(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)
You already know how important your diet is for health; you know to eat your greens and sample a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables every day. But do you know that your spice cabinet and herb garden may provide you with powerful protection against disease, as well? Read on to discover eight common pantry items that deliver uncommon health benefits.
Some words of caution: Do not attempt to self-administer these herbs and spices as a cure. While a sprinkle or two in your meal may be good for you (and delicious), eating them in large quantities can pose problems. The therapeutic doses used to produce results in the following controlled studies are a promising step toward proving their worth as remedies in clinical trials. Talk to your doctor about how you can reap the benefits of herbs and spices, and be sure to ask your pharmacist about foods that may trigger reactions or otherwise work against your prescription drugs.
(MORE: 6 Foods That Fight Pain)
1. Cinnamon and Parkinson’s Disease
Cinnamon, which comes from the bark of a type of evergreen tree, is said to contain more antioxidants than any other spice. Among other feats, it’s been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and to reduce the proliferation of leukemia and lymphoma cancer cells. Now a new study suggests it also may help combat Parkinson’s disease, though researchers have yet to test this theory in clinical trials.
According to Kalipada Pahan, the lead researcher of a recent study done at Rush University Medical Center, cinnamon may help to alleviate or prevent the tremors and poor mobility suffered by those with Parkinson’s disease. The key to cinnamon’s power against Parkinson’s is a compound that is turned to sodium benzoate in the liver. The sodium benzoate is then sent to the brain, where it protects neurons and normalizes neurotransmitters.
2. Oregano and Staph Infections
There are so many good reasons to season your favorite savory dishes with oregano. Among the herb’s attributes are fiber, iron, manganese, vitamin E, iron, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, according to a study done by the Department of Agriculture, on a gram-per-gram, fresh-weight basis, oregano has four times more antioxidants than blueberries.
With so much goodness packed in each leaf, maybe the study done by a team of medical researchers in Italy shouldn’t come as a great surprise. The team used essential oil of oregano to kill drug-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus. Their study was published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology, and the results have inspired follow-up studies to see if oregano may help stem the rising tide of drug-resistant staph infections in the United States and elsewhere.
3. Black Pepper and Fatty Liver Disease
It’s rare to find a kitchen without this spice today, but in the ancient world, pepper was rare and valuable enough to be used as a form of currency. A good source of manganese and copper, pepper helps support metabolism and maintain bone health. It also contains peperine, the chemical compound from which it gets its name.
The National Institute of Health published the results of a study done in Seoul, Korea, where researchers used peperine to halt, and even reverse, fatty liver disease in mice. The findings are important because fatty liver disease is of rising concern worldwide, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is now the leading cause of chronic liver disease in the U.S.
4. Rosemary and Macular Degeneration
“There’s rosemary, for remembrance,” wrote Shakespeare, and with its sharp, bright scent, the herb is hard to forget. Like most other greens, it’s a nutritional powerhouse, boasting good quantities of minerals like calcium, iron, and potassium, and vitamins including vitamin B6, folate, vitamin C and vitamin A. The latter, also known as beta-carotene, is important for healthy eyes.
Now, researchers at the Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute have found that another component in rosemary, carnosic acid, also supports eye health. The research team reported that carnosic acid protects retinas from degeneration, and they believe that the compound may have clinical applications, including helping to prevent or halt age-related macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is the most common eye disease in the U.S., affecting more than 1.75 million people.
5. Allspice and Prostate Cancer
What’s not to like about a spice that earned its name by combining the flavor and aroma of cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg? Allspice is great in sauces and marinades for meats, is a staple ingredient for jerk seasonings, and it’s equally delicious in pumpkin pie or cookies. And there’s growing evidence that it may help combat prostate cancer.
A study done at the University of Miami used ercofolin, a compound found in allspice, to kill prostate cancer cells and significantly reduce tumor growth in animals, with none of the adverse reactions commonly caused by other cancer-killing agents. The researchers were so encouraged by the preliminary results that they are designing a follow-up study to determine if allspice may help to prevent prostate cancer altogether.
6. Turmeric and Arthritis
Turmeric may be the only spice on this list that isn’t a staple in your kitchen, though you’ve almost certainly heard of it: It’s the spice that gives curry its bright, golden color. The National Institutes of Health report that the health benefits of this spice have been extensively researched for 50 years, and that the past 25 years have shown it to be safe and effective against numerous health conditions, including pro-inflammatory diseases such as arthritis.
Curcumin is one of the compounds that give turmeric its clout. A clinical trial conducted at the Nirmala Medical Centre in Kerala, India (also published by the NIH), showed curcumin to be as effective as a prescription drug in relieving symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, with no adverse side effects. The Indian team used standards established by the American College of Rheumatology to evaluate the reduction of tenderness and swelling in the joints of their patients.
7. Sage and Alzheimer’s Disease
If you’re a woman of a certain age, you may have read that the phytoestrogens in sage can help to relieve hot flashes. But growing evidence suggests that it may also address a more serious condition often associated with age: Alzheimer’s disease.
An analysis of eight studies conducted on the effects of sage (the herb’s active compounds Salvia officinalis L. and Salvia lavandulaefolia L, to be precise) was published earlier this year by the National Institutes of Health. In all of the clinical trials studied, sage was shown to increase cognitive performance. Two of the studies were specific to patients with Alzheimer’s, and sage was found to decrease the effects of the disease. Moreover, no adverse reactions were found. More studies are needed, but it seems that there may be more than one reason to add sage to the menu.
8. Nutmeg and Depression
What’s a glass of eggnog on New Year’s Eve without a dusting of nutmeg on the top? Turns out, ounce for ounce, nutmeg is much more mind-altering than rum. In addition to B-complex vitamins and vital minerals like copper, iron and zinc, nutmeg contains myricistin, a powerful hallucinogenic drug. Using the spice in small quantities is considered safe and may even be beneficial, but nutmeg abuse can lead to serious complications, including death.
Yet, the same component that makes nutmeg potentially dangerous seems to be helpful in small quantities. A clinical trial conducted by a team of Indian researchers (who used animal models) found that myricistin was as effective as two commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs, and significantly relieved symptoms of depression in just three days. More research is needed, but the idea that something so fragrant and delicious is also good for us is uplifting news.
How to Use Spices for the Best Effect
It was Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine who said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Spices and herbs have been used as healing agents for thousands of years and a healthful diet should include a wide variety of them, used in reasonable quantities.
Here’s how to get the most from these culinary treasures:
- Use the whole version whenever you can. Grind your own peppercorns; grate whole nutmeg; grow fresh herbs on your windowsill and crush the leaves yourself. You’ll get the greatest possible nutritional value this way.
- Remember that freshness counts. The fresher, the better. Most dried spices are good for at least one year and some will retain their flavor for as long as three years. When in doubt, use your nose. If the spice or dried herb no longer has a characteristic scent, replace it.
- Store spices properly. Spices and herbs are sensitive to heat and light, so the shelf over, or next to, the stove may be convenient, but it’s the worst place to store them. Find a cool, dark place where there is little or no humidity and you’ll get the most from your investment.
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