9 Spices With Super-Healing Powers
Have you checked your spice rack lately? Spices and herbs can do a lot more than add pizzazz to your cooking -- they can also promote heart health, fight cancer, reduce inflammation, and more. Here are nine super spices and herbs that are good for you and taste good, too.
Cinnamon is a nutritional powerhouse, with antioxidant properties that keep cells safe from oxidative stress and dangerous free radicals. Antioxidants help fight such diseases as cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and Parkinson's.
What's more, cinnamon is a powerful weapon against cardiovascular problems. Cinnamon helps the hormone insulin work better, which reduces blood sugar levels. That's great news for the one in ten North Americans with type 2 diabetes and the millions more with prediabetes. Keeping blood sugar low can help treat diabetes or even stop it before it starts.
Cinnamon may also help prevent Alzheimer's. A study in 2011 found that an extract from cinnamon bark inhibited the formation of amyloid plaques in mice with Alzheimer's. It even helped restore cognitive levels and correct movement problems in the animals.
How much: Cinnamon's health benefits make it worth adding to your daily diet -- and cinnamon's sweet, warming flavor makes it easy. Aim for a quarter to half a teaspoon most days of the week.
Serving suggestions: Sprinkle a little on fresh fruit, a steaming bowl of oatmeal, or a scoop of peanut butter, or add to fish, chicken, or lamb dishes -- especially with cumin and chili powder -- for a Middle Eastern slant on your normal fare. No time to cook? Sprinkle some cinnamon on your morning coffee or tea for a nice antioxidant boost.
Tip: You know that stuff in your cinnamon jar? It's probably cassia, not cinnamon. True cinnamon, often labeled "Ceylon cinnamon," has higher levels of antioxidants, so seek it out if you can.
If you associate "sage" with wisdom, you're not far off -- the spice has been shown to help with memory and mood. 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 those with Alzheimer's or other dementias. Like prescribed Alzheimer's drugs, sage inhibits an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase, which in turn may improve cognitive function.
In an open-label study, six weeks of treatment with sage resulted in improved attention and decreased neuropsychiatric symptoms in participants with Alzheimer's. A separate 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, and it has estrogen-like effects, which might help curb hot flashes and other symptoms in women going through menopause.
How much: Beth Reardon, director of nutrition for Duke Integrative Medicine, part of the Duke University Health System, recommends using a quarter to half a teaspoon of sage a few times a week.
Serving suggestions: Sage's earthy flavor epitomizes comfort food, like casseroles and stuffing. Try it sprinkled onto roasted sweet potatoes, snipped into butternut squash soup, or rubbed on a simple roast chicken. You can also make a simple sage tea -- add boiling water to a teaspoon of chopped fresh sage and let steep for 5 to 10 minutes before straining and drinking.
Tip: Want to keep sage fresher longer? Snip off the ends of the long stems and put them in a glass of cool water, just as you would with flowers. Then cover the herbs -- glass and all -- with a clean, dry plastic bag and put them in the fridge. This method should keep herbs fresh for at least a week, and it works with parsley, cilantro, and other long-stemmed herbs as well.
"Turmeric's health benefits are through the roof," says Reardon. "If I could only have one spice for the rest of my life, it'd be turmeric."
Turmeric has been used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine for millennia, and Western science is starting to catch on. Its active ingredient, curcumin, is a strong antioxidant that's been shown in test tube and animal studies to fend off cancer growth, amyloid plaque development, and more.
Turmeric might also boost heart health -- a 2012 study showed that adding turmeric and other high-antioxidant spices to high-fat meals could help regulate triglyceride and insulin levels and protect the cardiovascular system.
Turmeric is also a powerful COX-2 inhibitor -- like a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory but without the nasty side effects. A human study in 2009 found a daily dose of curcumin just as effective as ibuprofen for osteoarthritis in the knee.
Turmeric may also help regulate the immune system -- a series of studies in 2010 and 2011 showed that curcumin might have positive effects on people with autoimmune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis.
Like all herbs and spices, however, too much turmeric might not be a good thing -- it can inhibit blood clotting in large doses and may exacerbate gallbladder issues, so check with your doctor before using more than a typical culinary amount.
How much: Aim for a teaspoon of turmeric at least three times a week.
Serving suggestions: Turmeric is best known for the bright yellow color -- and flavor -- it adds to Indian dishes. Add a big pinch to a pot of lentil soup, or use with curry powder, raisins, and Greek yogurt to dress a curried chicken salad. Like sage, turmeric works well as tea. You can buy teas commercially from companies like the Republic of Tea or Yogi, or make your own by chopping up an inch of fresh turmeric root and infusing in hot water for 15 minutes.
Tip: The antioxidants in turmeric are a little fragile, so make an effort to find fresh turmeric root. It looks a little like fresh ginger but with a brighter orange interior.