By David Blyweiss, M.D.
It’s no secret that I love good food, especially if it’s made from scratch using the freshest organic foods around. But, while these culinary goodies are wonderful in their natural state, they are even better with the addition of herbs and spices. And the bonus? These flavorful seasonings also support good health.
You probably already know that fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants. Antioxidants attract free radicals and destroy them before they can damage cells. Studies link diets high in plant antioxidants with longevity, heart health and even cancer prevention. But, even though fruits and vegetables are the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about these protective compounds, don’t overlook herbs and spices.
Science shows that these zesty seasonings can significantly contribute to your total intake of health-protective antioxidants. One recent analysis of more than 3,100 different foods found that culinary herbs and spices have the highest antioxidant content of all foods. Case in point: just one-half teaspoon of cloves has a higher level of antioxidants than one-half cup of blueberries or cranberries.
But herbs and spices aren’t just about antioxidants. They also contain other healthful properties. Many spices occupy a special health niche because they are anti-inflammatory. Most chronic diseases have been found to be a result of low grade chronic systemic inflammation, including cancer, heart attacks, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Spices can help thwart the chronic low-level inflammation linked to these diseases. And, unlike many anti-inflammatory drugs, spices have safely been consumed for thousands of years with no side effects.
In many cultures, spices are enjoyed in a mélange—take a delicious curry dish, for example, which may include up to 29 spices, including turmeric, garlic, ginger and pepper—all in one fragrant pot. Scientists have observed that the benefits gained from these spice combinations may be greater than the sum of their individual effects. In other words, spices work synergistically. In one study published in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, researchers found that combining curcumin from turmeric with piperine from black pepper decreased breast cancer stem cells. Spices can also increase the antioxidant capacity of other fruits and vegetables. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2005 found that salad dressings containing herbs and spices can increase the antioxidant capacity of the entire salad.
So what are the healthiest herbs and spices? Among my top five picks are:
Cinnamon: This warming spice has more to offer than its characteristic aroma and flavor. It’s been shown to have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. It also plays a role in lowering blood glucose in diabetics.
Garlic: This pungent herb is key to cardiovascular health. Studies show that it reduces the stickiness of platelets and helps keep blood pressure in a healthy range. Garlic has also shown antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal activity in countless studies. Human studies suggest that eating garlic regularly reduces the risk of esophageal, stomach, and colon cancer. This may be partly due to garlic’s ability to reduce the formation of carcinogenic compounds. It also helps rid the body of mercury.
Oregano: This Italian staple is also a powerful antimicrobial and antifungal. Research confirms that oregano can help eradicate food-borne pathogens. One Brazilian study recently found that oregano also stopped a wide variety of Candida strains—including vaginal yeast infection and thrush.
Rosemary: Prized throughout history for its medicinal properties, rosemary is rich in polyphenols—plant compounds that are strong antioxidants. One of the volatile oils in rosemary, eucalyptol, is a powerful antibacterial that also relaxes smooth muscles in the lungs. Another compound—carnosol—may also inhibit cancer formation.
Tumeric: Responsible for the deep yellow color of curry, the secret to this spice is its curcumin content. An antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, a growing number of studies show that curcumin has a protective effect against cancer, diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s easy to incorporate these healthy herbs and spices into your daily diet. But to truly get all that these savory seasonings have to offer, I suggest taking them in supplemental form. Look for a liquid whole foods supplement that combines the power of these herbs and spices with vitamins, minerals, amino acids and phytonutrients to make sure you are spicing up your health each and every day.
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Goncagul G. Antimicrobial effect of garlic (Allium sativum). Recent Patents on Antiinfective Drug Discovery. 2010;5:91-93.
Zheng W. Antioxidant activity and phenolic compounds in selected herbs. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2001;49:5165-5170