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Health Benefits of Herbs and Spices

Updated on June 30, 2013

Herbs and spices are not just good for flavoring foods. Some of them are quite beneficial to health. Many spices are anti-inflammatory.

Dr. Andrew Weil lists turmeric, ginger, garlic, chili peppers, cinnamon, rosemary, thyme as examples of "Healthy Herb and Spices" in his Anti-inflammatory food pyramid.

Because of their health benefit, some of these herb and spices have have been extracted into supplement form. Understand that when extract as such, they may not have the same effect as in their natural form. And that there is possibility of overdosing or drug interactions with other medications and supplements when taken in the mega-doses that are found in supplements.

In this article, we will look at how these herb and spices promote health. We will be talking about the herb and spices in their natural form and as used in cooking -- not in their supplement form.

Before taking them in supplement form, check with your doctor first. For pregnant women, they are warned not to consume some of these herb and spices in extremely excessive amounts even in their natural form. These includes chili, cinnamon, cumin, parsley, oregano, rosemary, saffron, and others listed on Amount used in normal cooking is fine.

Garlic - Immune Boosting

Garlic boosts the immune system. The immune system helps us fight off cancer. And garlic contains powerful phytochemicals that makes it one of the top foods that help reduce the risk of cancer.

Garlic also has anti-fugal, antibacterial, and antiviral effects. Dr. Andrew Weil says on his website that ...

"An effective home remedy for colds is to eat several cloves of raw garlic at the first onset of symptoms."

Note that he mentions raw garlic because garlic loses some of its antibiotic properties when cooked or dried.

However, garlic's anti-cancer properties can be preserved if you crush or chop garlic and let it stand for 10 minutes before applying heat. That is because breaking the garlic's cell walls will release and mix it various phytochemicals in a chemical reaction to produce allyl sulfur compounds. These beneficial allyl sulfur compounds accounts for some of garlic anti-cancer properties and are not readily destroyed by heat.

The book, The Happiness Diet, says similarly...

"Crush or mince garlic cloves to boost the content of allicin, a compound that strengthens immunity." [page 131]

Ginger - anti-inflammatory

Chronic low-grade inflammation is the basis of many chronic disease such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and even dementia. Ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory that can decrease this detrimental inflammation.

Turmeric - anti-inflammatory

Turmeric is a orange-yellow powdered spice that is used in making curry. Turmeric are of the same family of spices as ginger. And hence it also has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

How is curcumin related to turmeric? Curcumin is a compound with the turmeric spice. Some studies suggests that curcumin may reduce amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease. But these studies uses pharmaceutical amounts instead of natural spices. However, it is noted that the Indian community which uses a lot of curcumin in their food tend to have low incidence of Alzheimer's.

Cinnamon - Blood Sugar Control

Cinnamon is a spice from the inner bark of a cinnamon tree. The primary health benefit of cinnamon is its role in aiding sugar metabolism and hence reducing blood glucose (sugar) levels especially for those with type 2 diabetes.

A study in Diabetes Care concluded that cinnamon...

"reduces serum glucose, triglyceride, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes"

Parsley - Detoxifier

Parsley contains a type of volatile oil called myristicin which inhibits tumor formation (as shown in animal studies). Myristicin helps activates Glutathione-S-Transferase (GST), which plays an important role in the body's detoxification system.

A study paper suggests that ...

"These results suggest that myristicin could be an effective chemopreventive agent, particularly for carcinogens that are detoxified by the mu class GST" [reference]

Parsley can help neutralize toxins like cigarette smoke.

Parsley also contains flavonoids which acts as anti-oxidants. Parsley contains good amounts of vitamin K, vitamin C, vitamin A, and some folate.

As a side bonus, parsley may help freshen breath such as after eating garlic.

Parsley is also a demulcent which has a soothing effect on the gastrointestinal system.

Chili Peppers - hot capsaicin fights inflammation

Chili peppers are hot because of the compound capsaicin. The hotter they are, the more capsaicin.

Capsaicin is anti-inflammatory because it inhibits substance P which is associated with the inflammation response. Capsaicin can help with arthritis.

Chili peppers with meals help protect blood fats (such as cholesterol and triglycerides) from oxidation, which is a contributing factor to cardiovascular disease.

Chili peppers with meals reduces the amount of insulin needed to bring down blood glucose. Therefore, it may help reduce risk of high insulin which is common with type 2 diabetics.

Basil - helps protect against DNA damage

Basil's array of flavonoids provides protection at the cellular level. Flavonoids contained in basil such as orientin and vicenin protects chromosomes and cell structures from radiation damages and oxidative stress damages.

Basil has anti-bacterial properties. Basil has good amounts of vitamin K, iron, calcium, and vitamin A.

Spices are anti-inflammatory

Spices in general are anti-inflammatory. When your body is in an low inflammatory state, it is more difficult for cancer to thrive. Hence spices can be protective against cancer.

The phytochemcials found in many spices inhibit the activity of a nuclear transcription factor known as kappa-beta. This transcription factor has been linked to the turning on the inflammation that is that basis of many diseases.

Here is what a paper on PubMed says ...

"The activation of nuclear transcription factor kappaB has now been linked with a variety of inflammatory diseases, including cancer, atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, diabetes, allergy, asthma, arthritis, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, osteoporosis, psoriasis, septic shock, and AIDS. ... the pathway that activates this transcription factor can be interrupted by phytochemicals derived from spices"

Some of the phytochemicals that is responsible for this are ...

  • curcumin such as in turmeric
  • capsaicin such as in red peppers
  • eugenol such as in cloves
  • gingerol such as in ginger
  • anethol such as in anise and fennel
  • ursolic acid such as in basil and rosemary
  • diallyl sulfide such as in garlic
  • ellagic acid such as in pomegranate


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