I’m sure we can all agree that there is nothing worse than bland food. I mean, who doesn’t love a good, flavourful Durban curry? However, there may be more than just flavour stored in your humble spice rack. Many herbs and spices have been extensively studied for their health benefits, and some are even used to treat and manage diseases. For the purposes of this article, the focus will be on 5 herbs and spices commonly found in your pantry. There are however many more herbs and spices that are beneficial to your health, so feel free to spice up your dishes with as wide a variety as you dare.
As the wunderkind of 2016/2017, we have probably all heard more than enough about turmeric, but when a spice is this powerful it needs to be mentioned again. Turmeric is the best dietary source of a potent antioxidant called Curcumin (which also makes the turmeric that beautiful yellow colour). Curcumin is also a powerful anti-inflammatory, and it has been shown to be protective against certain forms of cancer progression in preliminary research. Curcumin is also showing promise in alleviating cognitive decline associated with aging, improving heart health by decreasing cholesterol and plaque levels in arteries, and by both reducing the risk of developing diabetes and treating the side effects associated with the disease.
Turmeric on its own has poor bioavailability, so you do need to crack some black pepper into your mix if you are going to take the powder. Alternatively ask the helpful ladies at Lifestyle Health to identify a suitable supplement for you.
Full disclosure, Rosemary may be my favourite herb in terms of both fragrance and flavour. Rosemary is one of the richest sources of another potent compound called Rosmarinic Acid. Rosmarinic acid is another anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory, it may protect against some forms of cancer, and interestingly enough it can be absorbed across the skin if put into an ethanol base – future skin cancer therapy perhaps?
Rosmarinic acid has also been shown to suppress the allergic response in both animal and human studies, and further research is being done in this area.
Oregano exerts a number of interesting health benefits. Firstly, Oregano is another rich source of Rosmarinic acid and so exerts anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. The oil of Oregano exerts antibacterial activity. Oregano oil has been used to prevent food spoilage and increase the shelf life of food products, and has been suggested as an immune booster and anti-infective agent in humans. There has been one human study showing significant benefit in terms of fighting intestinal infection, however more research is needed.
Traditionally, Oregano leaves have been taken with a meal as a digestive aid. Oregano leaf contains an active component called thymol (of a similar in structure to menthol, found in peppermint), which is known to relax the throat and stomach. You can enjoy an Oregano tea steeping 15g of Oregano leaves in 250ml of water.
Garlic has a long list of medicinal properties. If you do not have an intolerance to it, ideally you want to be taking a supplement or eating fresh garlic daily. Garlic has been shown to benefit cardiovascular health, physical and sexual vitality, cognition, and resistance to infection. Allow me to elaborate below.
In terms of heart health, ingestion of raw or aged garlic reliably reduces total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, whilst increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Garlic ingestion also leads to relaxation of the blood vessels (via a quite complex hydrogen sulphide signalling system), which helps improve blood pressure and blood flow. Garlic also appears to mildly reduce triglyceride levels.
Garlic ingestion has also been associated with significantly reduced risk of prostate, colon, and stomach cancer through the hydrogen sulphide signalling system mentioned above. This association has been found where intake is 10g of garlic or more per day, where the average clove of garlic is about 3g. This means at least 3 cloves daily. Tip: chew parsley after ingesting garlic to neutralize the garlic breath.
Did you know that ginger also contains small amounts of curcumin, the antioxidant in turmeric? It is not a rich source but it does add to the repertoire of this amazing root. The most commonly known use of ginger is to pregnant ladies as reliable and fairly effective anti-nausea treatment, with 11 studies all showing the same results. This effect does also apply to motion sickness as well as chemotherapy induced nausea.
Other uses for ginger include as a:
- Anti-inflammatory (reducing markers of inflammation, decreasing muscle soreness and alleviating menstrual pain)
- Digestive aid (by increasing gastric emptying)
- Testosterone booster (increasing total testosterone by up to 17% in one study)
- Colon cancer preventative (through the antioxidant capacity)
- Heart health booster (with decreased triglycerides, total cholesterol and LDL, and increased HDL),
- Memory booster (currently only shown in older women)
For most uses of ginger, typically a dose of 1-3g daily is recommended.
We know that herbs and spices enhance the flavour, aroma, and colour of food and beverages, but they can also protect people from both acute and chronic disease. Many of the compounds contained in herbs and spices have very high biological activity and are being used in preclinical, clinical, and therapeutic trials investigating new treatment options. Therefore it is possible that in the future new spice- or herb-based drugs may be developed. Wouldn’t that be incredible?