The Impact of Herbs & Spices on Your Microbiome

Health and Wellbeing

Have you ever heard the saying ‘You are what you eat’? The truth is that what we consume directly affects our health. Our diets perform a significant role in helping us to optimise our general well-being. A healthy gut (our large and small intestine) is essential for efficient digestion and for reducing inflammation. Supported by high fibre foods, those with anti-inflammatory properties and probiotics (beneficial live bugs or microorganisms) – a robust digestive system can help keep chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease at bay. Including herbs and spices in our diet is now acknowledged as a significant way of helping the fight against inflammation – a key factor in serious illnesses. As easy add-ons to our cooking, herbs and spices taste good too!!

A balanced diet is crucial for maintaining a healthy gut, and incorporating things like high-fibre foods, anti-inflammatory foods and probiotics can greatly improve the number of ‘good’ bacteria in your gut. We’ve written a whole blog post about what ingredients you can include in a healthy gut diet, from yoghurt to spinach and seeds. Herbs and spices are particularly beneficial and are easy to add to your cooking. Keep reading to find out more about the positive effects of herbs and spices on our microbiome.

What is the microbiome?

Simply put, a microbiome refers to innumerable bugs (microorganisms/microbes/microbiota), such as bacteria, parasites, fungi and viruses, that naturally inhabit the body’s various organs. We are made up of a large number of microbiomes – each relating to a different organ in the body. Our microbiomes are individual to each one of us and along with our DNA, our environment, the medications we take and our stress levels, they help determine the quality of our physical and mental health.

Our digestive health is influenced by the calibre of the many microbes that live within our gut. A good balance of active bacteria working together determines the robustness of our immune system and consequently our resistance to disease. Whether this is by regulating the immune system, protecting against pathogens or assisting in nutrient absorption, these microorganisms all have a part to play. Our gut health can be compromised by poor diet, stress or the prolonged use of antibiotics. The latter create an inbalance in the body preventing the ‘normal’ positive reactions between the said microorganisms.

How do herbs and spices help our microbiome?

It’s clear that our microbiome has a huge impact on our physical wellbeing and even our mood (an imbalance of gut bacteria can have a negative impact on our mental health and contribute to diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s). So, how do we make sure we’re maintaining a balanced environment in our gut? As well as certain foods, herbs and spices are powerful ingredients in promoting gut health – they’ll also make your meals taste better, so it’s a win-win situation. 

Here are some ways that herbs and spices can help maintain a healthy microbiome:

  • Aids digestion:

Digestion is important for breaking down food into nutrients, which your body then uses to stay healthy. Throughout history, herbs and spices have been used as digestive stimulants. Peppermint, cardamom, fennel and ginger are particularly beneficial. Read our blog post on best herbs and spices for digestion here.

  • Rich in antioxidants:

Herbs and spices contain large numbers of antioxidants which fight off free radicals in your body. Antioxidants also protect the cells lining the gut by preventing inflammation. Some herbs and spices which contain high levels of antioxidants include cloves, peppermint, allspice and cinnamon.

  • Anti-inflammatory:

Inflammation in your gut can lead to many health issues such as irregular blood sugar, fatigue and chronic constipation. Turmeric is one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory spices, as well as black pepper, cinnamon and cayenne pepper.

  • Antibacterial:

Not all bacteria in the gut are good for you, and some of them can contribute to diseases. Certain herbs and spices such as cloves, garlic, thyme and oregano have antibacterial effects which stop the growth of ‘bad’ bacteria.

  • Prebiotic effects:

Prebiotics are soluble fibres from plant-based foods that support ‘good’ bacteria (also known as probiotics) and keep them healthy and flourishing. Cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, oregano and rosemary all have prebiotic properties which feed the probiotics in your gut.

How do I add herbs and spices to my diet?

According to this study by Penn State, just one teaspoon of herbs and spices per day can have an effect on the composition of your gut bacteria. Luckily, adding herbs and spices to your cooking may be easier than you think. You don’t have to dive straight into complicated recipes. Start small with your favourite dishes – a pinch of paprika or harissa in spaghetti bolognese, a helping of smokey chipotle over a chicken salad, or even a sprinkle of cumin in a hearty soup. You can even add spices to ice cream to create a flavoursome and healthy(ish) dessert, or a pinch of cinnamon in your banoffee pie.

But it’s not just food that pairs well with herbs and spices. Add them to your favourite drinks, such as this spiced banana and mango smoothie, to this turmeric tea and Cajun Cafe Brulot.

Summing up

Incorporating a mix of herbs and spices into your diet is a delicious and easy way to maintain a healthy microbiome. They may be small but they pack a punch in terms of health benefits, from aiding digestion to fighting off bad bacteria – there’s a reason that herbs and spices have been used for medical and culinary purposes for thousands of years. The best part is that there are so many different herbs and spices to choose from, and experimenting with different options can be a fun way to spice up your cooking.

Listen to this podcast from Dr Micheal Mosley called “Just one Thing”. It features Professor Tim Spector and is a really interesting discussion highlighting the value of eating at least 30 different plants in your diet each week and the positive impact on your microbiome.

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