeneration by acting as a potent antioxidant; oxidative stress is a causative factor in the development of age-related macular degeneration.
Rosemary in combination with another culinary spice – oregano – has proven to be a dynamic duo for promoting blood sugar health. In one study by the American Chemical Society, these herbs were found to inhibit dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV) and protein tyrosine phosphatase 1B (PTP1B), enzymes that assist in insulin secretion and insulin signaling, respectively. The authors concluded, “Overall, herbs contain several flavonoids that inhibit DPP-IV and should be investigated further regarding their potential in diabetes management.”
Oregano: Oregano essential oil is found in dietary supplement/natural remedy shelves as an anti-fungal. But one study showed that it may be a great idea to take when going on a cruise: it can help thwart the dreaded norovirus (violent GI content expulsion from both ends). In this study, the researchers found that oregano’s active compound – carvacrol (which lends the distinctive aroma and flavor), can cause the breakdown of the norovirus’ outer protein shell, disabling it.
Cilantro: The uber-popular “Mexican” herb is not only delicious, it has a history of use as an agent to reduce convulsions. A study has revealed the mechanism of action – identified as a highly potent KCNQ channel activator -- enabling the compounds in cilantro to effectively delay certain seizures in common conditions such as epilepsy. The authors write, “"Specifically, we found one component of cilantro, called dodecenal, binds to a specific part of the potassium channels to open them, reducing cellular excitability. This specific discovery is important as it may lead to more effective use of cilantro as an anticonvulsant, or to modifications of dodecenal to develop safer and more effective anticonvulsant drugs."
Other KCNQ channel activators resulting in lowered blood pressure have been found in chamomile, fennel and lavender, according to researchers in another study. The authors write, “"We found KCNQ5 activation to be a unifying molecular mechanism shared by a diverse range of botanical hypotensive folk medicines. Lavender was among those we studied. We discovered it to be among the most efficacious KCNQ5 potassium channel activators, along with fennel seed extract and chamomile,"
Ginger: This root spice has long been known to settle an uneasy stomach. It has other properties that make it attractive for the spice-as-remedy cabinet. For example, one published research paper of two studies showed that consuming ginger supplements daily reduced exercise-induced pain by 25%. Another team of researchers showed that ginger supplements reduced markers of inflammation in the colon; after 28 days the team found statistically significant reductions in pro-inflammatory markers compared to those taking a placebo.
Ginger can be an effective hygiene product, especially for bad breath. One study showed that a compound in ginger, 6-gingerol, stimulates an enzyme – sulfhydryl oxidase 1 – in saliva to increase by 16 times. This enzyme breaks down the malodorous sulfur compounds.
Cinnamon: Often used as a dessert and holiday spice, cinnamon is not only oh-so-tasty but it has several health-promoting properties. For example, research has shown that a compound in cinnamon, cinnamaldehyde, protected mice against obesity and hyperglycemia. In one study, researchers added cinnamaldehyde to human fat cells from a diverse population of volunteers and found that the cells showed increased expression of several genes and enzymes that accelerate lipid metabolism.
Cinnemaldehyde can also promote protection of the brain’s structure, specifically a neuro-protein called tau which tends to “knot up” in individuals with the condition. Authors of a study looking at how cinnamon impacts Alzheimer’s, explain, “The use of cinnamaldehyde, the compound responsible for the bright, sweet smell of cinnamon, has proven effective in preventing the tau knots. By protecting tau from oxidative stress, the compound, an oil, could inhibit the protein's aggregation. To do this, cinnamaldehyde binds to two residues of an amino acid called cysteine on the tau protein. The cysteine residues are vulnerable to modifications, a factor that contributes to the development of Alzheimer's.”
Relatedly, cinnamon has been investigated for its abilities to promote blood sugar health. Authors of one study noted that “cinnamon has insulin-like activity and also can potentiate the activity of insulin.”
Turmeric: The widely known Indian spice known as curry (turmeric) has become very popular for its health benefits. Those who can’t stand the taste or odor can take it in pill form. But its reputation as a healing spice is richly deserved. There are hundreds of studies showing its ability to regulate appropriate inflammatory response, which in itself helps reduce risk of numerous chronic health issues.
Life is too short and precious to eat bland foods. And you no longer need to worry about spiking up your blood pressure by flavoring with boring old salt. There is a delightful proliferation of tantalizing foods being launched – and spices for the home cook. Look to central and south American staples such as chipotle, cumin and paprika, and Asian staples like sesame seed, Thai basil, red and green curry. Numerous new exotic blends are available now, like the North African blend, harissa, which is a scrumptious hot chili pepper paste, which also includes spices like coriander seeds, caraway seeds and cumin. Or try Za’atar, itself an herb and a blend with other seasonings popularly used in the Middle East and Mediterranean cooking.
You take great care of yourself. You exercise, watch your calories, take your probiotics – why not enjoy the prolific wellness benefits of spices and herbs? Salute!