Using a variety of herbs and spices in your cooking not only adds flavor to your meals, but also boosts them with many health-promoting properties. Scientific evidence suggests that certain herbs and spices have medicinal qualities that help reduce inflammation, fight cancer and Alzheimer’s, promote heart health, and prevent the common cold. Plus, seasoning your dishes allows you to use less of other ingredients linked with health problems, such as salt, added sugars and sources of saturated fat. Here are a few of my favorites that I use on a regular basis.
Ginger: It’s been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine and among its potent claims are improved circulation, strengthened immunity and defense against nausea and motion sickness. The oils in ginger are antiviral and contain antioxidants. I love to juice ginger or chop it up and add it to stir-fry, soup, or salad dressing.
Garlic: Allicin is the sulfer compound found in garlic that is responsible for most of its medicinal benefits. Garlic can help reduce cholesterol by thinning blood and preventing clots, thereby lowering the risk of heart disease. The sulfer compounds also ward of cancer by removing carcinogens before they can damage cell DNA. Garlic has strong antibacterial and antifungal properties, making it useful in the treatment of yeast infections, sinus infections, and the common cold. To get the most out of garlic, chop or crush it and let it sit for ten minutes at room temperature to trigger an enzyme reaction that increases its health benefits.
Turmeric: This spice gives Indian curry its yellow hue and has been used in many cultures both as a culinary spice and medicinally to stimulate appetite and aid in digestion. Turmeric is now known to be a very powerful cancer fighter. Curcumin, the chemical that’s responsible for turmeric’s golden color, is a multi-faceted anti-inflammatory agent. This antioxidant quells inflamation that contibutes to tumor growth, removes carcinogens before they can cause cellular damage, and helps stop the growth and spread of cancer cells that do form. Adding turmeric to your diet is one of the best moves toward optimal health you can make. If you can fresh turmeric root, use it as you would ginger by juicing it or chopping and cooking it. Another popular use for turmeric is in tea. Try this recipe from 101 Cookbooks.
Cinnamon:Praised by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans for boosting appetite and relieving indigestion, some recent studies show that this spice may be a natural way to lower blood sugar and LDL cholesterol (the bad kind, think L for lethal). Cinnamon also contains anti-infectious compounds which suggests it can be used as part of a healthy diet to prevent getting sick.
Nutmeg: Nutmeg is a common spice derived from the fruit of the nutmeg tree (an evergreen). Nutmeg can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and it increases circulation. It has strong antibacterial properties and has been shown to kill a number of bacteria in the mouth that contribute to cavities. Nutmeg is also a great source of antioxidants, is rich in B vitamins, regulates digestion and enhances sleep.
Rosemary: Native to the Mediterranean, rosemary has an ample supply of iron, calcium and vitamin B6. Muscle pain, low immunity, poor circulation and hair loss are just some of the maladies people relied on it for. Today we know rosemary may actually be beneficial in those areas because of its antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. More recent studies even credit rosemary with neurological protection and as an effective anti-tumor agent.
Thyme: This aromatic, Mediterranean herb of the mint family has been used since ancient times and is available in more than 60 varieties, each nutrient dense and loaded with benefits. Thyme is antiseptic and antibacterial, and is an excellent source of iron, manganese, vitamin K and calcium. It’s also a great respiratory enhancer. Thyme has oil and flavonoid components that help relieve coughs, bronchitis and chest congestion.
Sage: An evergreen, perennial shrub common to the Mediterranean and Southeast Europe, sage is another herb that has been well respected throughout history. This very powerful antioxidant enhances brain function and improves memory. Sage aids digestion of oily and fatty foods, and calms upset stomachs. As a vitamin boost, sage contains vitamins A, B, C and several necessary minerals, such as potassium, zinc, calcium, iron and magnesium.
Cayenne: That burning sensation in your mouth when you eat foods spiced with cayenne pepper comes from capsaicin, the oily compound behind most of the health benefits of cayenne and other hot peppers. Capsaicin is the active ingredient in many prescription and over-the-counter creams for muscle pain. It slows the transfer of pain signals along nerve endings to the brain. Cayenne can also relieve congestion by shrinking blood vessels in your nose and throat. It boosts metabolism, reduces blood sugar, and warms the body.
Cloves: Cloves are the aromatic dried flower buds of a tree, and are widely used in Ayurvedic medicine. Clove oil has a numbing effect that can provide toothache relief, and other general pain relief. Cloves have an anti-inflammatory component called eugenol that guards us from environmental toxins and acts as an anti-bacterial agent. Cloves also stimulate warmth in the body and increase hydrochloric acid production, which is needed for digestion. Cloves are nutrient dense in manganese, vitamin K and C.
This list could be twice as long, but I think this is a good start for now. I don’t want to overwhelm. What are your favorite herbs and spices to use in the kitchen and why? I’m sure you have some staple seasonings that I didn’t mention here.