The Spices of Life

Is food medicine? Is medicine food? If spices and herbs are packed with disease-fighting compounds, should we just swallow them in pill form and call it dinner?

If you’re interested in awakening your senses and turning your body on to the health-boosting benefits of culinary herbs and spices, here are some reasons – and ways – to get going:

As a sensual hit: Certain spices create feelings of warmth, even heat, in the body, no matter what the weather. Enjoy the warmth of ginger as a tea or food spice when traveling in a colder climate. Ginger has a pleasant warming effect. Alternatively, cayenne and other peppers stimulate perspiration, essentially turning on the body’s natural cooling system. That’s why these spices are traditionally eaten in hot climates.

To turn down pain: When neuralgic pain strikes, or arthritic aches overwhelm, herbs and spices can cut the pain. Ginger and chili peppers (containing capsaicin) do this by interfering with chemicals that serve as nerve signals; both are available as topical creams or gels. Like some over-the-counter painkillers, some plants also act as natural COX 2 inhibitors, thus reducing pain and inflammation. Adding ginger, turmeric or basil to the diet may be useful for those with minor aches and pains. When tooth or gum pain strikes, clove oil is an effective oral anesthetic, she said, performing just as well as topical benzocaine in studies.

As a turn-on for digestion: The smell and taste of spices start digestive juices flowing, priming the body for the task of breaking down food. But herbs and spices keep working all the way through the digestive tract. Anise and fennel both relieve intestinal gas, and fennel is a centuries-old remedy for colic in infants. Cinnamon has been shown to reduce blood sugar. Researchers are hoping this popular spice will be a weapon against diabetes. Plants in the Allium genus (garlic, onions and leeks) may help protect the body from gastrointestinal cancers. Turmeric, the spice in curry, also appears promising.

As a weapon against food pathogens: Herbs and spices have long been used to help prevent food from spoiling by killing bacteria and other harmful organisms. Studies have shown that a wash of one-percent basil essential oil effectively eliminates bacteria on fruits and vegetables, and is much friendlier than bleach. A pepper grinder may also be an ally in your pursuit of health. Black pepper is not only antibacterial; compounds in the common spice protect DNA as well, making it a possible weapon against cancer.

To fight infections: In India, basil is commonly used a home remedy for coughs and colds and topically for minor cuts and scrapes. Research has now shown that the herb indeed has potent antimicrobial activity and may reduce bronchial spasm. Thyme is another herb to consider when fighting off a cold. It is approved in Europe for use in upper respiratory infections; it’s also effective against oral thrush. Likewise, sage tea is effective for sore throats.

To calm and soothe: Upset stomach in the house? Cinnamon and ginger are two great home remedies. One-quarter teaspoon of cinnamon in a small bowl of applesauce tastes good and calms the stomach. Rosemary is a traditional remedy for headaches—perhaps due to its anti-inflammatory properties. For those with irritable bowel syndrome, peppermint oil may help reduce symptoms. Sage is approved in Germany for those troubled by excessive perspiration, and herbalists commonly recommend it for menopausal women troubled with night sweats.

To improve your outlook: Nutmeg, a common ingredient in eggnog and confections, appears to have some beneficial effects on mood, possibly enhancing serotonin’s activity. Nutmeg is also a common ingredient in colas. Another promising herb for brain health may be sage. Recent research suggests the herb may improve some symptoms of early Alzheimer’s disease. The word “sage” is used to signify a wise elder. Maybe the ancients were on to something.

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