12 Spices That Outsmart Illness

Want to age gracefully? Cook with flavors that fight diseases.

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Tumeric

Turmeric owes its preventive and curative skills to its active ingredient curcumin, a compound powerfully rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. To date, thousands of studies have found that curcumin can combat more than 70 maladies, with some of its most remarkable results against breast cancer. In a study published in Menopause, researchers found that curcumin lowered the risk of breast cancer in women who took combined estrogen and progestin hormone therapy, a proven risk factor for the disease.

 

Nutritional Rx: Add turmeric to your standard meat, poultry and fish recipes that call for sautéing or searing in a pan; mix it into scrambled eggs or spread yellow mustard on your sandwich bread.

Saffron

This exquisite spice may help brighten your bluest days. In one study, psychiatrists from the Tehran University Medical Center in Iran divided people with mild to moderate depression into two groups—one took fluoxetine (Prozac), the other took saffron (15 milligrams, twice a day). After two months saffron was as effective as fluoxetine, relieving depression in 25 percent of the study participants. The spice appears to work in exactly the same way that many antidepressants do, say researchers. Two compounds in saffron (crocin and safranal) protect levels of brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, that boost and stabilize mood.

 

Nutritional Rx: Saffron only works in liquids and must always be infused in warm water or milk before it’s added to a recipe. Try it in stews, soups, curries and creamy sauces.

Onion

This tear-jearking Allium is rich in quercetin, a powerful type of antioxidant called a flavonoid that can slow the growth of cancer cells, stop cancer cells from migrating to other parts of the body and force cancer cells to die in a variety of ways, such as cutting of their blood supply. In a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Italian researchers found that people who ate the most onions were 73 percent less likely to develop ovarian cancer and 56 percent less likely to develop colon cancer than those who ate the fewest.

 

Nutritional Rx: Add chopped, raw red or Vidalia onions to green salads, chicken and tuna salads. Or sauté onions and serve them atop grilled burgers. One study found that serving grilled hamburgers with sautéed onions can neutralize the carcinogenic compound HCA that forms on grilled meats, especially ground beef.

Cinnamon

Ironically, this spicy-sweet favorite of pastry chefs can also help control blood sugar. In a recent study, 109 people with type 2 diabetes were divided into two groups: One received a gram of cinnamon a day and one received a placebo. After three months, those taking the cinnamon had a .83 percent decrease in glycosylated hemoglobin—the most accurate measurement of long-term blood sugar control (a decrease from .5 to 1 percent is considered significant improvement). Richard Anderson, PhD, a scientist at the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center of the US Department of Agriculture, believes the spice mimics insulin, a blood-sugar-regulating hormone.

 

Nutritional Rx: Sprinkle cinnamon on apples, bananas, melons and oranges. Or make a spiced wine: Put a bottle of wine in a large pot and gently simmer it with ½ cup of sugar, a cinnamon stick and a lemon studded with cloves for 15 minutes.

Chile

This red-hot healer gets its trademark fire from capsaicin, an alkaloid concentrated mostly in the interior seeds and tissue surrounding the seeds. In a University of Miami School of Medicine study, people with osteoarthritis of the knee applied either a .025% solution of capsaicin or a plain cream to their knees four times a day. After three months, 81 percent of those who used the capsaicin cream reported fewer arthritic symptoms, including morning stiffness, compared to only 54 percent of those using the placebo. Capsaicin triggers the release of a neurotransmitter called substance P, which tells the brain to transmit pain along nerve fibers. The more chiles you eat (or cream you use), the less substance P is triggered. This numbs the pain and releases somatostatin, a hormone that cools inflammation, which also promotes the healing process.

 

Nutritional Rx: To add mild heat to simmering dishes, cut a few slits in a whole, fresh chile and add it to the dish while cooking. Remove and discard the chile before serving. Dried chiles can also be added whole to slow-cooked foods, as the heat will slowly seep out and blend into the dish.

Clove

Oil of clove, or eugenol, is a mild anesthetic. In fact, clove oil is just as powerful as benzocaine in numbing oral tissues at the dentist, reported a team of researchers in Journal of Dentistry. And it can boost circulation: When it’s rubbed around a painful tooth, blood vessels near the gum dilate, bringing blood to the surface with a warm, soothing sensation. And it’s an analgesic, reducing pain. And it’s anti-inflammatory, reducing redness and swelling around an injury. And it’s antibacterial, killing germs. All those therapeutic powers help explain why cloves are a formidable medicine against many forms of oral disease, such as gingivitis and periodontitis.

 

Nutritional Rx: It only takes a few cloves to add aroma to a pot of savory soup. But remember to remove them; unknowingly biting into a whole cloves can spoil the taste, not to mention chip a tooth. Try studding a small onion with cloves and adding it to a broth. When the dish is finished, retrieve the onion and throw it out.

Cocoa

This spice is one of the richest sources of flavanols, a family of antioxidant plant compounds. Dozens of studies show that people who consume flavanol-rich cocoa—as a powder mixed in water or eaten in dark chocolate—are in much better cardiovascular shape than those who don’t. For instance, Dutch researchers found that people whose diets were the richest in cocoa were half as likely to die from heart disease as those who consumed little or no cocoa. Cocoa flavanols can disarm cell-damaging free radicals, preserve cell membranes, protect DNA, prevent the formation of artery-clogging plaque and improve blood flow to the heart.

 

Nutritional Rx: Snack on a few ounces of dark chocolate that contain 74 percent or more cocoa solids. You can also add a teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa powder to glazes for naturally sweet vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes. Or, try adding a tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder to chili con carne.

Coconut

If you’ve heard that this tropical sice is fattening, you’re right. Coconut is 82 percent fat, 72 percent of which is saturated. But here’s the surprise: The saturated fat in coconut is what’s called a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT). Unlike the saturated fats found in red meat and dairy, MCT is moved by the body directly from the stomach to the liver where it’s metabolized so fast it actually burns more calories than it contains. In fact, studies show that people who eat lots of dietary MCT burn an average of 100 extra calories a day, compared to folks who don’t eat an MCT-rich diet. And coconut contains more MCT than any other food. In a study published in Lipids, Brazilian researchers gave women either soy oil or coconut oil supplements to take for three months. At the end of the study, both groups lost a little weight, but only those taking the coconut oil had much trimmer tummies.

 

Nutritional Rx: Sprinkle shredded coconut over meat, fish stews and curries. Or make hot cocoa with coconut milk instead of cow’s milk and add a cinnamon stick for stirring.

Garlic

It may be a source of bad breath, but garlic is one of the best natural ways to bust high blood pressure. In a recent meta-analysis of 11 studies, garlic lowered systolic blood pressure (the upper number in the reading) by an average of 8.4 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure (the lower number) by an average of 7.3 mm Hg—very significant decreases. Garlic’s most active ingredient, allicin, transforms into organosulfurs, compounds that minimize oxidation, inflammation and other cell-destroying processes. It’s also brimming with vitamins, minerals and other powerful antioxidants that guard against heart disease and cancer.

 

Nutritional Rx: Slice or press fresh garlic into extra-virgin olive oil to use in a marinade, salad dressing or as a dipping sauce. You can also blanch garlic cloves, cool and remove the paper skins and then mix them into mashed potatoes.

Mint

Here’s one fresh flavor that can help keep your digestive tract in mint condition. In one study, 110 people with IBS were divided into two groups: One group took a placebo and one group took an enteric-coated peppermint oil capsule 15 to 30 minutes before each meal. Of those taking peppermint, 79 percent reported relief from abdominal pain and discomfort and 29 were pain free. Bloating was reduced in 83 percent. Flatulence was eased in 79 percent. And 83 percent reported having to take fewer trips to the bathroom. There was little improvement in the placebo group. Peppermint relaxes the muscles of the GI tract, helping to normalize contractions and ease irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.

 

Nutritional Rx: Substitute mint for basil in a mint pesto or make an untraditional chimichurri sauce by using mint instead of parsley.

Sage

Sage might not make you “profoundly wise,” as the dictionary defines it, but it could sharpen your memory and boost your mood. In a British study, researchers asked healthy adults to take a series of 11 challenging memory tests several times a day on three separate days. On days that they also took a supplement containing sage extract before the tests, participants were able to remember more and recall the information faster. What’s more, on the days they took the sage they also felt better, too—calmer, more content and more alert for up to six hours after ingesting it. Sage may block the action of cholinesterase, an enzyme that destroys acetylcholine, a brain chemical that plays a role in memory, attention and alertness, say researchers.

 

Nutritional Rx: Because of its robust flavor, sage is best in hearty dishes. Add it to meatloaf, eggplant and macaroni and cheese recipes.

Basil

Feeling overwhelmed? Beat stress with basil. Researchers in India found that several compounds in basil normalize cortisol levels, lower blood sugar (which spikes when you’re under stress), decreases creatine kinase (an enzyme generated when the body is under sever stress, such as during a heart attack) and stops adrenal hypertrophy (a sign of overworked adrenal glands).

 

Nutritional Rx: Team fresh basil with mint and cilantro along with Bibb lettuce, bean sprouts and chiles for a Vietnamese salad plate. You can also make a basil marinade for chicken by putting a big handful of fresh basil or a tablespoon of dried basil, salt and chopped garlic in equal part of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice and water.

Stick With Spices

For more information about how to boost your health with food, pick up a copy of Healing Spices by Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD with Debora Yost ($25; Sterling Publishing).

First Published January 31, 2011

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