Ancient Secrets of Spice
Before modern medicine created pretty pills to fight disease, ancient cultures relied on common spices from your pantry for their healing magic. Learn about these potent plants, and their powers.
That burning sensation in your mouth when you eat foods spiced with cayenne pepper comes from capsaicin, the oily compound behind most of the health benefits of cayenne and its peppery cousins. Capsaicin is the active ingredient in many prescription and over-the-counter creams, ointments, and patches for arthritis and muscle pain. Over time, it short-circuits pain by depleting nerve cells of a chemical called substance P, which helps transfer pain signals along nerve endings to the brain. It’s also used for treating shingles pain and diabetes-related nerve pain.
Cinnamon on toast or oatmeal is so tasty it’s hard to believe the brown powder has any health benefits at all, but it’s actually one of the most powerful healing spices. It’s become most famous for its ability to improve blood sugar control in people with diabetes. Some of its natural compounds improve insulin function, significantly lowering blood sugar with as little as 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon (1 ml to 2 ml) a day. The same amount could cut triglycerides and total cholesterol levels by 12 to 30 per cent.
Cloves, an aromatic spice common in Indian cooking, contain an anti-inflammatory chemical called eugenol. In recent animal studies, this chemical inhibited COX-2, a protein that spurs inflammation. Cloves also ranked very high in antioxidant properties in one study. The combination of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties spells heaps of health benefits, from boosting protection from heart disease to helping stave off cancer, as well as slowing the cartilage and bone damage caused by arthritis.
Coriander seeds yield cilantro, a staple herb in Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian cooking. The seeds have been used for thousands of years as a digestive aid. Try making a strong tea from crushed seeds (strain before drinking). The herb can be helpful for some people with irritable bowel syndrome, as it calms intestinal spasms that can lead to diarrhea. Preliminary studies in animals support another traditional use for coriander-as an anti-anxiety herb. Its essential oil appears to fight bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella. It’s also being studied for its potential cholesterol-reducing benefits and has been shown to lower cholesterol in animals.
Smash a clove of garlic and take in the pungent fragrance. That famous odor comes from byproducts of allicin, the sulfur compound believed to be responsible for most of the herb’s medicinal benefits. It’s what gives garlic its “bite.”
When eaten daily, garlic can help lower heart disease risk by as much as 76 per cent by moderately reducing cholesterol levels, by thinning the blood and thereby staving off dangerous clots, and by acting as an antioxidant. Garlic’s sulfur compounds also appear to ward off cancer, especially stomach and colorectal cancer. The compounds flush out carcinogens before they can damage cell DNA, and they force cancer cells that do develop to self-destruct.
This gnarled root has been a major player in Asian and Indian medicine for centuries, primarily as a digestive aid. Today researchers are most excited by ginger’s ability to combat inflammation. Several studies have found that ginger (and turmeric) reduces pain and swelling in people with arthritis. It may work against migraines by blocking inflammatory substances called prostaglandins. And because it reduces inflammation, it may also play a role in preventing and slowing the growth of cancer.
Mustard is made from the seeds of a plant in the cabbage family-a strongly anticancer group of plants. Indeed, mustard seeds contain compounds that studies suggest may inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
Mustard also packs enough heat to break up congestion, the reason it was traditionally used in chest plasters. A mustard compress also brings more blood to the fingers of people with Raynaud’s phenomenon, a circulatory problem that causes frigid fingers.
Like cloves, nutmeg contains eugenol, a compound that may benefit the heart. It was one of the key spices that give the Spice Islands their name, and some historians link its popularity in the spice trade to the hallucinatory effects that result from ingesting large amounts. The euphoria, which is due to nutmeg’s active ingredient, myristicin, is described as similar to that caused by the drug ecstasy. Don’t worry about your teens raiding your spice drawer for a quick high, however; it packs some nasty side effects, and nutmeg poisoning is a very real risk.
Medically, nutmeg has strong antibacterial properties. It’s been found to kill a number of bacteria in the mouth that contribute to cavities. Myristicin has also been shown to inhibit an enzyme in the brain that contributes to Alzheimer’s disease and to improve memory in mice, and researchers are currently studying its potential as an antidepressant.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that “sage” describes a wise person; the herb is a known memory enhancer and has been shown in some lab studies to protect the brain against certain processes that lead to Alzheimer’s disease. In at least one human study, a sage-oil concoction improved the mood of participants, increasing their alertness, calmness, and contentedness. In a British study, healthy young adults performed better on word recall tests after taking sage-oil capsules.
Turmeric, the spice that gives curry powder its yellow hue, is used in Indian medicine to stimulate the appetite and as a digestive aid. But lately it’s grabbing some serious attention as a potentially powerful cancer fighter. The chemical responsible for turmeric’s golden color, called curcumin, is considered a top anticancer agent, helping to quell the inflammation that contributes to tumor growth and working in much the same way as broccoli and cauliflower to clear carcinogens away before they can damage cellular DNA and to repair already damaged DNA.