Gloria P. Oberbeck, M.D. | Board Certified in Family Medicine | (303) 828-9200

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Healthy Spices and Herbs

Modern science is beginning to uncover the power of spices and herbs as weapons against illnesses from arthritis to cancer to Alzheimer's disease. We are beginning to understand the wisdom of our ancestors, that have been using spices medicinally for thousands of years. In native India diet related diseases like heart disease and cancer have been low, but when they move and adopt the Western diet, their rates of these sames diseases rise. Science has yet to prove that spices cure diseases, but there is compelling scientific evidence that many spices may help manage some chronic conditions and improve quality of life without the side effects and cost of many prescription medications.

Cinnamon is delicious and is loaded with potential health benefits.It has antioxidant properties, which keep cells safe from oxidative stress and dangerous free radicals. Antioxidants also help fight Alzheimer's, diabetes, and Parkinson's. A study in 2011 found that an extract from cinnamon bark inhibited the formation of amyloid plaques in mice with Alzheimer's and helped to restore cognitive levels and correct movement problems in these mice. Cinnamon helps the hormone insulin work better, which reduces blood sugar levels. This is great news for the 10% of Americans have type 2 diabetes and millions more who have metabolic syndrome which is a high risk for developing diabetes. A few studies suggest that adding cinnamon to food-up to a teaspoon a day, usually given in capsule form-might help people with type 2 diabetes better control their blood sugar, by lowering post-meal blood-sugar spikes.

How much: A quarter to half a teaspoon most days of the week. Beware that the what you think is cinnamon in your jar is more likely cassia, not cinnamon. True cinnamon, often labeled “ceylon cinnamon” has higher levels of antioxidants than the commonly labeled cinnamon, You can sprinkle this on fresh fruit, hot oatmeal, your morning coffee or tea. Add it to fish, chicken, lamb, mix it with cumin and chili powder to spice up routine fare.

Sage has been shown to help with memory, mood, soothing sore throats and relieving upset stomachs. You may find relief by sipping sage tea for upset stomachs and sore throats, a remedy supported by one study that found spraying sore throats with a sage solution gave effective pain relief. Some preliminary research also suggests the herb may improve some symptoms of early Alzheimer's disease by preventing a key enzyme from destroying acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in memory and learning. Sage inhibits an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, which in turn may improve cognitive function. A study in 2005 gave essential sage oil to healthy young volunteers and found that participants tended to remember things better and feel both more alert and calmer after taking sage. Sage might also help wth dementia and Alzheimer's. In one study, people with Alzheimer's were treated with sage for six weeks and showed improvement in attention and decreased neuropsychiatric symptoms. Another study in 2006 found that rosmarinic acid, an active ingredient in sage, protected mouse cells from the amyloid peptides that are thought to contribute to Alzheimer's. Sage is also great for digestion. Sage has estrogen-like effects, which might help decrease hot flashes, sleep disruption and other common symptoms in women going through menopause.

How much: Add a quarter to half a teaspoon of sage a few times a week. You can add sprinkle this on roasted sweet potatoes, butternut squash, or rub on a roast chicken. You can make a tea by adding boiling water to a teaspoon of chopped sage and letting it sit for 5 to 10 minutes before straining to drink. To keep sage and other fresh long stemmed herbs fresh for at least a week, you can snip off the ends of the long stems and refrigerate them in a glass of cool covered water.

Cloves can sooth digestive tract muscles and acts as a potent antihistamine.

How much: Mix into your nightly ice cream treat or sneak into mustard spread.

Turmeric: Root of the Circuma plant in the ginger family.
Turmeric has an amazing array of health benefits. Turmeric, the goldenrod-colored spice, is used in India to help wounds heal (it's applied as a paste); it is also made into a tea to relieve colds and respiratory problems. Modern medicine confirms some solid-gold health benefits as well. The active ingredient, curcumin, has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It has been shown in animal studies to fend off cancer growth and amyloid plaque development. Curcumin has been shown to help relieve pain of arthritis, injuries and dental procedures; it's also being studied for its potential in managing heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. A 2012 study showed that adding turmeric to high fat meals could hep regulate insulin and triglyceride levels to protect the cardiovascular system and promote hearth health. Turmeric was found to be as effective as ibuprofen for osteoarthritis of the knee in a 2009 study. This is because it is a powerful COX-2 inhibitor(like a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory but without the side effects). Other studies in 2010 and 2011 showed that turmeric might help regulate the immune system and have positive effects on people with autoimmune disorders(like multiple sclerosis and lupus). Some preliminary studies have found that curcumin can inhibit tumor cell growth and suppress enzymes that activate carcinogens. The down side is that large doses could also inhibit blood clotting and aggravate gallbladder issues, so if you have any of these problems it is not recommended to use more than a typical culinary amount.

How much: One teaspoon of turmeric three times a week. Fresh turmeric root is best for antioxidant benefits. Turmeric is popular in Indian dishes or add it to dressing for a chicken salad or to a pot of lentil soup. For tea, chop up an inch of fresh turmeric root and infuse in hot water for 15 minutes. You can also mix in with oil-and-vinegar-based salad dressings.

Thyme: Leaf of the Thymus plant in the mint family.
Thyme relaxes the muscle tissue of the gastrointestinal tract and stimulates the immune system. Thyme has thymol, a volatile oil that has antimicrobial properties. A 2004 study showed that thyme oil was able to decontaminate foods with active shigella, staph, and E.coli, all of which can cause food poisoning. Thyme aids in digestion, helps to reduce gas and bloating, and can also be beneficial for the scalp and hair.

How much: One teaspoon of fresh thyme or quarter teaspoon of dried thyme about three times a week. Thyme is used with chicken, fish, root vegetables and is also used with lemon and summer cocktails. Fresh thyme is good for a week refrigerated in a damp paper towel. Toss it into any meat-based dishes.

Rosemary may help enhance mental focus and fight foodborne bacteria. One recent study found that people performed better on memory and alertness tests when mists of aromatic rosemary oil were piped into their study cubicles. Rosemary is often used in marinades for meats and poultry, and there's scientific wisdom behind that tradition: rosmarinic acid and other antioxidant compounds in the herb fight bacteria and prevent meat from spoiling, and may even make cooked meats healthier. In March 2010, Kansas State University researchers reported that adding rosemary extracts to ground beef helped prevent the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs)-cancer-causing compounds produced when meats are grilled, broiled or fried.

How much: Add to foods several times per week.

Ginger has been used since ancient times in medicines that settle upset stomachs and fight arthritis pain. There are recent studies that show ginger helps reduce nausea, decrease gastric ulcers and improve intestinal motility. Studies show ginger extracts can help reduce nausea caused by morning sickness or following surgery or chemotherapy, though it's less effective for motion sickness. Ginger is also packed with inflammation-fighting compounds, such as gingerols, which some experts believe may hold promise in fighting some cancers and may reduce the aches of osteoarthritis and soothe sore muscles. Studies have also shown that ginger helps reduce pain associated with menstrual cramps, muscle strain, and migraines. Ginger is a powerful Cox inhibitor, and like the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications it can help with osteoarthritis and inflammatory conditions. In a recent study, people who took ginger capsules daily for 11 days reported 25 percent less muscle pain when they performed exercises designed to strain their muscles (compared with a similar group taking placebo capsules). Another study found that ginger-extract injections helped relieve osteoarthritis pain of the knee.

The downside in ingesting large quantities of ginger are that it can cause heartburn, gas, worsening of gallstone problems and can also interact with a the blood thinner warfarin.

How much: Use ginger daily if you do not have any of the above contraindications. Ginger is a common ingredient in Asian and Indian cooking. You can use in in black tea, along with cinnamon and cardamom. You can dice it and add it to soup or grind and add to baked goods like gingersnaps or apple muffins.. Fresh ginger is best (readily available in an Asian market).

Nutmeg is known to improve digestion; eases the symptoms of menstruation; induces calm and sleep.

How Much: Grate a small amount into applesauce or plain yogurt. (Note: It’s safe to grate the entire nut, which you can usually buy whole at the supermarket, but you never want to consume more than one nutmeg per day because too much of this potent spice can cause stomach pain, double vision and other uncomfortable reactions.)

Celery Seed: Seed of the Apium graveolens plant in the parsley family.
It flushes the liver of toxins; lowers blood pressure; combats water retention.

How much: Think salads—tuna, potato and egg all work—which can be tossed onto a bed of lettuce, eaten alone or spread onto bread.

Saffron is grown in the Middle East and is one of the most expensive spices in the world. Saffron threads are the stigmas of a specific kind of crocus, each of which needs to be carefully gathered by hand. Saffron has long been used in traditional Persian medicine as a mood lifter, usually steeped into a medicinal tea or used to prepare rice. Saffron has been shown to benefit cognitive and mood health. Research from Iran's Roozbeh Psychiatric Hospital at Tehran University of Medical Sciences has found that saffron may help to relieve symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and depression. In one study, 75% of women with PMS who were given saffron capsules daily reported that their PMS symptoms (such as mood swings and depression) declined by at least half, compared with only 8 percent of women who didn't take saffron.A 2007 animal study showed antidepressant properties similar to ssri medications (like prozac). A 2006 study showed people who took saffron had antidepressant effects higher than placebo. Another study showed saffron increased blood flow to the brain, which could help improve cognitive performance. A 2009 study in Italy showed that saffron had beneficial effects on the genes regulating vision cells, potentially slowing or reversing degenerative eye diseases.

How much: As little as a tenth of a teaspoon has been shown to have benefits. You can crumble a few threads into water or stock for paella, risotto, kheer, or other rice dishes. The flavor and effective health benefits of most spices declines over time, so keep this is a cool dark place and use within six months.

Basil comes from India and is used there to treat asthma, stress, and diabetes. It has strong antimicrobial and antiviral properties. Basil is a natural COX inhibitor, so it can help if you have arthritis or other inflammatory health problems. Basil is also a great source of beta-carotene, which turns into vitamin A, as well as magnesium, iron, and calcium.

How much: One tablespoon of fresh basil or quarter to half a teaspoon of dried basil three times weekly. Basil is great in pasta salads or anything with tomatoes, hot or cold. Fresh basil is the best but several companies freeze fresh basil so it retains most of its nutrients. To freeze basil yourself, lay them flat on a baking sheet and transfer them to a plastic bag or container when they are frozen.

Oregano: Leaf of the Origanum plant in the mint family.
Can help loosens mucus; helps treat respiratory illnesses; and calms indigestion.

How much: Use in any tomato-based foods, like marinara sauces, pizza and soups.

Chili Peppers
People have been cooking with chili peppers for thousands of years. Chile peppers add a much-appreciated heat to chilly-weather dishes, and they can also give a boost to your metabolism. Studies have shown capsaicin, the active ingredient in peppers, works as a great topical pain reliever for headaches, arthritis, and other chronic pain problems. Capsaicin inhibits the release of P-protein, which in turn interrupts the transmission of constant pain signals to the brain. Studies show that capsaicin can increase the body's metabolic rate (causing one to burn more calories) and may stimulate brain chemicals that help us feel less hungry. In fact, one study found that people ate 16 percent fewer calories at a meal if they'd sipped a hot-pepper-spiked tomato juice (vs. plain tomato juice) half an hour earlier. Capsaicin may also lower risk of ulcers by boosting the ability of stomach cells to resist infection by ulcer-causing bacteria and help the heart by keeping "bad" LDL cholesterol from turning into a more lethal, artery-clogging form.Oral capsacin has been linked to the release of endorphins and the regulation of blood sugar. Scientists have found that it has anticancer properties in test tube studies.

How much: As little as an eighth of a teaspoon can have positive health benefits. Chili peppers can be mild poblanos or fiery habenero. Many chili powders work well in salsas, soups, chicken dishes, and chocolate desserts. Remember, capsaicin is not water soluble so it your mouth is on fire, reach for a glass of milk since caseins in milk effectively block chili pepper heat. Stir into a cup of hot chocolate or any sweet juice drink for a contrasting flavor kick.

Parsley may help inhibit breast cancer cell growth. University of Missouri scientists found that this herb can actually inhibit breast cancer-cell growth, reported Holly Pevzner in the September/October 2011 issue of EatingWell Magazine. In the study, animals that were given apigenin, a compound abundant in parsley (and in celery), boosted their resistance to developing cancerous tumors. Experts recommend adding a couple pinches of minced fresh parsley to your dishes daily.

How much: A couple pinches of minced fresh parsely daily.

Cardamom is a Fruit of the Elettaria cardamomum plant in the ginger family. It eases belching, flatulence and indigestion; treats respiratory conditions like coughing, asthma and loss of voice; aids in the elimination of toxins through your skin.

How much: Stir a few freshly ground pinches of cardamom pods into a shot of OJ or your morning fruit salad, or mix it with white or brown rice before you boil it.

Also known as cilantro; the leaves and seeds of the Coriandrum plant in the aromatic Apiaceae family. This acts as a diuretic; eases seasonal allergies.

How much: Cook into couscous and quinoa, which you can store and eat with leftovers.

Fennel Seed of the Foeniculum plant in the aromatic Apiaceae family.
This calms bowel distress; supports milk production in nursing mothers; combats water retention.

How much: Add to canned minestrones and vegetable soups.