When Hippocrates said to “let food be thy medicine,” he probably wasn’t talking about pumpkin pie, marinara sauce or a spicy chicken curry. But the proverb stands, all the same.
Obviously, fresh fruits and veggies deliver tons of vitamins and nutrients to keep your body working like a well-oiled machine. But many decadent dishes can help you live longer too. Whether you’re up against diabetes or arthritis, some of nature’s most powerful medicine has been hiding in your spice rack all along.
Cinnamon: Nature’s Sugar-Buster
Reining in out-of-control blood sugar doesn’t have to be a pharmaceutical affair, despite what the drug companies might tell you. That’s because a sizeable body of research suggests that a daily dose of cinnamon might be the only support against diabetes you’ll ever need.
Take the results of a 2003 study published in Diabetes Care, for example. This trial included a total of 60 middle aged type 2 diabetics (30 men and 30 women), randomly divided into six groups—half supplementing with placebo and half supplementing with dosages of cinnamon ranging from one to six grams per day for 40 days.
At the end of the 40-day supplementation period, all of the subjects taking cinnamon enjoyed significant reductions in fasting glucose (between 18 and 29 percent, in fact). But that’s not all. Data also revealed reductions in LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol and triglycerides as high as 27 percent, 26 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Researchers didn’t find the same changes among the placebo group.
More recent research has delivered similar results, showing that two months of cinnamon supplementation can cut fasting and post-meal glucose levels—and that as little as two weeks can reduce your body’s glucose responses while also increasing insulin sensitivity.
The conclusion? Including cinnamon in your diet can make a major difference when you’re dealing with diabetes—slashing both soaring blood sugar levels and cardiovascular risk factors with every bite.
Cloves: Take on Diabetes and Dental Pain
You won’t find a more winning combination in the kitchen than cinnamon and cloves—and that goes for your health, too. Like cinnamon, research on cloves shows that these aromatic buds also have a powerful effect on blood sugar balance.
As part of a placebo-controlled study published in 2006, researchers divided 36 type 2 diabetics into four groups, each assigned to supplement with either a placebo or cloves (in varying dosages of 1, 2 or 3 grams) per day for 30 days. And as with cinnamon, all the subjects supplementing with cloves benefited from significant reductions in blood sugar, triglycerides, total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol—in stark contrast to the placebo group.
These results are hardly surprising in light of a recent Spanish study, which reports that, of all the staple spices of the Mediterranean diet—the gold standard of heart-healthy eating—clove is the best natural antioxidant, being rich in phenolic compounds that aid in curbing deadly lipid peroxidation.
But clove has its fair share of bonus perks too—including a surprising role in combating tooth pain, courtesy of its analgesic active ingredient, eugenol. In fact, one placebo-controlled study published in 2006 showed that a clove gel numbs gums as effectively as the anesthetic benzocaine, yielding no significant difference in subjects’ pain scores in response to needle sticks.
Thyme: A Cure For the Common Cough
If you want to breathe easier—literally—all you need is a little thyme. As it turns out, research shows that this popular herb can stand up to several common respiratory conditions marked by serious coughing, including bronchitis and pneumonia.
But, unlike your average cough drop, thyme can take on infectious bacteria, too. In fact, thyme’s main antimicrobial constituent thymol is an active ingredient in popular germ-fighting mouthwashes. Thyme also has powerful anti-inflammatory effects, capable of suppressing COX-2 enzyme levels by as much as 75 percent. So it’s no wonder that extracts of this herb can benefit inflammation of the throat and lungs as well.
One German, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial showed that a thyme-primrose combination performed significantly better than placebo at reducing coughing fits in cases of acute bronchitis. Researchers achieved similar results with a thyme-ivy combination—which is hardly surprising, given thyme’s role as a documented antispasmodic and mucus-clearing expectorant.
Oregano: The Antibiotic Alternative
Despite being its namesake, thyme isn’t the only herb rich in thymol—it’s also one of the active phenolic constituents of oregano. And, not surprisingly, this flavorful Mediterranean mainstay has some powerful healing properties of its own.
While antibiotic overuse contributes to both resistant bacterial strains and the problem of yeast overgrowth, research shows that oregano oil could be a natural foil to both modern concerns. In vitro studies have revealed oregano as one of the most effective inhibitors of both a number of bacteria (including the common Salmonella and hard-to-kill Pseudomonas aeruginosa strains), as well as a wide array of yeasts (most notably, Candida albicans) at concentrations as low as 0.12 percent.
Oregano can even pack a punch against intestinal parasites. A six-week study of 13 parasite-positive adults showed that 600 mg of emulsified oregano oil taken daily was able to completely eliminate parasite infection in 10 out of 13 subjects, while significantly decreasing parasite presence in the remaining three. More than half the subjects also reported symptom improvement—including reductions in bloating, cramping, diarrhea, constipation and fatigue—with oregano supplementation, cementing its status as an herbal remedy against just about every type of food-borne illness in the book.
That’s not the only reason to fill up on oregano though. Research from the USDA reveals that it’s also one of the most potent antioxidants in your herb garden—delivering 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 30 times more than potatoes, 12 times more than oranges and four times more than the much-hailed blueberry.
So it shouldn’t surprise you that a study published just this past April shows that another of oregano’s active components—a compound called carvacrol—is able to destroy prostate cancer cells in laboratory experiments, with earlier research revealing its anti-tumor effect on metastatic breast cancer as well.
Parsley: Worthless Garnish or Cancer-Fighting Goldmine?
That little green sprig sitting at the side of your meal may appear pretty worthless. However, it might be time to give parsley a more prominent position on your plate, because this is one leaf with surprisingly potent medicinal abilities.
For starters, parsley boasts a comprehensive nutritional profile, being rich in a number of critical nutrients, including calcium, iron, carotenes, ascorbic acid and vitamin A. It’s also a powerful antioxidant, which Germany’s Commission E recommends as an effective treatment for urinary tract irritation and kidney stones—most likely due to its strong detoxifying and diuretic properties, courtesy of the active constituents apiol and myristicin.
Newer research, however, has shed light on an even more compelling reason to make parsley your new main dish. A 2011 study recently showed that the parsley component apigenin is able to block the acceleration of breast cancer progression in the presence of a progestin called medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA)—a synthetic hormone that’s commonly used in hormone replacement therapy.
Although optimal dosage recommendations have yet to be established, results show that filling up on parsley and other apigenin-rich foods can inhibit cancer tumors’ blood vessel growth—thereby cutting off their food supply—while reducing the overall number of tumors. Not too shabby for a garnish that usually ends up in the garbage can.
Curry: The Free Radical Quenching Super Spice
Parsley’s cancer-fighting powers may be news to you, but the medicinal value of curry—and more specifically turmeric, which lends curry powder its trademark yellow color—has been making headlines for years now.
This popular ethnic spice’s seemingly endless health benefits run the gamut, starting with its impressive antioxidant value. Curry’s ability to mop up free radicals and fight inflammation in just about every area of the body forms the basis of its numerous disease-preventing powers.
Studies support turmeric as a safe and effective cure for everyday digestive issues like indigestion-related gas and bloating, as well as its role as a vital weapon against more serious GI diseases, like ulcerative colitis. In fact, trials show that turmeric can dramatically reduce relapse rates among colitis patients within six months of regular supplementation.
Curry can also pack a punch against other serious inflammatory conditions—from arthritis and heart disease to cancer. Research reveals that turmeric can aid in reducing cholesterol levels and preventing arterial plaque and blood clot buildup. But its anti-cancer activity is probably its most famous calling card, with studies highlighting its undeniable benefits against prostate cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer, colon cancer and more.
Cayenne: The Pain-Relieving Pepper
A hefty serving of cayenne pepper sounds like it would be synonymous with pain—but while your tongue may feel the burn, cayenne’s active ingredient capsaicin spells sweet relief for aching joints and a whole lot more.
Primarily used in topical preparations, research shows that capsaicin can reduce chemical pain messaging to your brain, which in turn soothes pain from osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Topical capsaicin can also help relieve persistent pain and inflammation from diseases such as shingles and psoriasis—not to mention post-surgical pain, or pain related to diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage in the legs and feet). Even nagging lower back pain may benefit from regular rubdowns with capsaicin cream.
And, if that’s not enough, research even suggests that a little extra hot pepper might curb your appetite and help you lose weight too, offering one more reason to keep the cayenne close at hand on your dinner table.
Spice Up Your Health
And you thought spices were just for cooking! Give your health a boost by incorporating these flavorful gifts from Mother Nature into your daily wellness routine