While we give careful consideration to the foods we buy in adopting the Healthy Way of Eating, smaller additions in the form of herbs and spices can add ample benefit.
For example, simple seasonings we might include while cooking could further support our overall health. Additionally, many herbs can offer medicinal benefits in teas, capsules or topical applications – all without the unwanted side effects of many over-the-counter products.
It’s a testament to the functional power of food for our well-being. Read on to learn seven healthy additions you can make to your cooking and self-care routines!
This spice is a great complement to many foods and beverages that offers numerous health benefits as well. Research has demonstrated its ability to slow digestion and, consequently, reduce the rise in blood sugar after eating.
Some research studies have also shown cinnamon to increase insulin action, reduce fasting blood sugar,[i] triglycerides, LDL cholesterol[ii] and total cholesterol in people with type II diabetes. Cinnamon additionally shows anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties, including for the problematic yeast, Candida.
It’s available in either powder or stick (“quill”) form and should be stored in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dry and dark place. Typically, ground cinnamon will last approximately 6 months, while stick cinnamon may last up to one year. To extend its shelf life, store it in the refrigerator. I add cinnamon to my oatmeal, coffee, warmed almond milk, certain vegetables and curries.
Cayenne pepper, a component of chili pepper, is a hot and spicy option with potent health advantages. The hotness produced by cayenne is largely due to its high concentration of capsaicin. The hotter the chili pepper, the more capsaicin and antioxidants it contains!
Capsaicin has been shown to help fight inflammation, clear congestion and aid digestion by stimulating the digestive tract and increasing the flow of digestive enzymes and gastric juice production. Preliminary research[iii] also suggests that capsaicin may help decrease the accumulation of body fat.
Cayenne pepper comes in powder form and can be a great addition to any vegetable sauté or bean dish or can be combined with lemon juice to complement cooked bitter greens such as kale and collard greens.
This herb can be used fresh, dried, powdered or as either a juice or oil! As someone who is fairly susceptible to motion sickness and dizziness while traveling, I swear by ginger’s ability to alleviate gastrointestinal distress and reduce motion sickness.
Ginger’s potent anti-inflammatory compounds have been highlighted in some research studies[iv], particularly their ability to reduce pain levels and improve mobility in people with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
Fresh ginger contains higher levels of these anti-inflammatory compounds compared to the dried form of the spice. When stored unpeeled and in the freezer, fresh ginger can keep up to six months or in the refrigerator (peeled) up to three weeks. Ginger is a flavorful spice to add to rice dishes and stir-fries. It also couples well with meat, poultry and fish.
Tumeric, which comes from the root of the Curcuma longa plant, has long been used medicinally in Chinese and Indian practices as a potent anti-inflammatory agent.
Research has confirmed[v] that curcumin offers numerous health benefits, including supporting joint and gastrointestinal health as well as cardiovascular function by helping to maintain the body’s normal inflammatory response. It also acts as a powerful antioxidant!
Many of my clients have enjoyed benefits to their health and fitness from a curcumin-based supplement Rebound (available through Life Time Fitness), which can help alleviate painful joint inflammation from arthritis and help them recover from workouts more effectively.
Looking to add some flavor to your meal? Try oregano! Its dark green color indicates its high level of vitamin K as well as antioxidants and anti-bacterial properties. Oil of oregano has been used for intestinal parasites, allergies, arthritis, colds and flu.
Like many herbs, it’s best to choose fresh over the dried form for nutrient potency. Add toward the end of the cooking process to retain flavor. It’s a great complement to meats, eggs, salad dressings, tomato-based recipes or homemade pizza!
When it comes to healthy living, I think we learn quite a bit from our ancestors. Archaeologists have found that Native Americans may have used this herb for over 400 years as a general “cure-all.”
Throughout history, echinacea has been used to treat malaria, scarlet fever, infections and wounds. It wasn’t until the introduction of antibiotics that its use declined. Today, experts note its ability to boost the immune system, help us fight infections, and shorten the duration of the common cold and flu.
It may be useful to add 1-2 grams of dried root or herb as a tea or 6-9 mL of expressed juice for general immune system stimulation during times of illness.
This herb’s wonderful aroma makes it a useful remedy for restlessness, nervousness, depression and insomnia. According to the National Institutes of Health, lavender oil appears to have sedating effects and may relax certain muscles in the body.
The name lavender has a Latin root, lavare, meaning “to wash.” Added to soaps, lotions, and natural room sprays, it creates a calming effect when inhaled. I personally enjoy lavender as an essential oil and add it to baths or apply it topically to help heal cuts and scrapes.
Consider this herb’s ability to help decrease stress not only good for the mind but good for your body. Chronic stress increases cortisol, which contributes to insulin resistance and abdominal fat accumulation. Try adding lavender to your daily routine as an essential oil, as a tea ingredient or as an herb for steaks (English lavender is the edible version appropriate for cooking).
Would you like more information on the use of herbs and spices for health? Schedule an appointment with one of our registered dietitians today.
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[i] Davis, PA, et al, “Cinnamon intake lowers fasting blood glucose: meta-analysis,” J Med Food. 2011 Sep;14(9):884-9.
[ii] Alan, RW, et al, “Cinnamon use in type 2 diabetes: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis,” Ann Fam Med. 2013 Sep-Oct;11(5):452-9.
[iii] Joo, J, et al, “Proteomic analysis for antiobesity potential of capsaicin on white adipose tissue in rats fed with a high fat diet,” J Proteome Res. 2010 Jun 4;9(6):2977-87.
[iv] Altman, RD, et al. “Effects of a ginger extract on knee pain in patients with osteoarthritis,” Arthritis Rheum. 2001 Nov;44(11):2531-8.
[v] Nita Chainani-Wu. “Safety and Anti-Inflammatory Activity of Curcumin: A Component of Tumeric (Curcuma longa),” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Feb 2003, 9(1): 161-168.