Cooking with herbs and spices not only livens up your meals, but may also help prevent disease

The spice of life: cooking with herbs and spices not only livens up your meals, but may also help prevent disease

Powerful chemicals that may help prevent chronic diseases are not just in pharmacies, but they’re also in your kitchen spice rack. Recent studies show that curcumin, which gives curry its yellow color, capsaicin in hot peppers, and chemicals in cinnamon, rosemary, garlic, pepper, and ginger may help the body ward off cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

“Spices have been used for thousands of years not only to enhance food but also to improve health. We are just now discovering the scientific proof of what our grandmothers knew: That spices and herbs can heal and help prevent disease,” remarks Meena Katdare, PhD, head of the Carcinogenesis and Chemoprevention Laboratory and assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Katdare cites curcumin as a prime example: “Curcumin, the active chemical in the spice turmeric, has been shown to be a very strong immunomodulator, and has been used for the prevention of ailments for generations in Asian countries. It also acts as an antioxidant and as an antimicrobial.”

“Turmeric is a basic ingredient in everyday cooking in India and other countries. But people also know it can control infection. If a child gets a cut or scrape, before we use an antibiotic we will go to the kitchen, pick up the turmeric and put some on the wound. It will immediately stop bleeding. Healing will be faster and it will reduce scar formation. When people have a sore throat, they take it in warm milk. We are now investigating its effects on cells in the laboratory,” says Katdare, whose research was inspired by her maternal grandmother, who used medicinal spices and herbs in India. (See page 7 for her recipes for arthritis and spice teas.)

Adding flavor and function

Spices and herbs not only add flavor and aroma to foods, but they also contain plant chemicals (phytochemicals) that have many beneficial effects, says Tieraona Low Dog, MD, education director of the Program in Integrative Medicine and clinical assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Culinary herbs can function as digestive aids (for example, fennel acts as a carminative to dispel gas), kill harmful bacteria in the GI tract (as nutmeg can), and even dampen pain (think clove oil for dental pain).

“All spices promote salivation, which is a key to priming of the digestive response,” Dr. Low Dog told the Third Annual Conference on Nutrition and Health held in New York City in May, cosponsored by Columbia University’s Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Spices and herbs were traditionally used as preservatives to keep food from spoiling. Many of these plants have antimicrobial and antifungal activity, and some have chemopreventive effects, mostly in the colon for colorectal cancer.”

The spice rack as a medicine cabinet

Dr. Low Dog’s list of “medicinal” spices and herbs used in cooking includes: Anise seed, used for licorice flavoring and anisette liquor, which acts as a carminative, has antifungal activity against Candida, works as an antihistamine (dampening mast cells and molecules called leukotrienes) and is used by Native Americans in the Southwest for allergies and asthma. Rosemary prepared as tea is another asthma remedy.

Basil has inflammatory and antibacterial properties, and has been used for wound-healing in topical creams and ointments. You can crush it and put it on a wound, Dr. Low Dog told the conference. Try a one percent solution of essential oil of basil as an antibacterial rinse for produce, she suggests.

Cayenne pepper (which contains capsaicin) makes the nose run and can clear stuffy sinuses. It’s a traditional remedy in the Southwest for colds, says Dr. Low Dog. “If you get stopped up, you go have a very hot spicy meal to help clear your sinuses. Capsaicin applied topically and repeatedly over time desensitizes nerves and reduces pain. One out of eight people who do not respond to conventional treatments for neuropathic pain may be helped by capsaicin.” A recent animal study showed that capsaicin may also have anticancer activity, promoting cell suicide (apoptosis) and shrinking pancreatic tumors.

Black pepper (called the “king of spices”) has antibacterial properties and may reduce DNA damage seen in certain models of cancer. Nutmeg can act against the gastrointestinal bacteria E. coli and H. pylori, and a 2005 study found it had some antidepressant properties, Dr. Low Dog says.

Curry can fight cancer

Recent studies have shown that curcumin also induces cell suicide. It may help stop the spread of lung cancer and inhibit colon, oral, and throat cancers. Cornell’s Katdare is among the researchers focusing on curcumin’s use against breast cancer.

Her laboratory studies of breast tissue cell lines have shown that faster-growing tumor cells are more responsive to curcumin. “Within 24 hours curcumin induces cell suicide (apoptosis) in tumor cells. But what happens to the cells that are not killed off? We removed those cells, washed them, and allowed them to grow in regular medium for 15-18 days. To my surprise, the cells remained in a resting state for 15 days. Then they started growing again, but at a slower rate than before. This selective effect of curcumin to the mutant, faster growing cells is very exciting,” she says. Katdare has begun new research under a grant from the NIH Clinical Nutrition Research Unit to further study curcumin’s effects, this time on mammary tumors in mice. She is also working with the Strang Cancer Prevention Center at Cornell on a human model to prevent or treat ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).

Even as research continues, Katdare feels confident in recommending turmeric as a preventative. “I tell patients to have curcumin once a week. Add a teaspoon or a half teaspoon of turmeric to soup, to pasta. Eat a lot of curry,” says Katdare. “Curcumin is available as a supplement. But I always recommend turmeric as a whole powder, not curcumin extract or capsules. The whole spice is natural, and you are not taking a risk with it.”

Adding zing

Cinnamon, cloves, and ginger add zing to many foods and can be prepared as teas.

Cinnamon has actually been approved by the German Commission E (the equivalent to our FDA) for indigestion, bloating, and flatulence. But it gained widespread attention in this country in 2003, when a randomized clinical trial in the journal Diabetes Care reported that diabetics who took one gramless than a quarter teaspoon–of cinnamon a day for 40 days decreased their blood glucose, cholesterol, and other blood fats by 30 percent, compared to no change in the placebo group. Cinnamon contains compounds that seem to improve insulin’s ability to bring glucose into cells, explains Dr. Low Dog.

“Cinnamon is also an antibacterial and antifungal. It is used in many parts of the world to treat fungal infections. It actually has a pretty wide spectrum of activity, both in water extracts and alcohol extracts, so just having cinnamon tea can be efficacious,” says Dr. Low Dog. “Cinnamon, cloves, and ginger are very effective antiemetics. You can grind up cloves and take it in many ways. For example, add it to yogurt, to alleviate nausea and vomiting, and to ease an upset stomach.”

Recent laboratory studies found ginger could kill ovarian cancer cells by inducing apoptosis. Researchers told the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in April in Washington, D.C. that ginger killed off ovarian cancer cell cultures at a similar or better rate than platinum-based chemotherapy.

Too much of a good thing?

Some herbs and spices can be harmful in high amounts. For example, fennel can interact with many drugs; eating too much capsaicin can hurt the stomach; and excessive nutmeg has been known to cause delirium. “You want to be careful, adding spices to food versus taking them in huge quantities as a supplement,” cautions Dr. Low Dog. “Adding them in small amounts to foods is part of a healthy lifestyle. However, you should be aware that changes in your diet can affect drug metabolism.”

“The rule of nutrition is to balance your own physiology, to keep balance between cell growth and cell death. That is the key with balanced nutrition,” advises Katdare. “When you are stressed and in a hurry, your body won’t absorb food as well.”

Use spices not just to enhance the flavor of the food you eat, but also to take advantage of their preventive potential, she says.

“Spices can heal and help prevent disease. Using spices gives you a chance to slow down and enjoy your food, which will also enhance good health,” Katdare concludes.



ANISE Pimpinella Potent activity against candida;

(licorice flavor) anisum Selective estrogen receptor

modulator (SERM) in essential

oil; a ntiestrogen activity in

breast cancer cells;


BASIL Ocimum Antiinflammatory; antibacterial;

basilicum wound-healing

BLACK PEPPER Piper nigrum Antibacterial; alters enzymes;

(peppercorn) reduces DNA damage in some cancer


CAYENNE Capsaicin May block carcinogenesis, promote

programmed cell death (apoptosis)

CINNAMON Cinnamomum May increase cell uptake of

verum insulin; used for dyspepsia,

bloating, flatulence, loss of


CLOVE BUD Syzgium Essential oil reduces dental

aromaticum pain; carminative; antiemetic

FENNEL SEED Foeniculum Used for gas, colic, dyspepsia


GARLIC (Also Allicin Contains detoxification enzymes

onions, shallots, which help excrete carcinogens,

chives, leeks) decrease proliferation of tumor

cells; may stimulate

tumor-fighting immune cells

GINGER Zingiber Antinausea; possible

officinale chemopreventive effects in colon

cancer; antiinflammatory (may

help osteoarthritis)

NUTMEG Myristica Antibacterial effects against

fragrans Helicobacter pylori, E. coli;

animal studies show

antidepressant-like activity;

excessive amounts can cause

delirium, toxicity

PEPPERMINT Mentha x Smooth muscle relaxant; soothes

piperita irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

ROSEMARY Rosmarinus Antiinflammatory; brewed as tea

officinalis may help asthma; headaches and


SAGE Salvia Mild cholinesterase inhibitor

officinalis (may help mood and cognition in

Alzheimer’s disease), remedy for

sore throats and cough; may help

hot flashes; extract may help

excessive sweating of palms

THYME Thymus Antibacterial in resistant

vulgaris strains; potent antifungal,

especially against oral candida;

eases bronchitis and upper

respiratory infection

Curcumin In vitro and animal data show

TURMERIC longa protective effects against

colorectal, breast, prostate,

skin cancers; antiinflammatory

and anticancer properties in oral

and topical tests; some studies

suggest it may inhibit

Alzheimer’s disease

Sources: Tieraona Low Dog, MD, Director of Education, Program in

Integrative Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Arizona,

Third Annual Conference on Nutrition and Health, May 1, 2006; American

Association for Cancer Research, April 2006

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