Experience Life Magazine

5 Healing Spices

A biochemist born and raised in India shares his passion for aromatic spices and their extraordinary health benefits. Here are five favorites, available in any grocery store, that can help treat and prevent a surprising number of diseases.

#10: 5 Healing Spices

When I was growing up in India, spices were not just a part of every meal, they were the main medicines my family used for everyday healing. My mother cooked with brilliant yellow turmeric powder daily, but she’d also sprinkle it on a cut when I hurt myself. Or put it on my forehead when I had a fever. If I was nauseated, my mother gave me ginger to make me feel better. If I couldn’t sleep, she gave me coriander in warm milk. On sweltering summer days, she made our family a refreshing drink out of kokum, an Indian spice that would cool us off as instantly as if we were all standing under a waterfall. It seemed like almost every spice in our giant spice cabinet was a food and a medicine.

Now, as a professor in the Department of Experimental Therapeutics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, spices are the subject of many experiments in my laboratory.

It was at this lab, almost 20 years ago, that I discovered that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is effective against cancer. Today, my colleagues and I are working to discover the molecular and biochemical secrets behind the therapeutic power of so many other healing spices. We are striving to harness that power in the battle against cancer and other chronic diseases.

Back in 1995, when I started investigating turmeric, there were fewer than 50 published scientific studies on the healing potential of spices. Today, there are thousands. Worldwide, researchers have discovered that spices contain compounds that fight oxidation and inflammation, the two processes underlying most chronic disease. Countless studies have linked culinary spices to the prevention and treatment of more than 150 health problems. These studies have not escaped the attention of the FDA and the NIH — but our government is not acting fast enough to inform the public that the typical American diet is sorely lacking in spices. To me, it seems astonishing that spices are not even mentioned in the USDA’s food guidelines!

Many people talk about including whole foods — such as vegetables, legumes and fruits — in one’s diet, but the real secret to preventing disease and prolonging life is a diet rich in whole foods and spices.

To get you started, here are five easy-to-find spices I hope you’ll begin cooking with more often, starting today. May they and other spices become a friend to your health — and the pride of your kitchen!

Cinnamon

Health Benefits: Balances Blood Sugar

Maybe it’s ironic that cinnamon — that spicy-sweet favorite that cooks use to give desserts extra flavor — can help control blood-sugar problems. Or maybe — given the fact that the rate of type 2 diabetes in the United States has doubled in the past two decades — it’s Mother Nature’s way of cutting us a break.

Study after study has shown that cinnamon can play a role in the everyday management of blood sugar (glucose) levels and other cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors.

Diabetes, a disease of chronically high blood sugar, attacks arteries and veins, increasing the risk of heart disease sixfold. The good news is that preventing type 2 diabetes and reversing prediabetes is possible with lifestyle changes alone — they are actually more effective than preventive medications.

In a recent U.S. study, published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 109 people with type 2 diabetes were divided into two groups, with one receiving 1 gram of cinnamon a day and one receiving a placebo. After three months, those taking the cinnamon had a 0.83 percent decrease in their A1C, a measure of blood sugar. (Seven percent or less means the diabetes is controlled, and a decrease between 0.5 and 1.0 percent is considered a significant improvement.) Those taking the placebo had only a 0.37 percent decrease in A1C blood-sugar levels.

Cinnamon helps control blood-sugar levels in the short term as well. Swedish researchers studied 14 people, feeding them the same meal twice — rice pudding, with or without a hefty sprinkling of cinnamon. The cinnamon-spiced meal yielded significantly lower blood-sugar levels.

Richard Anderson, PhD, a scientist at the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who has conducted several studies on cinnamon and diabetes, theorizes that the spice mimics the action of insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. It may stimulate insulin receptors on fat and muscle cells the same way insulin does, he says, allowing excess sugar to move out of the blood and into the cells.

May also help prevent and treat:
Cancer, cholesterol problems, food poisoning, heart disease, hypertension, insulin resistance, polycystic ovarian syndrome, stroke, ulcer, vaginal yeast infection, wounds.

How to buy cinnamon:
Ground cinnamon begins to fade in flavor after a few months, so it’s best to buy whole cinnamon quills (or sticks) and grind as needed. The quills are somewhat tough, so you’ll need a sturdy spice grinder or fine grater.

If your only option is to buy ground cinnamon, try to find good stuff made from whole quills, as opposed to “featherings” (which are the inner bark of twigs and small shoots that are not large enough to form a full quill) or from “cinnamon chips” (made from shavings and trimmings). When in doubt, buy Ceylon cinnamon, which comes from Sri Lanka and is widely considered to be the best in the world.

Cooking tips:

  • Simmer a whole cinnamon quill in soups or stews.
  • Sprinkle cinnamon on apples, bananas, melons, and oranges.
  • Combine equal parts cinnamon, cardamom and black pepper, and use as a rub for meats.
  • Mix cinnamon into rice pilaf.
  • Make spiced tea: Put a quart of brewed tea into a pot, add 2 cups of apple juice, and gently simmer with a sliced lemon and two cinnamon sticks for 10 minutes.

Turmeric

Health Benefits: Reduces Inflammation

Turmeric is a kitchen staple in India, found in just about every dish that crosses the table — a fact that has not been lost on researchers, who observed 30 years ago that the incidence of chronic illnesses among people in India is significantly lower than in most Western countries, especially the United States.

Turmeric owes its preventive and curative characteristics to its active ingredient curcumin, a compound so diverse and powerfully rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions that thousands of studies have shown that it protects and improves the health of virtually every organ in the body. Turmeric’s powerful properties help prevent oxidation and the resulting chronic, low-grade inflammation that has been shown to trigger or advance many of the diseases of modern life.

In fact, wide research shows that turmeric, taken as supplemental curcumin, is as effective and, in some cases, even more effective than pharmaceutical drugs — without their side effects. Recently, my colleagues and I compared curcumin with anti-inflammatory and pain-killing medications. And we compared curcumin with cancer drugs, testing those agents for their effectiveness in reducing inflammation and stopping the proliferation of cancer cells. Curcumin proved to be more effective at reducing inflammation than over-the-counter aspirin and ibuprofen, and as effective as the more powerful prescription drug Celebrex. It also proved as effective in thwarting breast cancer cells as tamoxifen, a drug widely used to stop the spread or recurrence of breast cancer. These results are nothing less than astounding.

“If I had only one single herb to depend upon for all possible health and dietary needs, I would chose the Indian spice turmeric,” says David Frawley, PhD, founder and director of the American Institute for Vedic Studies in Santa Fe, N.M. It is a spice, he says, that everyone “should get to know and live with.”

Turmeric is the only readily available edible source of curcumin, so try to consume it as much as possible.

May also help prevent and treat:
Acne, allergies, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, asthma, cancer, cholesterol problems, colitis (inflammatory bowel disease), cystic fibrosis, depression, dermatitis, type 2 diabetes, eczema, eye infection, flatulence, gallbladder disease, gout, gum disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, itching, liver disease, macular degeneration, obesity, pain, Parkinson’s disease, pollution side effects, psoriasis, rash, scleroderma, stroke, wounds.

How to buy turmeric:
Most of the world’s turmeric comes from two places in India: Alleppey and Madras. I recommend buying turmeric from Alleppey, if possible, since research has shown it contains nearly two times more curcumin than turmeric from Madras. Turmeric is a root, like ginger, but it is very hard to grind. For this reason, it is almost always sold already ground. If possible, buy turmeric in a quantity you will use up in a few months, since it tends to quickly lose its aromatic flavor.

Cooking tips:

  • Before sautéing vegetables or making stir-fry, heat oil in a pan and sprinkle it with turmeric, stirring for a few seconds so it toasts a bit but doesn’t burn.
  • Add turmeric to fried onions (one study found that onions and turmeric work together, synergistically, to protect against cancer).
  • Use turmeric generously in lentil or dal dishes.
  • Blend it in melted butter and drizzle over cooked vegetables.
  • Add a teaspoon of turmeric to a large pot of chicken noodle soup.
  • Add a teaspoon of turmeric to homemade chili.
  • Eat more yellow mustard, which contains turmeric.

Coriander

Health Benefits: Eases Digestive Discomfort

People often confuse coriander with cilantro, because they come from the same plant. But there’s a big difference. Cilantro, an herb, comes from the strongly scented leaves of the coriander plant. And while it is tasty, it’s not nearly as healthful as the spice coriander, which comes from the plant’s sweet, nutty seeds. Two of the volatile oils contained in coriander seed (linalool and geranyl acetate) are powerful, cell-protecting antioxidants. They’re probably behind many of coriander’s curative powers, including its ability to soothe digestive ailments.

In a study reported in Digestive Diseases and Sciences, gastroenterologists studied 32 people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a chronic digestive complaint that afflicts 10 to 20 percent of Americans. It includes symptoms such as abdominal pain, cramping and bloating, along with diarrhea and constipation. The researchers divided the subjects up into two groups: One group received a preparation containing coriander; the other received a placebo. After eight weeks, those taking the coriander preparation had three times more improvement in abdominal pain and discomfort than the placebo group.

Why? Researchers have found that coriander works like an antispasmodic drug, relaxing the contracted digestive muscles that cause the discomfort of IBS and other “overactive gut” disorders. That same relaxing effect — working on arteries — may be one reason why the spice can help lower blood pressure, researchers suggest.

May also help prevent and treat:
Bloating, cholesterol problems, colic, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, diarrhea, eczema, flatulence, high blood pressure, IBS, indigestion, insomnia, lead poisoning, liver disease, psoriasis, rosacea, stomachache, ulcer, vaginal yeast infection.

How to buy coriander:
Coriander seeds come in two main varieties: European coriander — which accounts for the majority of the U.S. market — is spherical in shape and more flavorful because of its higher concentration of volatile oils. Indian coriander is more egg-shaped and contains some oils not found in European coriander, resulting in a more lemony scent. Both are pretty interchangeable in cooking. Coriander is also sold powdered, but it’s best to buy whole seeds, as the oils dissipate after a few months once ground.

Cooking tips:

  • Mix coriander seeds with peppercorns in your peppermill.
  • Coarsely grind coriander and rub it into meats or fish before cooking.
  • Add whole or ground seeds to stews, casseroles, marinades, vinaigrettes and pickled dishes.
  • Make a classic Moroccan rub: Mix ground coriander with garlic, butter and paprika, and rub it on lamb before roasting.

Fennel Seed

Health Benefits: Calms Menstrual Cramps

Fennel is one of the few plants that has it all — it’s a vegetable, herb and spice. That tang of licorice when you bite into a fennel seed comes from the volatile oil anethole, the same compound that gives anise its licorice-like flavor. Fennel seeds are teeming with anethole and dozens of other phytochemicals, including phytoestrogens, estrogen-like compounds found in plants. These can help offset menstrual cramps that affect more than 50 percent of menstruating women.

In a study reported in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, doctors treated 30 women with moderate to severe menstrual cramps, using either an extract of fennel or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) similar to ibuprofen. Both the drug and fennel effectively relieved menstrual pain. In a similar study, involving 110 women, fennel outperformed the NSAID.

Fennel has also been shown to calm colic in babies. In a study, doctors treated 125 infants with colic, dividing them into one group that received a product containing fennel seed oil and one that received a placebo. The fennel seed product eliminated colic in 65 percent of the babies given it, compared with 24 percent of the placebo group.

May also help prevent and treat:
Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cancer, colitis (inflammatory bowel disease), dementia, glaucoma, heart disease, high blood pressure, hirsutism (unwanted hair growth in women), stroke.

How to buy fennel seed:
Fennel seeds are sold whole or ground. Whole fennel seeds are yellow and tinged with green, which indicates top quality. Ground fennel starts to lose its flavor after six months, while whole fennel seeds keep for three years, so it’s best to buy whole and grind as needed.

Most of the fennel seed sold in grocery stores is imported from Egypt. If you shop in an Indian market, you may come across Lucknow fennel seeds, which are about half the size of regular fennel seeds. They’re mostly green and have a sweeter flavor — in India, they are eaten as an after-dinner digestif.

Cooking tips:

  • Dry and crush toasted fennel seeds and steep them in tea.
  • Fennel seed naturally complements many foods from the Mediterranean diet, including tomatoes, olives, olive oil, basil, grilled meat and seafood.
  • Throw in extra fennel seeds the next time you make a sausage ragu.
  • Add fennel seeds to fruit salads and compotes.
  • Add ground fennel to scrambled eggs.
  • Make spiced olives by marinating 2 cups olives in ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil and 1 teaspoon each of fennel seeds, dried oregano and dried thyme.

Ginger

Health Benefits: Quiets Queasiness

For thousands of years, traditional healers worldwide have turned to ginger to help ease nausea of all kinds. For the past few decades, scientists have been proving that ginger works.

A team of gastroenterologists from the University of Michigan and National Yang-Ming University in Taiwan decided to study the effects of using ginger on 13 people with a history of motion sickness. To do so, they asked the people to sit in a spinning chair. They all became nauseated. When the volunteers took 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams of ginger before they sat in the chair, it took them longer to develop nausea, and the nausea was also less intense. (Both doses worked equally well.)

In their study, the researchers also measured blood levels of vasopressin, a key hormone they theorized might play a role in nausea from motion sickness. They found ginger limited the release of vasopressin. The researchers also measured electrical activity in the stomach during the spinning and found that ginger kept the activity “relatively stable” as compared with “chaotic” activity without the spice.

May also help prevent and treat:
Arthritis, asthma, cancer, cholesterol problems, heart attack, heartburn, indigestion, migraine, morning sickness, motion sickness, nausea, stroke, elevated triglycerides.

How to buy ginger:
Opt for fresh gingerroot over the dried, ground stuff, which has a less enticing aroma and far less zip. When buying fresh gingerroot, look for knobs (called “hands”) that are firm with smooth skin. Store fresh, peeled ginger in a paper bag in the refrigerator, where it will keep for two weeks. You can also keep unpeeled ginger indefinitely by freezing it in a freezer bag.

Cooking tips:

  • Grate fresh ginger over cooked tofu, vegetables or soba noodles.
  • Toss sliced or chopped ginger into stir-fries.
  • Rub into meat before grilling to help tenderize and add flavor.
  • Steep a coin-size piece of fresh ginger with your choice of tea.
  • Sprinkle ground ginger and a little brown sugar on acorn squash or sweet potatoes before baking.

Reprinted by permission of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., excerpted from  Healing Spices: How to Use 50 Everyday and Exotic Spices to Boost Health and Beat Disease by Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD, with Debra Yost.

Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD, works at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he is a professor of cancer research, biochemistry, immunology and experimental therapeutics, and director of the Cytokine Research Laboratory.

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29 Comment to 5 Healing Spices

  • Ellie H. says:

    I was familiar with the health benefits of cinnamon, turmeric and ginger but I was seeking info on coriander because I’d never come across its health benefits and it’s one of my favorite spices. This article has put coriander on par with other well known healthy spices and made me feel good about using it as often as I do.

    I like a combination of powdered ginger, cinnamon and coriander at breakfast in oatmeal and sometimes in yogurt. I’ll also add raw sunflower seeds along with fresh fruit for the plain organic yogurt and a combination of raisins and dried cranberries, sometimes with a little candied ginger thrown in, for the oatmeal. I find the coriander much sweeter than cinnamon and I like it better, so a little extra coriander and the fruits sweeten my cereal and yogurt without added sugar except for what’s in the fruit or on them in the case of the cranberries and candied ginger.

    Turmeric is another spice I use although not as often because I don’t like its taste but I do like it’s anti-inflammatory properties. So I add turmeric to omelets and scrambled eggs where the fillings or ketchup will disguise its taste a bit and to chicken soup whether from a can or homemade, but too I like to add a bit of chopped garlic to the soup which gives it a nice zip. I also use turmeric in warm salt water as a gargle for a sore throat or sinus irritation or combination of both. I believe that’s an ayurvedic remedy. I really appreciate the suggestions for other ways to use turmeric especially sprinkling sautéed onions with it as they cook. The sweetness of the cooked onions would counter the taste of the spice to make it more palatable for me and I use onions often.

    So I really want to thank you for this article, it’s made me think about getting rid of all my old spices and buying fresh in small quantities. Maybe that way cinnamon might actually taste sweet to me too, because right now I don’t find it at all sweet unless it’s mixed with a lot of sugar and I don’t like to do that. But it sure would be nice to have a slice or two of cinnamon toast once in awhile that wasn’t loaded down with sugar.

    Well done, Dr. Aggarwal and Ms. Yost. May your continued research be fruitful for all of us.

    Ellie

  • Jamie says:

    I was looking for information about herbs and spices that will help remove estrogen, and balance it. I have a fibroid and that fennel world make it worse, being full of estrogen. It would hurt other women too, that have estrogen issues. I’m trying to find information on pepper, but it’s hard to find.

  • NAIN SINGH RAJPUROHIT says:

    It was really find such valuable information.. my mom is a sugar patient .she was willing to have some ayurvedic medicine.. . I am going try the which I read in the above article

  • jan says:

    Thank you for your very thoughtful and informative essay on spices. I took notes.

    In the past several days, I have suffered from a bout of arthritis – everything hurt. Fortunately, I’ve turned a corner, but I’d like to take matters in my own hands in addressing the pain and from what I’ve read turmeric just could be the answer to reducing the inflammation. Been drinking turmeric tea today but as I was doing so while looking once again on the internet, I came upon one post which suggested that turmeric might have ill effects on those who take cholesterol medication. True? If so, could you advise as to how much is too much? I understand that many of these spices address cholesterol issues, too; but one thing at a time and the pain is number one priority right now and hopefully steering clear of the same. Thanks!

    • lekha says:

      Your mail was in Oct and probably and hopefully you are feeling better now. Anyway I too have been experimenting with turmeric and other spices because of both heart (high cholestrol, high blood pressure and angina) and diabetes in the family. Taking turmeric in large quantities can cause stomach irritation if your stomach is sensitive, besides being a blood thinner may cause problem if you are on blood thinning medication. If not on blood thinning medication in normal Indian cooking quantity it can be used. To use it as medicine I made a soup with ghee(just enough to roast cumin), cumin, ginger (which is also a blood thinner cut in small peices) and turmeric (1/2 teaspoon /3g) with about 3/4 liter of water and cooked for 10 min. We drank it like a soup half hour before dinner. This much quantity cannot interfer with cholestrol medication (Turmeric brings down LDL but does not affect HDL – and low LDL cholestrol can only be good. Ghee is actually good for you as the present scientific research and ayurveda tells us because it balances all three doshas, besides turmeric to be effective needs to be associated with fat). I cannot say what the next blood test would say as for cholesterol, but pains in body disappeared. It showed its miraclous healing power in just a couple of weeks. The caution should be not towards cholestrol medication but if you are taking blood thinner medication then be careful since all these spices are blood thinners and because of this property they give relief with pain. Experiment it yourself.

  • Heide Fisher says:

    Planning a trip to my nearest organic grocery today and then my local grocery to do some comparative shopping and pricing….I will keep you posted….. ;-) Heide Fisher (Norfolk,Virginia)

  • Barb Johnson says:

    Can you tell me of any spices that might help Afib? Cannot tolerate the full dose of medication and am terrified of left side abaltion; had right with no success at all. Thanks for any info.

  • annie jane says:

    Am in Nigeria, the western part of Africa. We don’t have these spices here apart from the ginger spice. How can I get them. Or is there any other name they call the cinnamon, turmeric, coriander n fennel seed in Nigeria?

    • Will Sonnet says:

      Try the internet. You should find a local source. If not, mail order from India, Egypt, Turkey, Italy, Greece, even China. Everything is just a world away.

  • SJ says:

    Snotty little remark about cilantro “not being nearly as healthy” as coriander. I realize this is an article about healing SPICES and not healing HERBS, but Cilantro has at least one very important health benefit, which is to remove heavy metals (such as mercury) from your bloodstream.

    In addition, cilantro is a strong anti-oxidant, has anti-anxiety effects, can improve sleep and lower blood sugar, is an anti-bacterial and an anti-fungal (got a sugar jones? It’s probably systemic candida. Start drinking cilantro infused water or chewing cilantro leaves and the sugar monkey will climb down off your back).

  • Linda Tucker says:

    Where can I find quality organic spices in Houston?

    Your article is very informative, thank you!

    Thank you!

  • Danae says:

    What an outstanding article balanced with real experience and science. Thank you for the description how your mother treated you – very inspiring! There can be no balance without a good daily nutrition – this so true. Spices are the healing and balancing properties of mother nature and we can not replace them with chemicals – just as we cannot replace the sun with a light bulb. Life is infinitely wiser… thanks for bringing this home into our understanding and kitchen. Blessings.

  • Luke says:

    I love reading stuff on your website because it’s very comprehensive and backed up with real studies. Also the authors have solid credentials, thanks for putting out a magazine/website with integrity!

  • Thanks for the post! Use all of these spices almost everyday! I make tea with cinnamon and ginger. Drink it both hot and cold. Tastes great! Tumeric is one of our favorites and we use it on so many different meals!

  • Jocelyn Stone says:

    I’ve started adding cinnamon when brewing my coffee. It tastes delicious, and I love knowing that it’s healthy for me!

  • Dominick says:

    I really enjoy this months issue of Experience Life magazine,good advice that may not be in my other magazine issues.

  • Michelle says:

    I looovvvee the exotic smell of coriander! I know it is the seed of the cilantro plant–I enjoy it (cilantro) in my guacamole. But does it (coriander)compliment any fruits/desserts?!

    thanks

    • jstone says:

      Michelle,

      Betsy Nelson, who develops recipes for our Confident Cook department, says that “chopped fresh cilantro would be great with fresh summer melons and would be lovely combined with mint on a fruit salad too. A fresh fruit salsa with peaches, plums, pineapple, or melon would be great with cilantro. Pears poached in a broth of white wine or apple juice with dried coriander would be delicious and aromatic also.”

      Best in health,
      Jocelyn Stone, associate editor

  • I put ginger in my tomato soups.
    I think the article should have mentioned 6 spices because garlic is very potent as well.
    Last, these spices also help to combat fat.

  • Susmita Ravella says:

    Turmeric may contain Lead, which is known to be harmful.

    • Danae says:

      …Susmita – yes, nearly everything the modern world makes seems to be poisoned… but do not look away from the properties these spices offer rather look for decent farmers, and organic produce as this way each of us will create of force of natural development for future generations and ourselves. Blessings.

    • John says:

      Great article on 5 healing spices! Can you comment on saffron in a similar fashion?

      Thanks

      • Thank you for a most revealing and helpful essay on spices. I have most of them and will print this and keep it near to me in the kitchen cupboard. I really appreciate all of your wonderful words about the spices as I have a lot of the maladies that your article mentions.
        Thanks again,
        Carole Hanson, Galata, MT

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