We have all seen how herbs have been used for centuries as a cure-all, but what about spices? Modern scientific research is beginning to integrate increasingly with alternative medicine, and there’s some exciting possibilities on the horizon. Herbs and spices are now being researched for their ability to combat cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Indian people use spices extensively in their cuisine, and they have a relatively low incidence of heart disease and cancer. The rates of disease only increases if people adopt more western style diets. This is hardly surprising. The average Western diet is too high in fat, salt, and sugar, and too low in antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables. While research is still lacking in many areas, there’s some evidence that some spices can be used medicinally, especially to treat chronic conditions.
- 1 Herbs and spices that may help to treat health conditions
- 1.1 Sage
- 1.2 Rosemary
- 1.3 Turmeric
- 1.4 Chili Pepper
- 1.5 Ginger
- 1.6 Cinnamon
- 1.7 There are two main types of cinnamon available:
- 1.8 The health benefits of cinnamon
- 1.9 Cinnamon is rich in a compound which gives it medicinal properties
- 1.10 Cinnamon is full of antioxidants
- 1.11 Cinnamon has anti-inflammatory properties
- 1.12 Cinnamon can help to reduce the risk of heart disease
- 1.13 Cinnamon can help to reduce insulin resistance
- 1.14 It can keep blood sugar levels under control
- 1.15 Cinnamon may help to prevent, and to manage neurodegenerative illnesses
- 1.16 Cinnamon may protect against cancer
- 1.17 Cinnamon can help to fight against bacterial and fungal infections
- 1.18 Cinnamon may be effective against HIV
- 1.19 Some safety guidance
- 1.20 Final thoughts
Herbs and spices that may help to treat health conditions
Of course, there are many herbs and spices that may help to treat health problems; here are just a few of them.
Sage may boost memory and soothe a sore throat. Advocates recommend drinking sage tea if you have an upset stomach or a sore throat. A study found that spraying a sore throat with a solution containing sage relieved pain. There is also some evidence that sage might improve the symptoms of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. A study also suggested that it can boost memory and performance in tests. College students who took sage supplements performed better in tests.
Rosemary might help to boost focus and to fight bacteria that cause foodborne illness. The Ancient Greeks wore garlands of rosemary as they believed that it improved their capacity to study. A recent study found that people who inhaled aromatic mists infused with rosemary performed better in tests involving recall and alertness. Rosemary contains rosmarinic acid, which is thought to fight bacteria in meat.
Turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory and has been researched for its ability to inhibit the growth of tumours. In India, turmeric is frequently applied to wounds to help them heal, and people drink turmeric tea to fight colds and coughs. Modern science has shown that curcumin, a compound in turmeric, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It has been found to relieve the pain of arthritis, and it is being researched for whether it would be effective in managing heart problems and diabetes. Initial studies have also found that curcumin can inhibit tumour growth.
This may help to boost the metabolism. Chili creates a sensation of heat, and it is used in hot countries as it actually helps the body to cool down by inducing sweating. It might also be a weight loss aid. Studies have shown that the compound capsaicin which is responsible for the heat in chili, can boost the metabolism, however, it is not yet known what the long-term effects are. Capsaicin can help to reduce the risk of stomach ulcers by boosting the ability of the stomach cells to fight infection caused by ulcer-causing bacteria such as helicobacter. It might also help to boost heart health by preventing LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol from clogging the arteries.
Ginger might help to settle an upset stomach and to fight the pain of arthritis. Ginger has been known for some time for its ability to fight colds, sore throats, and stomach problems. It is also rich in gingerols, which are antioxidant compounds that are being researched for their role in fighting cancer and arthritis pain. A recent study of arthritis sufferers found that those who took ginger capsules daily for 11 days reported less pain when exercising. Another study showed that ginger extract helped to relieve arthritis pain in the knee when it was given as an injection. It is well-known for reducing nausea too, especially that caused by morning sickness or chemotherapy.
Cinnamon is a spice which is found in the bark of a few different species of tree from the cinnamomum family. It is native to India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Burma. It is mid-brown in colour and can be used in a variety of foods, including sweet and savoury items. Cinnamon is cultivated after allowing the tree to grow for around 2 years, then cutting the stems at ground level. The stems should be processed straight away. The outer bark is scraped off then the tree branch is beaten to loosen the inner bark which is then pulled off in strips. These strips curl into rolls then they are left to dry for 4-6 hours. When the bark is dry, it’s cut into 5-10cm pieces, then sold.
There are two main types of cinnamon available:
Ceylon cinnamon which is also known as “true” cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon is lighter in colour, finer in texture and crumblier. Ceylon loses a lot of its flavour when its cooked.
Cassia cinnamon which is the most common variety available, and the one you will most likely see in supermarkets. Cassia has the familiar strong, spicy flavour and you will see this often used on baked products as it handles heat quite well.
Ceylon cinnamon sticks have a lot of thin layers and can easily be made into powder using a coffee or spice grinder, whereas cassia sticks are much harder.
Cinnamon’s flavour is down to an essential oil it contains called cinnamaldehyde. The strong flavour makes it popular for flavouring alcoholic beverages and in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, it’s drank as a tea. It is best known for its inclusion in numerous food products however, such as chocolate, doughnuts, buns, cocoa, and coffee.
The health benefits of cinnamon
Cinnamon is prized for its medicinal properties, and although the jury is out on a lot of the research, there are some health benefits which are backed by evidence.
Cinnamon is rich in a compound which gives it medicinal properties
Cinnamon gets its distinctive aroma and flavour from an essential oil called cinnamaldehyde. This compound gives the spice most of its health benefits and other effects such as the boost it gives to metabolism.
Cinnamon is full of antioxidants
Antioxidants protect the body from free radical damage. Free radicals float around in the body causing damage to tissues which can cause disease, plus premature ageing. Cinnamon is rich in polyphenols, which led to it being ranked above 26 other ‘superfoods’ in a study in terms of its antioxidant content. Cinnamon ranked above garlic and oregano.
Cinnamon has anti-inflammatory properties
Inflammation is the body’s response to infection and injury, and it is a normal response of the immune system. However, inflammation which is long-term, or inflammation which attacks the body’s own tissues can be harmful, and can cause chronic illness and disease. Some studies have shown cinnamon to be a potent anti-inflammatory, which may help lower the risk of disease.
Cinnamon can help to reduce the risk of heart disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of early death. Cinnamon has been shown to reduce levels of bad cholesterol which is a big risk factor for heart disease. People with diabetes are at an increased risk of heart disease, and a review study demonstrated that a dose of 120 mg of cinnamon per day can dramatically improve blood markers, including cholesterol and blood fat levels. Cinnamon has been shown to reduce blood pressure too, however, this has only been studied in animals.
Cinnamon can help to reduce insulin resistance
The hormone insulin regulates metabolism and how the body uses energy. It also carries glucose from the blood into the cells of the body. Insulin resistance is where the body doesn’t react as expected to insulin, so glucose is left to float around in the blood, damaging tissues and organs. Cinnamon can help insulin to do its job, by lowering and balancing blood sugar levels.
It can keep blood sugar levels under control
Cinnamon can lower blood sugar levels by reducing the amount of glucose that enters the blood when you eat. It affects digestive enzymes which slows down the breakdown of carbs in the intestines. Cinnamon can also mimic insulin and it increases the amount of glucose that enters the body’s cells, so it isn’t floating around in the blood causing harm. Several studies have confirmed that cinnamon has a beneficial anti-diabetic effect. Research has shown that it can help to lower fasting glucose levels by up to 29%. The studies showed that between 1 and 6 g per day was a therapeutic dose.
Cinnamon may help to prevent, and to manage neurodegenerative illnesses
Diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia occur due to a progressive loss of function of the brain cells. There are compounds in cinnamon which have been shown to prevent a buildup of a particular protein in the brain which can worsen the symptoms of degenerative illnesses.
In a study which looked at mice with Parkinson’s disease, cinnamon helped to protect neurons, the brain’s messengers, it helped to stabilise the level of neurotransmitters and it protected against a loss of motor function. More research is needed on humans, but this is an exciting development, as with an ageing population, degenerative brain diseases are set to become all the more prevalent.
Cinnamon may protect against cancer
Cancer is the uncontrolled multiplication of rogue cells. Cinnamon has been studied as a potential anti-cancer treatment. The evidence is limited at this time however, as only test tube and animal studies have been carried out, but there is hope that the results would carry over into human studies. The available evidence shows that cinnamon appears to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, in fact, it’s toxic to them, and causes them to die.
A study of mice with colon cancer showed that cinnamon appeared to be able to activate enzymes that inhibited cancer growth. Test tube experiments added weight to this argument, and they showed that cinnamon activated protective antioxidant responses in human colon cells.
Cinnamon can help to fight against bacterial and fungal infections
Cinnamaldehyde, the main active compound of cinnamon, may help to fight different kinds of infection. Cinnamon oil has been shown in studies to effectively treat respiratory tract infections caused by fungi. It can also inhibit the growth of some nasty bacteria, including Listeria and Salmonella. The antimicrobial effects of cinnamon can also help to prevent tooth decay and reduce bad breath.
Cinnamon may be effective against HIV
HIV is a virus that causes the immune system to break down. Over time, this can lead to AIDS. The body will eventually be unable to fight off even a simple infection. Most people who have AIDS die of an infection rather than from the disease itself.
Cinnamon extract may help to fight against HIV-1, which is the most common form of the virus. One study which looked at cells infected with HIV found that cinnamon had the strongest effect on the cells out of 69 medicinal plants that were involved in the study. Human trials are needed to confirm that this is the case.
Some safety guidance
Some varieties of cinnamon (especially the Cassia variety) contain a compound called coumarin, which may be harmful if consumed in large doses. The Ceylon variety is thought to be completely safe. The European Safety Authority declared in 2008 that coumarin could cause liver and kidney damage in high concentrations and suggested a maximum recommended daily intake of 0.1 mg of coumarin per kg of body weight. The European Union also set a guideline for the maximum recommended coumarin content in foodstuffs of 50 mg per kg of dough in seasonal foods, and 15 mg per kg in everyday baked foods.
Ancient cultures used plants medicinally thousands of years ago. These peoples believed in the power of nature to cure their ills and they were definitely onto something. The Egyptians, Chinese, and ancient Greeks all used plant-based medicines to treat illness, infection and injury, with a fair amount of success.
And today, modern medicine is integrating more and more with alternative therapies. Unfortunately, drugs companies are so powerful that research into alternative therapies is often limited, because drug therapy is too lucrative. No health service will endorse treatments without an evidence base. There is evidence to support the use of alternative therapies, though this is often anecdotal or it comes from an animal study.
But people appear to be voting with their feet, and trying other treatments, instead of traditional medication. Patients will no longer put up with having to pay for expensive drugs, or having to tolerate horrible side effects. They are looking to nature to give them some answers.
Herbal medicine has been used for a long time, and plant-based therapy extends to spices too. Other cultures in the East use herbs and spices for many more reasons than just to season their food. In this way, they are way ahead of us. But the penny is finally starting to drop in the West, as we realise that our lifestyles, the processed foods, the lack of exercise and the environmental toxins we have to live with are steadily killing us. Due to the advances in modern medicine, we are living longer than ever, but with one caveat; we live the extra 10, 15 or 20 years in a state of poor health. Our bodies are designed to consume natural food and to live in natural surroundings, and while we constantly adapt as a species, we are suffering the consequences of living in a modern society. These show in the rising number of cancer cases, the increasing obesity levels, and the number of deaths from heart disease. We all need to go back to nature.
Some herbs and spices have been prized for a long time for their health benefits. Sage can cure a sore throat, ginger can combat nausea, turmeric can fight infections; they can do so much more than just make our food taste better.
Cinnamon is a recognisable spice, due to its unusual flavour and aroma, which it gets from its active compound, an oil called cinnamaldehyde. This compound gives cinnamon most of its health benefits, along with the high concentration of antioxidants. We probably know it best as a flavouring for baked goods, being sprinkled on coffee, or as a flavouring for liqueurs, but it turns out that it provides some pretty impressive health benefits. It has been studied as a potential treatment for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and HIV. It has been shown to lower cholesterol and to balance blood sugar, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease; one of the biggest causes of early death. It can combat infections, and boost metabolism. There’s certainly no medication available that could do all of this, certainly not without significant side effects.
If only millions were poured into research into alternative therapies, like it is into drug research. That is not to say that medication does not have its place, of course it does. But some medication has a placebo effect at best. Nature’s active compounds work with our systems, as nature intended.