Spice Up Your Cuisine To Help Protect Against Heart Disease, Cancer, Diabetes

Adding herbs and spices to your food may do more than make a meal tasty, it may keep you healthy. Potent plant compounds in herbs like cinnamon and rosemary have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial actions that scientists suggest might help do everything from normalize blood glucose levels and protect the heart to improve mood and boost brain function?even repel cancer cells.

Much of the research is preliminary and in rodents, but it expands our thinking of what flavoring food can do. Here, EN updates you on the latest research.

Chili Powder?Though it seems odd that capsaicin, the substance that gives chili peppers and chili powder their fiery heat, would act as a pain reliever, it has indeed been used for years as a topical cream to help people with arthritis, shingles and psoriasis. Experts suspect capsaicin works by first stimulating pain receptors via the skin and then shutting them down.

Now, scientists think this principle can help inside the body too. By combining the local anesthesia lidocaine (Xylocaine) with capsaicin, Harvard scientists were able to block pain receptors, yet leave touch and motor sensors intact, causing controlled numbness. Though tested only on rats so far, researchers are confident the finding could eventually transform the way surgery is performed. In laboratory studies, capsaicin has also been shown to kill prostate cancer cells.

Cinnamon?In addition to antioxidant and antimicrobial activity, cinnamon is now hailed for its power to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce blood glucose levels. It’s also been shown to lower cholesterol and triglyceride blood levels. Unfortunately, the data have been inconsistent. Nevertheless, even small amounts of cinnamon may be effective. One study showed that the equivalent of just one-half teaspoon of cinnamon powder twice daily before meals lowered glucose and cholesterol levels. Another found that the equivalent of a teaspoon a day lowered fasting glucose in people with diabetes.

Curry Powder?The current flurry around curry centers on its primary ingredient, turmeric, which contains curcumin, a powerful polyphenol with antioxidant properties. Curcumin lends the spice its distinctive flavor and vivid yellow color.

In a study in Endocrinology in July, Columbia University researchers reported that curcumin reduced inflammation and lessened the chances that obese mice would develop type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, in the mice that did get the disease, curcumin still lessened insulin resistance, improved blood sugar levels, decreased body fat and increased muscle mass.

More exciting studies target heart disease and cancer. Canadian scientists gave curcumin to mice with enlarged hearts. Not only did it lower the incidence of heart failure (a common outcome of an enlarged heart), but it reversed the condition, restoring heart function. Curcumin also has the ability to stop tumor growth and promote tumor cell breakdown, particularly in colorectal cancer cells.

Earlier animal research suggests curcumin may help prevent rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and Crohn’s disease. Its extract blocks bone breakdown, reducing the risk for osteoporosis. Now, scientists are looking at curcumin and Alzheimer’s disease. In India?where people eat two to four grams (about one teaspoon) of turmeric daily?Alzheimer rates are one-quarter what they are in the U.S.

It’s a leap from mice to men, of course, but it’s an exciting new avenue of research. Currently, 10 studies are underway in humans. In the meantime, cotton up to curry in cooking.

Ginger?This Asian spice, which has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries, has a reputation for preventing and soothing the nausea associated with motion sickness, pregnancy and chemotherapy. Its most active and pungent compounds are called gingerols, touted as potential cancer and inflammation fighters but, so far, the preliminary evidence is sketchy.

Oregano?Aside from its supreme antioxidant abilities (oregano has up to 20 times the antioxidant activity of other herbs, and ounce-for-ounce beats out apples and oranges), oregano is a potent anti-inflammatory agent too. That’s what German and Swiss researchers found recently when they gave oregano’s active ingredient to mice with swollen paws. The swelling subsided in up to 70% of the mice.

Rosemary?Rosemary is a robust herb that adds oomph to dishes, but can it crack down on cancer? Scientists think so, at least a concentrated extract of the herb might. Some researchers believe oregano can block dangerous carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCA) from forming during cooking.

A Kansas State University food scientist, motivated by a study showing that marinades made with rosemary, thyme and other spices could cut HCA in grilled steak by 87%, tried rosemary extract alone. Bingo. The rosemary wiped out any trace of HCA in the cooked beef patties, and without a strong rosemary taste. Researchers credit phenols with protective antioxidant, anticarcinogenic and anti-inflammatory effects.

Saffron?This spice is what turns rice yellow in the Spanish dish paella. Both the petal and sought-after stamen of saffron have shown potent antidepressant effects in several studies. In fact, a few studies found that 30 milligrams of saffron was just as effective as commonly prescribed fluoxetine (Prozac, Sarafem) and imipramine (Tofranil) for treating mild-to-moderate depression. Other research suggests saffron has anticarcinogenic properties.

Sage and Thyme?Both sage oil and thyme oil are thought to help maintain and protect brain function. Early research on rats suggests thyme oil works as a brain antioxidant, protecting polyunsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids from oxidation as the brain ages. Sage oil’s antioxidant powers may improve cognitive function in mild-to-moderate cases of dementia. In healthy adults, sage oil has been shown to improve mood and performance on simple tasks.

The Bottom Line. Ancient cultures have been using herbs and spices to prevent and treat illnesses for thousands of years, but only recently have Western scientists begun to substantiate some of these claims as well as discover new benefits.

Keep in mind, however, that much of the research has been in animals so far, and many studies use extracts, concentrates and supplements in amounts impossible to consume, fresh or dried. So researchers need to study these herbs and spices in humans in everyday amounts before recommendations can be made.

Nonetheless, it’s becoming clear that there are benefits to be had from enjoying a healthful and flavorful dose of herbs and spices in your food. Bon appetit!

?Diane Welland, M.S., R.D.

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