Monday, January 30, 2012

Herbs And Spices Pack More Than Flavor

Adding flavor to your food can be good for your health

When you think of herbal remedies, what comes to mind?  Is it black cohosh, ginko biloba, or echinacea?  Well, look no farther than your spice rack for the healing powers of these unassuming flavor enhancers.  Packed with phytochemicals, these leaves, stems and seeds may ward off a wide range of illness--from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease.  Read on to learn more.
The bark of a tropical evergreen tree, cinnamon, is used to impart a sweet, spicy flavor to desserts and savory dishes.  An alternate role cinnamon may play is to inhibit bacterial growth, specifically Listeria monocytogenes, which is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, seniors, and those with compromised immune function.  Cinnamon steeped in hot water with tea may act to calm the stomach, lessening nausea and vomiting. Cinnamon may also play a role in blood-sugar regulation.  Of forty-nine herbs, spices, and medicinal plants tested by the US Department of Agriculture for their ability to regulate insulin, cinnamon ranked the highest.

A twisted, knotted root common in Indian and Asian cooking, ginger may lessen pregnancy and chemotherapy-related nausea.  Recent research shows that ginger may also help to alleviate arthritis pain.  These findings, although promising, are relatively new and no recommendations are made for ginger to replace traditional osteoarthritis treatment.

Oregano is a member of the mint family whose main components, thymol and carvacrol, are potent antioxidants capable of preventing lipid peroxidation and neutralizing food-borne bacteria, such as E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and salmonella.  Oregano exhibits stronger antioxidant power than vitamin E.  Other culinary herbs with strong antioxidant activity are rose geranium, sweet bay, dill, purple amaranth, and winter savory.

The use of rosemary in cooking dates back to 500 BC.  It has been used as a food preservative and as a cosmetic fragrance, as well as for medicinal purposes.  It is loaded with a variety of phytochemicals that are proving to be important in the realm of disease prevention.  It has been shown to be beneficial to heart patients, preventing low-density lipoprotein cholesterol oxidation, as well as helping to preserve memory by reducing inflammation and neuron damage.  Carnosol, one of rosemary’s chief constituents, may play a future role in the treatment of liver disease and leukemia.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used sage as a homeopathic remedy.  Spanish sage may have a future as a treatment for age-related cognitive decline.  It has been shown to mimic the action of certain anti-Alzheimer’s medications.

Also a member of the mint family, thyme exhibits strong antioxidant and antimicrobial activity.  Its oils have been shown to disable respiratory pathogens, including those that cause influenza and pneumonia.  It may play a role in cognitive function as well.  Thymol, a primary phytochemical in thyme, may maintain optimal fatty acid balance in aging neurons.

Grown in India and other tropical areas of Asia, turmeric has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties owing to the phytochemical curcumin.  Two areas where turmeric’s effects are being shown are in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and certain forms of cancer, particularly those of the stomach and colon.

Despite the use of culinary herbs and spices in folk medicine for centuries, research into their ability to prevent disease is young.  They are best consumed in whole food form.  Individual plant chemicals isolated from the herbs may not have the same beneficial actions.  So add a little spice to your life, you may be healthier for it.

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