Spice Aid Cabinet

Mankind has sought out plants with medicinal properties since time immemorial.  Even today when there have been great developments in the field of chemistry, pharmaceuticals and medicine, these medicinal plants have lost none of their importance.  Botanical drugs are at the birth place of the current pharmaceutical industry, for example, the ancient Egyptians used the bark of the Willow tree for the relief of aches and pains.  The willow tree yields ‘salicylic acid’ which is the active pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory component that is used to make the aspirin of today.  Probably because big pharma don’t really want you to know that some of your inexpensive household herbs and spices could be the answer to your aches, pains and other health conditions, this information has become generally suppressed and instead we are encouraged by media advertising to believe that pharmaceutical drugs are the only solution.  The general public has consequently lost trust in natural remedies while big pharma secretly know their benefits.  Plant based medical practices like traditional Chinese herbal medicine, Ayurvedic and Naturopathic medicine, for example, are often viewed as a last resort when conventional medicine offers us no solution.  Ideally the reverse would be the case, where natural remedies are used first and pharmaceutical drugs, with their known side-effects, are a last resort.  In this blog I am sharing my knowledge of some of the spices that are ‘hot’ in the world of nutrition.  You may already have them in your spice cabinet.  They offer a relatively inexpensive way of stacking some health benefits in your favour with little effort!   Mother Nature’s flavour favours. Many spices have health benefits, too many to cover here, so I have narrowed them down to some of the most popular and widely used today in the prevention and treatment of the chronic diseases.  I have checked each spice for known interactions {A-Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions}. There are none for those mentioned and so they are completely safe to use.  So, what are these little pots of magic dust??  Read on to find out!

What is a Spice?

Spices are edible, aromatic and dried, and come from a plant’s root, bark, stem, bud, leaves, flower, fruit or seed.  A spice is not a herb.  Unlike herbs, where some leaves may be inedible, all spices are edible.  While fresh coriander leaves are classified as a ‘herb’ the spice of the same plant comes from the dried seed.  Spices are a concentrated form of their original source. They usually have an abundance of plant compounds (phytonutrients) that promote healing, like powerful anti-inflammatories.  They may contain antioxidants that control and disarm ‘free radicals’ that damage cells causing illness and aging. Their healing properties are also attributed to their high concentration of volatile oils.   In ancient times, spices were more precious than gold and revered for their use as medicines.  Fast forward through human history to the 21st century and medical and nutritional researchers are re-discovering unimaginable riches of health in the spices that have existed all along.   Population studies that explore the link between diet and health show that those eating a diet rich in spices have lower rates of certain diseases.  For example India, well known for its spicy cuisine, has one of the world’s lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease.  Oh, and one other important thing to mention – not all spices are spicy!!

Turmeric – Powerful Healer

Turmeric has really stepped into the ♥ Limelight ♥ in recent years.  It is now considered Indian gold!  A superstar of healing spices with a very well deserved emerging scientific reputation as one of nature’s most powerful healers.  Its curative ingredient CURCUMIN is a compound powerfully rich in anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory actions that have been shown to protect and improve the health of virtually every organ in the body.  Volumes of scientific studies from around the world have found that curcumin can combat numerous health conditions including some of the biggest health threats such as cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease and the list keeps growing.  This curcumin compound in turmeric has been isolated and is available in concentrated doses in supplement form.  In clinical trials its anti-inflammatory and pain relieving effects are surpassing pharmaceutical equivalents and with no side-effects.

How will it benefit you?  We recommend that clients include turmeric in the diet mainly because of its anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  My previous blog ‘The Fat Factor’ spoke of the oxidation of fats that causes free-radical damage in the body. Oxidation is like rusting in the body and leads to chronic low grade inflammation.  Chronic inflammation has been shown to advance many of these diseases of modern life while curcumin has been found to be effective in their prevention and treatment.   Using more turmeric in your diet may be one way to help prevent or delay the onset of some of these conditions.

Cancer:  Here is a link to a research paper about curcumin and its ability to kill cancer cells.  The introduction makes an interesting point, we have to wait to be diagnosed with cancer to receive treatment with chemotherapy drugs but anyone can start taking preventative measures by making this spice a regular part of their diet.  You can read a research paper – click here.

Alzheimer’s:  Alzheimer’s disease is increasing almost everywhere in the world except India where it affects less than 1% of the population.  Curcumin has been shown to disarm amyloid plaques that damage brain cells and it also reduces levels of toxic metals, both of which contribute to this disease.  Again, it is not necessary to have reached a disease state to benefit from taking turmeric as it is also proving to be a natural safeguard against a decline in memory and brain function.  You can read a research paper – click here.

Heart health:  It is turmeric’s anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that help with lowering triglycerides, reducing atherosclerosis, regulating blood pressure and blocking the production of homocysteine which is linked to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

Arthritis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease and other autoimmune ‘inflammatory’ conditions are relieved by turmeric.  How does it work? Inflammation is an immune response that can go either way depending on what triggers it.  In our cells we have a gene transcription factor called ‘nuclear factor Kappa B’ some molecules like free radicals cause it to switch up or amplify the inflammatory process, but curcumin triggers the off switch thereby helping to reduce inflammation in the body.

Other conditions turmeric / curcumin may help benefit:  Fat burning (weight loss), Type 2 diabetes (helps control blood sugar levels), Macular degeneration (AMD), Eye diseases, pain and gallbladder disease.   In his book ‘Prescription for Natural Health’, Dr. Russell, L. Blaylock, MD, recommends the use of curcumin in most of the health conditions listed discussed.

How to use it:   If you could manage to include a teaspoon of turmeric every day you would be up there with the Indian population and reaping the benefits of its preventative medicine.  The obvious way to include it is in a curry and mixed with other beneficial spices.   In the winter I add it to soups.  Turmeric has just a slight peppery taste and so I would always add some other spices like cumin (discussed below) as this is packed with flavour.  I regularly leave my brown rice to soak for a while before cooking and add ½ teaspoon of turmeric with some black pepper.  Result – yellow rice!   Black pepper helps to absorb curcumin and keep it in the body for longer.  Turmeric is also better absorbed with a fat source like natural yogurt, olive oil or coconut oil.  My sister swears by ‘Golden Milk’ as the best night time drink for a deep and restful sleep.  Also called ‘Turmeric Latte’, this is now available to buy in health stores.  You can buy ground turmeric in any health or Asian store and fresh root turmeric has recently become much more available in local supermarkets.  You can cut it up into ½ inch or inch pieces and put them in a zip bag in the freezer.  This is easily grated frozen or just added to your hot pot, curry or nightcap.  Buying curcumin supplements would of course be more expensive than just including turmeric in your diet, but it may prove a worthwhile investment.

A word of warning:  Handling turmeric root may discolour your hands.  Use plastic gloves or, if you are avoiding plastic, use some folded up kitchen paper to hold it while grating or chopping, otherwise you may end up with yellow hands.  Oh, but this is also beneficial!!  If you would like to follow my Facebook page there are posts there about golden milk and the benefits of curcumin including one about the curative effects of applying it to the skin. [Link in References]

Cinnamon – Sweet balancer

Cinnamon is another spice loved by nutritionists because of its ability to help balance blood sugar.  Before I get to talk about its benefits I need to clear up one, very important, but little known fact about cinnamon.   When you buy cinnamon off the supermarket shelf – it is not actually cinnamon!!  It is Cassia which is very similar to cinnamon.  Schwartz cinnamon, for example, is labeled cinnamon but is cassia.  You will only find this out if you go to their website and look at the ingredients.  In some countries it is illegal to label cassia as cinnamon but not in Ireland.  True cinnamon comes only from Ceylon or Sri Lanka.   You can get ‘true cinnamon’ in Ireland in ‘The Health Store’ in the Suma range of spices.  If you don’t mind purchasing on-line you can also get it from Evergreen.ie.

So what’s the big deal?  No big deal at all if you are only sprinkling the spice occasionally.  However, because we are talking here about health benefits and possibly using the spice consistently and in larger quantities, it becomes much more relevant.  ‘Coumarin’ is a chemical found in cassia but not in true cinnamon.   Taken in high doses coumarin has been linked to liver toxicity.  It is banned in the US as a food additive but is still found naturally in cassia.   Coumarin is also a blood thinner so would not be suitable for anyone already taking Warfarin or Aspirin.   Both types have been studied for their health benefits but, so that my conscience is clear, I recommend that you use true (Ceylon) cinnamon.   [Link 1 in references]

The main health benefit attributed to cinnamon is that it balances blood sugar.  This is no small benefit!  On a day to day basis a blood sugar imbalance (dysglycaemia) can cause dizziness, brain fog, fatigue, need for stimulants, mid-afternoon energy crash, poor sleep and much more.  Q: How common is dysglycaemia?  A: Very common!  If blood sugar imbalance is not addressed it can progress over time to pre-diabetes and eventually to Type 2 diabetes [T2D].  T2D is a disease of chronically high blood sugar which attack arteries and veins, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.  This circulatory damage can lead to painful nerve damage, skin ulcers, vision loss and blindness and as blood flow is hampered may even lead to amputation of the lower limbs.  Many studies have shown that cinnamon can play a role in the everyday management of blood sugar (glucose) levels and other cardiovascular disease risk factors.  Diabetes.co.uk promotes the use of cinnamon for the prevention and management of T2D.  On their website they have cited a study where a daily intake of just 1, 3, or 6 grams was shown to reduce serum glucose (blood sugar), triglyceride, LDL or bad cholesterol and total cholesterol after 40 days among 60 middle-aged diabetics. [Link 2 in references]   A sugary meal can cause blood sugar to spike followed by a rapid fall (hypo-glycaemia).  A blood sugar spike is not only caused by unhealthy sugary foods, a glass of fresh orange juice can have the same effect.   The body responds to high sugar levels by releasing insulin from the pancreas into the bloodstream effectively getting it out of circulation and into the cells.  This produces a sugar low and at this point we instinctively reach for the coffee or sugary snack for a pick me up!  It may be a quick fix but it is not a solution!  You are on the blood sugar roller coaster experiencing highs and lows in appetite, energy and brain function.  There are dietary and lifestyle methods to help regulate blood sugar levels and the use of cinnamon is one of these.   Even if you are healthy, cinnamon is good preventative medicine.  And, in case you need more convincing it has even more health benefits.

Cinnamon has been shown to be effective in reducing the symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).  Cinnamon has also been found to be powerful against disease causing microbes such as bacteria and fungi.  In laboratory tests cinnamon extracts were able to stop the growth of strains of Candida Albicans resistant to (Diflucan), the medication commonly used to treat yeast infections.  Researcher in Italy showed that cinnamon was more effective than the antibiotic (Amoxil) at killing Helicobacter pylori the leading cause of stomach ulcers.

As with other medicinal spices it is possible to buy cinnamon in supplement form if you want to support any of the health conditions mentioned in a natural way.  As preventative medicine you could look for creative ways of adding the spice to everyday sweet and savoury dishes.  A therapeutic food that nutritional therapists often recommend for gut health is stewed apple and cinnamon.  Cinnamon can be sprinkled on porridge, pancakes or French toast and added to home baking.  It can be added to smoothies and herbal teas and even curries.   Cinnamon sticks can be added to hot pots.

Cacao – Heart Sweet

Yes, strange as it may seem it qualifies as a spice!  It is cacao powder, nibs and butter that are the most natural and unprocessed form of the fruit bean produced by the cacao trees native to South America that nutritional researchers are raving about for their health benefits.  Cacao should not be confused with milk chocolate or cocoa, which also originate from the same source but with further processing and added ingredients lose many of their health benefits.   Cacao is less sweet and has a slightly bitter taste.  When you hear the health benefits of cacao, I think you will want to find ways of adding it in, perhaps by combining it with some naturally sweet food.  Cacao is a rich source of flavanols (plant compounds high in anti-oxidants) for heart health.  Many studies of cacao show that it can disarm cell-damaging free radicals, preserve cell membranes, protect DNA, prevent the formation of artery forming plaques, improve blood flow to the heart, lower high blood pressure and prevent blood clots that can cause a heart attack or stroke.  On the Island of San Blas off the coast of Panama, where the cacao tree flourishes, high blood pressure is practically unheard of among the Kuna Indians even in the aging population.  They have the highest intake of flavanols in the world and typically have four or five cacao beverages a day!   Death rates from heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer on San Blas Island are remarkably lower than in mainland Panama and most of the world.  Researchers from Harvard Medical School believe that this is directly related to their cacao rich diet.  [Link 3 in references]

So what has it got that brings about these health benefits?  Answer:  Nitric Oxide!  One of the most important molecules for blood vessel health is nitric oxide [NO].  It is a major vasodilator, keeping blood vessels open and flowing.  Doctors have prescribed nitro-glycerin for many years to patients with chronic chest pain.   NO prevents blood components called platelets from becoming sticky, thereby helping prevent the blood clots that cause most heart attacks and strokes.  It helps diminish plaque where this is already present.  It also helps balance insulin levels, a must for preventing T2D and assists in slaying cancer cells before they anchor to your body.  Cacao is one of the top sources of dietary NO, closely followed by citrus and fresh greens.  Because of its high NO content, studies have also linked high intake of cacao to improved brain function, vision, UV damaged skin and prolonged endurance in athletes.

Probably the easiest way to include cacao is to make a hot drink using cacao powder, nibs or some melted >70% dark chocolate with preferably a nut milk as dairy tends to bind and reduce absorption of flavanols.  I have used (coconut, almond and hazelnut) all work well.  Melt some dark chocolate in a pot over a moderate heat.  Add the milk little by little stirring all the time.  If you need more sweetness add a teaspoon of maple syrup or a drop of vanilla extract.  There is no need to bring it to boil it just needs to be hot enough to drink.  Or, eat a few squares of 70% or greater dark chocolate every day.  I tend to use the cacao powder more for smoothies and in baking or added to healthy protein balls/snacks.  It combines really nicely with cinnamon, ground nuts and coconut flakes.  If you use the powder to make a hot drink dissolve it first in a little boiled water and then add the hot nut milk to the cup.  At last, guilt-free indulgence!! Aldi stock Cacao Powder [Funktional Foods] as well as 70% and greater dark chocolate and these and other cacao products are generally available in most health stores.

Oregano – Protection

So when it comes to oregano a nutritional therapist is more likely to recommend ‘oil’ of oregano for its concentrated healing properties.  The major components of oregano oil carvacrol and thymol are powerful antiseptic, antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic, placing it firmly on the shelf of the spice aid cabinet.  It is commonly used to fight intestinal infections and other digestive ailments including parasites, food poisoning, ulcers caused by H.pylori and in calming inflammation associated with colitis.  Its anti-fungal benefits fight yeast infections resulting from Candida, for example, vaginal yeast infection, systemic candidiasis and oral thrush.  Oregano has also been found effective as a preventative measure in metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, colon cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, age spots and Staph infections.   In folk medicine it was used for pain relief from tooth decay, as an antiseptic for wounds and a remedy for inflammation of all kinds.  When it comes to oregano, dried rather than fresh or ground is best as it retains more of the beneficial oils and has more flavour.  Dried oregano keeps for about a year in a dark dry place in an airtight container.  Oregano is an easy spice to work with.  It is typically used in garlic and tomato based dishes, chilies and pasta dishes.  It can easily be sprinkled on food or added to marinades, soups, stews, stir-fries, grilled meats and salad dressings.

Cumin – Savoury balancer

So even though cumin and turmeric complement one another so well in a curry mix or savoury dish, its health benefits are more akin to those of cinnamon in that its main health benefit is to help keep blood sugar under control.  Good ol’ Mother Nature has provided a sweet and savoury spice as preventative medicine for this widespread condition!  Also, cumin has been found to be bone protective and may benefit post-menopausal women in managing symptoms of osteoporosis.   Cumin’s volatile oil and rich content of vitamins C and A make it a potent antioxidant and a potential cancer-stopper.  Cumin has many more health benefits.  [Link 4 to related article in references]

Unlike turmeric which has a slight earthy smell and is quite tasteless, cumin is that spice with a ‘bit of a humm’ however, once it goes into the pot it transforms into a pungent aroma and adds delicious full flavour.  This is why cumin is present in so many spice mixes like curry, garam masala and ras-el-hanout.   The best way to buy cumin is as seeds and the best flavour comes from seeds that are dry roasted for a few minutes and then freshly ground.

There are lots more besides..

Black pepper, cardamom, coriander, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, aniseed, fenugreek seed, cayenne, chile, mustard seed, marjoram, saffron, star anise, tamarind …. the list goes on!  All have beneficial effects and are safe to use everyday or occasionally in small doses.  However, if you are going to use a spice or herb in therapeutic doses, as suggested above, and you are currently taking medication then you should check for interactions.  For example, black pepper helps with digestion and influences the metabolism of drugs by the liver.  Most people can enjoy this as a health benefit.  I love black pepper and use it often.  However, if you are taking medication it may increase its bioavailability in your body.  Grapefruit is another food that does this.  So to explain, it is not the grapefruit or the black pepper that is the issue, it is the fact that they improve the mechanisms of digestion and enhance liver function and therefore allow more of the drug you are taking into your system.  You just need to be aware of possible interactions.

Spice up your life

Chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular, obesity, autoimmune and all the conditions related to them are those that conventional medicine find difficult to prevent or cure.  Treatment generally consists of suppressing symptoms with medications, but not without side effects.  More and more researchers are shining a light on the healing properties present in nature and little by little these natural compounds are finding their way back into mainstream medicine.  Why wait until you are in a disease state to take action.  Prevention is better than cure!   I hope this will encourage you to spice up your life.

References:

  • Aggarwal, Yost (2011) ‘Healing Spices’  Sterling: New York
  • Patrick Holford (2009) ‘The Low GL Diet Bible’:  Piatkus
  • Russell L. Blaylock (2016) ‘ Prescriptions for Natural Health’:  Humanix Books
  • Gaby, Alan R., M.D. & Healthnotes(2006) A-Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions Three Rivers Press: USA

Links:

  1. Dangers of Courmarin/Cassia
  2. Diabetes.co.uk – Use of Cinnamon
  3. Research Article – Kuna Indians – Cacao
  4. Health benefits of Cumin Seeds – Dr Axe
  5. My Limelight Nutrition  Facebook Page

On Facebook, if you click on Posts on the Left Hand side of the page a search line will appear on the Right Hand side.  Enter the word ‘curcumin’ or ‘cinnamon’ ‘dark chocolate’ ‘oregano’ etc. for more health related articles/recipes I have previously posted.

© AOS2018

 

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