Eating spices regularly can help keep you healthy. Some are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, which preliminary studies have found comparable to the effects of some common medicines. Further research is needed, however, to prove their efficacy.
Keep your spice rack well stocked, especially with the hot stuff! Eating spicy food appears to be a factor that can increase your quality of life, and even how long you live,(1) according to a 2015 observational study conducted on 500,000 Chinese subjects over seven years.
From aniseed to zedoary, the list of spices is long and varied, but some deserve a special place on our kitchen shelves. After all, the best way to benefit from their many healthy properties is to use them to add flavor and color when cooking.
Several oncology patients at the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) have taken an interest in the health benefits of spices and use them regularly, says Muriel Lafaille, the hospital’s chief nutritionist. She isn’t opposed. “Just like fruits and vegetables, spices are an important part of a healthy diet and can help prevent inflammation.”
A number of chronic disorders – including cardiovascular disease, arthritis, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, autoimmune diseases and obesity – are associated with inflammation, which can be reduced through a balanced and varied diet. That’s where spices can be helpful, according to Lafaille, because they contain essential nutrients for good health. When consumed daily, spices can help reduce the inflammation that speeds up aging and weakens our immune systems.
Using spices to treat diseases offers a great deal of promise and very little risk, so long as you tell your doctor which foods or dietary supplements you take. Some combinations can have ill effects, especially if the spices interfere with other treatments. Drastic changes in diet are not healthy either. At the CHUV, moderation is recommended. “It’s better to use a variety of spices than to put three spoonfuls of turmeric in everything,” says Lafaille.
Obviously, spices are not medicines and are no replacement for a visit to your doctor. But cooking with spices can alleviate ailments without the negative effects – stomach pain, allergies, habituation – often caused by over-the-counter medication.
The top three
Thousands of scientific studies have documented and tested the anticancer, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties of spices and aromatic plants. Most such studies are carried out entirely in the laboratory. Some research on real human subjects has shown spices to be an effective anti-inflammatory treatment, but the studies carried out so far have used small numbers of test subjects and limited types of application. However, positive results have been found in specific situations tested in small studies on three spices: turmeric, ginger and Cayenne pepper.
Turmeric is a root in the ginger family. Once peeled, it is a beautiful yellow-orange color (beware of hard-to-remove stains). It is generally used in dried, powdered form, but can also be found fresh at organic produce stalls, specialized stores and some supermarkets.
Turmeric has been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine as an anti-inflammatory agent, as well as for treating stomachaches and helping wounds to heal. Over the past 25 years, some 50 studies have tested turmeric’s effect on various diseases. Among many other properties, it was found that turmeric limits the production of some substances that cause inflammation.(2) Turmeric has also been shown to have a positive effect on a wide range of afflictions, from cancer to diabetes to alcohol intoxication.(5) One study of arthritis patients showed turmeric to be as or more effective than ibuprofen.(4) Further studies are needed to confirm that discovery before turmeric’s general effectiveness can be asserted. Dr. Pierre-Yves Rodondi, a physician with the Complementary Medicines Research and Teaching Group at the CHUV, has tried using turmeric on several of his patients. “I wanted to see for myself, as I think turmeric is potentially of great interest. Unfortunately, not one of my patients has reported reduced pain as of yet.”
How to use it
To prepare fresh turmeric, simply peel the rhizome with a paring knife, shred it and add it to soups, salads, muesli and more. To increase turmeric’s bioavailability (how easy it is for our cells to absorb) and better benefit from its anti-inflammatory properties, try to pair it with black pepper and a fatty substance if possible. The recommended dosage is a quarter to a half teaspoon per day.
Turmeric can also be taken as an infusion for headache and backache relief. Add a half teaspoon of organic turmeric powder, a pinch of black pepper and one to two teaspoons of honey to boiling water and drink once dissolved.
Ginger has long been used as a headache remedy in Indian and Chinese traditional medicine. These days, researchers have taken an interest in a number of its properties, some of which have been the subject of recent scientific papers.
Data concerning ginger’s anti-inflammatory properties in humans is scarce, but preliminary studies have nonetheless compared ginger to certain common, widely-used medicines. One study showed ginger powder in capsule form to be as effective as sumatriptan for treating migraines.(7) Another study found ginger powder to be as effective as the well-known anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen in patients recovering from dental surgery or suffering from menstrual pain.(8)
Ginger’s ability to relieve nausea caused by motion sickness, chemotherapy, pregnancy, indigestion and surgery has also been recognized in numerous studies.(9)
How to use it
Ginger can be used fresh, powdered or as an infusion. Grate fresh ginger and brown it with garlic in sesame oil to season vegetables like broccoli, green beans and asparagus.
Cayenne pepper’s spiciness comes from a substance called capsaicin. Researchers studying whether capsaicin caused intestinal irritation discovered that it has anesthetic, anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties. Rather than irritating the stomach, capsaicin actually protects it.(11)
Dr. Pierre-Yves Rodondi, the specialist in complementary medicine at the CHUV, has recently studied the properties of Cayenne pepper and affirmed that “Cayenne pepper has an anti-inflammatory effect when applied locally for pain.” His discovery will be published in June in La Revue médicale suisse.
Hot spices in general may be beneficial for health. From 2004 to 2011, a large-scale observational study of 500,000 Chinese subjects found that those who regularly ate “spicy foods” had increased longevity and lower risk for cancer and coronary and respiratory disease.(1) Is that an effect of the spice itself, or of what was eaten or drunk along with it? The study did not take that question into account.
How to use it
Add a colorful dash of Cayenne pepper to liven up any dish, mix it with other Indian spices or add it to tomato sauce.
Other herbs and spices thought to have anti-inflammatory effects
Oregano is considered to be rich in antioxidants, as is marjoram. Several laboratory studies have shown oregano to have anticancer and anti-inflammatory properties, but no human studies have yet proved its positive effects. In an Australian study that rated the anti-inflammatory properties of 115 foods in the laboratory, oregano made the top five, along with cinnamon, oyster mushrooms, onions and tea leaves.(10) The study showed that those properties were retained even after cooking.
Coriander has been shown to have positive effects on patients with osteoarthritis,(12) and cinnamon also appears to have anti-inflammatory properties.(10) Fennel seeds,(13) like ginger,(14) can help reduce menstrual pain.
- Consumption of spicy foods and total and cause-specific mortality: population-based cohort study
- Natural anti-inflammatory agents for pain relief
- Bioavailability of herbs and spices in humans as determined by ex vivo inflammatory suppression and DNA strand breaks
- Efficacy and safety of Curcuma domestica extracts in patients with knee osteoarthritis
- Therapeutic roles of curcumin: lessons learned from clinical trials
- Comparison between the efficacy of ginger and sumatriptan in the ablative treatment of the common migraine
- Ginger – an herbal medicinal product with broad anti-inflammatory actions
- Comparison of anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of Ginger powder and Ibuprofen in postsurgical pain model: A randomized, double-blind, case-control clinical trial
- Ginger in the prevention of nausea and vomiting: a review
- Determination of anti-inflammatory activities of standardised preparations of plant- and mushroom-based foods
- Are hot chilli peppers good for you?
- Antioxidant and antiarthritic potential of coriander (Coriandrum sativum L.) leaves
- Effect of ginger (Zingiber officinale) on heavy menstrual bleeding: a placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial