Culinary Herbs and Spices That Heal - Explore the Medicinal Magic in Your Kitchen
Believe it or not, common spices are actually some of the healthiest foods on the planet. Most of you have a spice rack filled with seasonings you use every day for cooking, but what do you know about their medicinal properties? According to Kelly M. Shattuck, a Certified Herbalist based in North Carolina, before health food stores made herbs such as Goldenseal and Echinacea readily available, people relied on culinary herbs in their kitchen to play a very important medicinal role in their lives.
Using herbs and spices for healing is really nothing new. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Indian Ayurvedic systems have recognized the healing and culinary benefits of spices for thousands of years. Some health benefits are unique to each spice, and others are shared among different spices. A study published in the Journal of Medicinal Foods found a direct correlation between the antioxidant phenol content of many spices, and their ability to prevent heart disease and premature aging. According to this study, the spices that have the most phenol are: cloves, cinnamon, allspice, oregano, marjoram, sage, thyme, tarragon, and rosemary.
Spices also help us digest food, detoxify our bodies, and keep our hearts and minds active. They are not only great in meals for added flavor, but they also provide vitamins and minerals, and are key to the nutritional density in the foods you eat. Because of their nutrient density, they are thermogenic, meaning they naturally increase metabolism. Therefore, you can easily boost the nutritional value of your meals and metabolism by simply adding spices.
By the same token, spices can "upgrade" your meals by reducing toxic compounds created during the cooking process. In a 2009 study, it was demonstrated that adding an antioxidant-rich spice blend to meat prior to cooking reduced the level of malondialdehyde (a chemical marker for oxidation) in the meat by 71 percent, and resulted in a 49 percent reduction of this compound in urine levels of the 11 participants1.
The culinary and medicinal powers of winter spices have been known by herbalists for centuries. Science is now confirming what traditional me dicine has known all along – that spices such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, cardamom and oregano have strong therapeutic effects.
When trying to stay healthy this winter, Instead of letting a cold or the flu strike, fight back by reaching towards your kitchen instead of the medicine cabinet. Winter spices do much more than just add flavor to your pies and desserts. They also protect you from ailments doing the rounds this time of year. Boost your immune system and stay healthy by drinking home-made chai tea daily. Moreover, three cups of caffeine-free chai tea a day will provide you with the same amount of energy as one cup of coffee. This tea is made from various combinations of winter spices. It is a spicy, pungent drink made from some of the world's most medicinal winter spices. Its basic components include black tea, cinnamon, ginger, clove, cardamom and black pepper. These spices provide a rich source of antioxidants and nutrients that support digestion and immunity, balance blood sugar and combat inflammation. It has also been suggested that some of the spices in chai tea have anti-bacterial and anti-cancer effects.
Unfortunately, modern-day commercialized chai beverages tend to be sugar laden and more of a health threat than a health benefit. When buying prepared chai tea, pay attention to the ingredients on the labels, or better yet skip the coffee shop and make your own from scratch or using pre-mixed tea bags.
Healthy Chai Tea Recipe
- 10 whole cloves
- 12 whole cardamom pods
- 12 whole black peppercorns
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 4 slices fresh ginger root, chopped
- 1 cup coconut milk, soy milk, rice milk or almond milk
- 1 tablespoon tablespoon raw honey, agave or 1 teaspoon stevia
- Bring 4 cups of water to a boil.
- Then lower the heat to a gentle simmer and add all the ingredients.
- Cover with a secure lid and continue gentle simmer for 20 mins.
- Then turn the heat off and let it sit. You can drink it right away but the longer it sits, the better it tastes.
Selecting Spices for Their Medicinal Benefits
You really can't go wrong when using herbs and spices in cooking. Let your taste buds dictate your selection. You can also choose spices based on their medicinal benefits.
- To boost the Immune system: licorice, turmeric, black pepper, oregano, dill, nutmeg, thyme
- Anti-inflammatories: turmeric, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, peppermint, cinnamon, cardamom, dill, fennel, oregano, rosemary
- Anti-microbials: garlic, basil, cayenne, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, thyme
- Anti-fungals: garlic, cayenne, cloves, oregano, thyme
- Mental health and anxiety: nutmeg, natural salt, thyme
- Heart health: garlic, cayenne, basil, cardamom, fennel, nutmeg
Most ground spices begin to fade in flavor and medicinal properties after a few months, so it’s best to buy whole and grind as needed. Some herbs like cinnamon are somewhat tough, so you’ll need a sturdy spice grinder or fine grater. If your only option is to buy ground spices, try to find high quality ones made from organic spices.
Always buy organic herbs and spices. Herbs that are either organic or wild crafted are at their peak of maturity and their concentration of active ingredients is highest, making them more effective than their counterparts. Organic herbs and spices are easy to find. They cost more, but not having pesticides, chemicals and irradiation exposure makes them completely worth it.
What’s in Your Kitchen’s Medicine Cabinet
The following herbs and spices show particular promise for promoting good health.
Anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, good source of magnesium. Promotes cardiovascular health because of its high content of Vitamin A through its concentration of carotenoids such as beta-carotene. Called "pro-vitamin A”. Basil oil applied to the skin helps prevent pimples. Anti-aging properties, rich in anti-oxidants.
Anti-irritant, anti-microbial, anti-fungal, migraine prevention, anti-allergen, digestive aid, useful for blood clots, detox support, joint pain reliever, anti-cancer, supports weight loss, promotes heart health.
Studies at Loma Linda University found that cayenne pepper may help prevent lung cancer in smokers. According to Dr. Edward Group, this may be related to cayenne’s high quantity of capsaicin, a substance that might help stop the formation of tobacco-induced lung tumors. Other studies have shown a similar reaction in cayenne’s resistance to liver tumors.
Anti-spasmodic, anti-asthmatic, anti-inflammatory, detoxification, improved blood circulation, nausea and vomiting relief, aphrodisiac, gastrointestinal protection, cholesterol control, anti-cancer, relief from cardiovascular issues, improvement of blood circulation.
A study conducted by Isao Kubo, Masaki Himejima, and Hisae Muroi at the Division of Entomology and Parasitology at the University of California has verified the presence of antimicrobial properties in cardamom.
Anti-spasmodic, anti-emetic, anti-diarrheal, helps fight infections, the common cold, loss of appetite and erectile dysfunction (ED). Cinnamon may lower blood sugar in people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Anti-inflammatory, antifungal, lowers LDL cholesterol.
Buy Ceylon Cinnamon whenever possible. It comes from Sri Lanka and is widely considered to be the best in the world.
Anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, anti-fungal, relieves respiratory infections, improves digestion, aphrodisiac, pain relief.
High in antioxidants and a good source of minerals — particularly manganese, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and vitamins.
Lowers cholesterol, anti-inflammatory for the skin, anti-fungal, anti-septic, digestive aid, lowers blood pressure.
Coriander or cilantro is also a wonderful source of dietary fiber, manganese and iron. Coriander leaves are rich in Vitamin C, Vitamin K and protein. They also contain small amounts of calcium, phosphorous, potassium, thiamin, niacin and carotene.
Boosts digestive health, reduces Insomnia, hiccups, diarrhea, dysentery, menstrual disorders, respiratory disorders, and cancer. Can protect from bone degradation, and is anti-inflammatory.
The health benefits of dill are derived from its organic compounds, vitamins, and minerals. Dill has a significant amount of Vitamin A and Vitamin C, as well as trace amounts of folate, iron and manganese.
The iron, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc and Vitamin K content in fennel all contribute to building and maintaining bone structure and strength. Fennel speeds up metabolism, aids digestion, increases iron absorption, is estrogenic (promotes estrogen production), excellent source of Vitamin C, anti-inflammatory.
Top-quality fennel seeds are yellow and tinged with green. 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.
Anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, reduces blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, helps prevents Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, may increase longevity, improves athletic performance, detoxifies heavy metals in the body, may improve overall health.
Garlic is low in calories and very rich in Vitamin C, Vitamin B6 and manganese. It also contains trace amounts of various nutrients.
Anti-nausea, reduces morning sickness, reduces muscle pain and soreness, Anti-inflammatory, can help with osteoarthritis, lowers blood sugar, lowers heart disease risks, treats chronic indigestion, reduces menstrual pain, lowers cholesterol levels, anti-cancer, protects against Alzheimer’s disease, helps fight infections.
When buying fresh ginger root, look for knobs that are firm with smooth skin. Store fresh, peeled ginger in a paper bag in the refrigerator; it will keep for two weeks. You can also keep unpeeled ginger indefinitely by freezing.
Reduces seasonal allergy symptoms, fights the common cold, indigestion, depression, fatigue, memory loss and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Is a breath freshener, antiseptic, and anti-carcinogen. Relieves nausea, headache, respiratory disorders, cough, and asthma. Helps with weight loss, oral care.
Mint leaves are best to add either raw or near the end of cooking in order to maintain their delicate flavor and texture. When preparing mint, use a sharp knife and cut gently.
Provides pain relief, soothes indigestion, improves cognitive function, detoxifies the body, boosts skin health, alleviates oral conditions, helps with insomnia, increases immune system function, helps prevent leukemia, improves blood circulation and brain health. Aphrodisiac.
Try to buy whole nuts instead of the powder form, since it may be adulterated with other inferior-quality nutmeg varieties. Store whole nuts (as well as ground powder) inside an airtight container and place in a cool, dark and dry place, where it can stay for several months
Immune support, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, useful for respiratory infections.
Research has shown essential oils from oregano may kill the foodborne pathogen Listeria and the superbug MRSA, making it a useful addition to hand soaps and disinfectants2 .
Supports immune system, tones bones, heals the nervous system, flushes water from the body, therefore supports kidney function, inhibits tumor formation, excellent source of Vitamin C, supports blood vessels, protects from rheumatoid arthritis, anti-cancer, lowers blood sugar.
In a recent study conducted at the University of Missouri, researchers found that a natural chemical in parsley, celery and other plants called “apigenin” decreases tumor size in an aggressive form of breast cancer. This may be a promising non-toxic treatment for cancer.
Rich in anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory, improves circulation and digestion, enhances memory and concentration, neurological protection, prevents brain aging, anti-cancer, protects against macular degeneration.
Whenever possible, choose fresh rosemary over the dried form of the herb for cooking since it is far superior in flavor. The sprigs of fresh rosemary should be free from yellow or dark spots.
Lowers blood sugar and cholesterol, possible Alzheimer’s treatment, improves brain function, has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
As with Rosemary, whenever possible choose fresh sage over its dried form. Sage leaves are very delicate. To protect its beneficial properties, it is best to add it near the end of the cooking process.
Anti-microbial, lowers blood pressure, relieves coughs, boosts mood and immune system. Gets rid of pests(rats, mice and others).
Natural unrefined salt or Himalayan salt
Helps stabilize irregular heart rate, regulates blood pressure, extracts excess acidity from cells in the body (particularly brain cells). Balances sugar levels, clears lungs of excess mucus ( particularly in asthma and cystic fibrosis), clears sinus congestion, is a natural anti-histamine, regulates sleep, prevents muscle cramps, contributes to firm bones, helps prevent gout and gouty arthritis, is essential for maintaining sexual libido, helps prevent varicose veins.
Supplies the body with over 80 essential mineral elements. Refined salt such as table salt has been stripped of all but two of these elements, and contains harmful additives such as aluminum silicate, a toxic chemical found in a UK study to be the primary cause of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
How to Make Herbal Teas From Spices
Use one teaspoon of dried herb or two tablespoons of fresh herb for each cup of water. There are 2 ways to make tea – infusions and decoctions.
Infusions are for preparing teas containing the fragile parts of herbs and spices such as flowers, grasses and leaves. Bring two cups of water to a boil, remove from heat and place the spices in the water. You may place the herbs directly in the water or in a large muslin bag. Steep for at least 20 minutes.
Decoction is used to break down more tenacious herb materials such as roots, bark, seeds, fruits and nuts. Bring water to a boil, add the spices, lower heat to a gentle simmer, and let brew for 20 minutes before turning off the heat. You may also soak tenacious herb materials overnight to soften them before simmering.
Be sure to strain before drinking.
Tips to Incorporate Spices in Your Cooking
The following are super easy suggestions that will help you incorporate healing spices in your diet as preventive medicine:
- Flavor your milk (rice, soy, coconut or almond) or coffee with a pinch of nutmeg.
- Simmer a whole cinnamon bark in soups or stews.
- Sprinkle cinnamon on fruits such as apples, bananas, melons, and oranges.
- Combine spices and use them as dry rubs for meats or fish:
- Combine equal parts cinnamon, cardamom and black pepper, and use as a rub for meats.
- Coarsely grind coriander and rub it into meats or fish before cooking.
- Rub ginger into meat before grilling to help tenderize and add flavor.
- Before sautéing vegetables or making stir-fry, sprinkle oil with turmeric, stirring for a few seconds so it toasts a bit but doesn’t burn.
- Add turmeric to fried onions.
- Use turmeric generously in lentil dishes.
- Blend turmeric 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.
- Mix coriander seeds with peppercorns in your peppermill.
- Add whole or ground coriander seeds to stews, casseroles, marinades, vinaigrettes and pickled dishes.
- Fennel seeds naturally complement 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.
- Use fennel stalks as a soup base or stock.
- Sauté fennel leaves and stalks with onions for a side dish.
- Mix sliced fennel with a variety of your favorite fresh vegetables to make a fresh salad.
- Add roasted fennel bulbs to any entrée.
- Grate fresh ginger over cooked tofu, vegetables or soba noodles.
- Toss sliced or chopped ginger into stir fries.
- Steep a coin-sized 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.
- Use mint to flavor Middle Eastern dishes, such as lamb, soups and vegetable salads.
- Make mint limeade by mixing together lime juice, agave or stevia and muddled mint leaves. Top off with filtered water and ice cubes.
- Incorporate mint into a fresh fruit salsa with chopped apples, pear, lemon or lime juice, jalapeno and honey.
- Add mint leaves and cucumber to your water for a refreshing treat.
- Incorporate Sage with poultry and pork.
- Mix cooked navy beans with olive oil, sage and garlic and serve on bruschetta.
- Use sage as a seasoning for tomato sauce.
- Add fresh sage to omelets and frittatas.
- Sprinkle some sage on top of pizza.
- When baking chicken or fish, place some fresh sage leaves inside so the food will absorb the flavors of this herb.
Spiced Tea Recipe
- Put a quart of any 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.
Spiced Olive Recipe
- Marinate 2 cups of green olives in ½ cup extra virgin olive oil and 1 teaspoon each of fennel seeds, dried oregano and dried thyme.
Herb Butter Recipe
Herb butters made with savory herbs can be spread onto breads, meats or vegetables, and used in sauces and sautés. Peppermint or sweet herb butters can be served with pancakes, waffles, warm muffins and other desserts.
- 4 to 6 tablespoons fresh herb leaves (basil, chives, dill, fennel, mint, parsley, tarragon, cilantro, thyme, sage).
- 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened.
- Chop herbs.
- Blend herbs into the butter with a fork.
- Pack the butter into a roll of waxed paper and refrigerate for up to 24 hours to distribute flavors and firm up.
- Slice the roll into disks or shave into curls to serve, or use the herb butter for cooking.
Herb Oil Recipe
Herb oils are excellent in salads, for sautés, on bread, or poured over sliced hard-boiled eggs. Use herbs such as basil, bay, dill, fennel, garlic, lemongrass, mint, oregano, rosemary, thyme, dried chilies or peppercorns, and the seeds of dill, fennel, cumin or coriander. Make oil with a combination of herbs and spices or with a single herb.
- 3 to 4 tablespoons (or 4 to 6 sprigs) of fresh herbs.
- 2 cups olive oil.
- Put the herbs into a sterilized jar, set aside.
- Heat oil until just warm and slowly pour over herbs.
- Once cool, strain into a sterilized bottle, cover and label. Herb oils will keep for a week in the refrigerator.
Hot & Spicy Dry Rub Recipe
- 3 parts cumin
- 3 parts paprika
- 3 parts garlic
- 3 parts onion powder
- 3 parts chili powder
- 3 parts raw brown sugar
- 6 parts Himalayan or regular sea salt
- 1 part cayenne pepper
- 1 part black pepper
- 1 part white pepper
Mix all ingredients together store them in an air tight container.
Pumpkin Spice Aroma Essential Oil Blend
Diffusing essential oils (EO) is a simple and effective way to fill a room with your favorite seasonal scent. This spice blend not only has a fresh-baked pumpkin pie scent, but will also help disinfect the air. This year, skip those synthetically-perfumed candles and make this delicious smelling treat!
- 20 drops cinnamon EO
- 20 drops ginger EO
- 20 drops nutmeg EO
- 15 drops clove bud EO
- 5 drops cardamom EO
Add all essential oils to a glass bottle. One ¼ oz bottle will hold this blend perfectly. Screw cap on tightly and invert the bottle to blend the oils.
Diffusing: Fill your essential oil diffuser reservoir with water. Add 5-6 drops of the Pumpkin Spice Essential Oil Blend. Light a tea candle in the base of your diffuser and enjoy as your space fills with this spicy aroma!
As you can see, your spice rack can be a powerful healing tool. And you don’t have to be a professional herbalist to use many of these same spices to treat and prevent illness and disease. It is as simple as incorporating them into your cooking.
It is so easy to open your medicine cabinet for a quick fix for a headache or an upset stomach. My hope is that I have inspired you to replace synthetic pills in your medicine cabinet with items from your spice rack.
- Dearlove RP1, Greenspan P, Hartle DK, Swanson RB, Hargrove JL (2008). Inhibition of Protein Glycation by Extracts of Culinary Herbs and Spices. Journal of Medicinal Foods
- Mueller M1, Lukas B, Novak J, Simoncini T, Genazzani AR, Jungbauer A. (2008). Oregano: a Source for Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptor Gamma Antagonists.
- Exley C. (2014). Elevated Brain Aluminium and Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease in an Individual Occupationally Exposed to Aluminium: A Case Report. Journal of Medical Case Reports.