The medicinal and well-being properties of herbs and spices.

Understanding Spices

The healing power of herbs and spices has been known for thousands of years and, to this day, a large proportion of the world’s population still benefits from their medicinal use.  They can be cheaper, safer and equally as effective as their modern pharmaceutical counterparts.  In the 14th century 500 herbal remedies were recorded and they were an invaluable part of daily life. Read on to learn more about medicinal herbs and spices for health and well-being.

Brewing ‘tea’ from these medicinal herbs or spices – as a very rough guide ( the amounts not being critical) – one teaspoon of dried herbs or spice added to a cup of boiling water, left for ten to fifteen minutes, strained and drunk can provide relief for a variety of conditions.

Ginger (from the Zingiberaceae family)

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, ginger is a hot, fragrant spice made from the rhizome of a plant, which may be chopped or powdered for cooking, preserved in syrup, or candied. This Asian, bamboo – like plant produces spice with a hot, rich flavour and peppery – lemon notes. It is one of the most versatile and widely used spices and is an essential ingredient in the many spice blends that go to create the curries we enjoy so much today.  Historically this spice, coming from strange foreign lands, was seized upon by cooks looking for that extra ‘something’  to add interest to their offerings.  It is great with vegetables especially sweet potato, pumpkin and squash, does wonders sprinkled on melon and makes the most delicious puddings, biscuits and cakes.  Who has not succumbed to the charms of a very sticky parkin on Bonfire Night?!

Ginger can be found in many spice blends from around the world – for example –

However, this is not the whole story.  Ginger’s versatility encompasses much more than its culinary applications. Here is a snap shot of gingers medicinal and well-being uses.

Well known for treating nausea it is used extensively especially as a preventative.  It has been shown to be more effective than conventional travel pills. Ginger has been used to relieve the nausea of anaesthesia, chemotherapy and only need be taken in small quantities.  (Up to one teaspoon in a cup of boiling sweetened water.)

As an anti-inflammatory there is some evidence that ginger can improve the symptoms of both osteo and rheumatoid arthritis.  By reducing inflammation in the blood vessels of the brain, ginger has been shown to help the pain of migraine.  As an anti-spasmodic it is thought to improve digestive disturbances and calm uterine cramps.

Ginger has been shown to play a role in lowering cholesterol and as aspirin thins the blood preventing blood clots, so does ginger but without the potential side effects.

It is claimed that ginger is an antioxidant and that as a consequence it has cancer preventing properties.  It has even been used in its treatment.

Many say that ginger ‘tea’ is a natural cough supressant and can improve bronchial congestion. As an old fashioned gargle for sore throats use half to one teaspoon of ginger in a cup of boiling water adding lemon juice and honey to taste.

So versatile, ginger is one of the best known of well being herbs and spices!

Turmeric (Curcuma Longa)

Turmeric (Curcuma Longa) is a member of the ginger family. The ground root of the plant has been used for thousands of years for culinary and medicinal and well-being purposes – not forgetting its historical use as a fabric dye. (Its vivid deep yellow colour is extremely difficult to remove in accidental staining!)

Turmeric gives curries their yellow hue, imparting a musky, tart flavour with a light, peppery, ginger aroma. It is vital in spice blends and many vegetarian dishes, especially with beans and lentils. It is excellent in rice dishes and with spinach, eggs and aubergines. An essential ingredient in curries, it is often used in salad dressings, mustard, relishes and chutneys and to colour cakes, puddings, desserts and rice.

This spice is an integral part of many spice blends including –

Turmeric is one of the most effective nutritional substances we know. It has so many positive benefits for the whole body. (It gives a whole new meaning to ‘Curry Night’!)

According to Kris Gunnars;

“Turmeric contains curcumin, a substance with powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties……Cucumin boosts levels of the brain hormone BDNF… and fights various degenerative processes in your brain…… Cucumin has beneficial effects on several factors known to play a role in heart disease…… Curcumin…may help prevent and perhaps even treat cancer……Curcumin…has been shown to lead to various improvements in the pathological process of Alzheimer’s disease……many studies show that curcumin can treat symptoms of arthritis and is in some cases more effective than anti- inflammatory drugs……a study in 60 people with depression showed that curcumin was as effective as Prozac in alleviating symptoms……”

Having anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric can be a powerful pain-relieving remedy: take one teaspoon of turmeric powder in a glass of warm milk three times a day.

(For conditions such as carpel tunnel and peptic ulcer, supplements may be more appropriate.)

Turmeric has a bronchodilatory effect: sip one teaspoon in a glass of warm water.

It is effective in the treatment of jaundice and all liver disease, particularly hepatitis when the immune system is compromised. It can also help stimulate the flow of bile.

Turmeric (used with care) has been shown to improve appetite and with the addition of marshmallow and liquorice can help protect intestinal linings. It can also be of benefit when treating acidity if combined with dandelion and meadowsweet.

Bursitis and tendinitis (tennis elbow) are yet two more instances where the curcumin in turmeric has proved beneficial.

Using turmeric generously in cooking is good for water retention.

By way of topical application two teaspoons of turmeric mixed to a paste with water, spread on the skin, covered with a dressing and left for an hour, will treat the fungal skin condition ringworm. (Repeat three times a day).

For sunburn, make a paste of equal amounts of turmeric, barley and yoghurt.

There are so many positives about turmeric as one of a long list of medicinal herbs and spices.

Garlic (bulb of plant Allium sativum L)

Garlic – one of the most widely known and used herbs.  A super-food we either love or hate!

From the onion family, garlic (Allium sativum) is, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English – “a strong smelling pungent tasting bulb used as a flavouring in cookery and in herbal  medicine.”  As a seasoning it is a highly versatile essential in every kitchen, at the same time it is well known for its impressive health benefits.

Classified as a vegetable in botanical terms, garlic has been grown for thousands of years and comes in approximately 600 varieties.  Thought to have originated from south and central Asia and south-western Siberia, it is now cultivated in most countries around the world.  The bulb of the garlic plant splits open to reveal several ‘cloves’ – the part that is eaten either raw or cooked.

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum), found in Asia and Europe is a age old feature of our woods.  With its distinctive white flowers, spear-shaped leaves and all pervading smell it is a great culinary addition having the same medicinal benefits as its cultivated ‘cousin’.  As a relatively recent addition to our diet, all parts of the plant can be eaten – flowers (and buds), leaves, seed heads and bulbs.

Hippocrates, the Greek physician and ‘Father of Medicine’ (c. 400 BC) said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”  Nothing could be more true of garlic. Not only is it  deliciously nutritious, it has amazing benefits for our well-being too.

The medicinal and well-being advantages of garlic have been shown to apply literally from ‘head to toe’ –  from cancer of the brain to athlete’s foot!

There is evidence to show that garlic has a beneficial effect on the circulatory system, improving cholesterol levels and reducing hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), therefore having a positive impact on angina and heart disease.  Eating a daily clove of garlic (preferably raw) has the potential to reduce both high blood pressure (hypertension) and the tendency for blood to clot.

In large doses garlic has been shown to reduce the risk of stomach, prostate, colon, lung, rectal and breast cancer.

As an antibiotic and an anti-viral  there is scientific evidence to show garlic’s effectiveness internally and externally – notably – internally with intestinal (toning the gut and aiding a sluggish digestion)  and respiratory infections.

Add to this the antiseptic compounds found in garlic and the herb becomes a treatment (crushed and applied) for wounds, warts and styes.  A slice of the fresh clove rubbed onto the offending part (being very careful around the eyes) can prove efficacious. Taken internally it can help fight infection caused by a bite, a sting, a mouth abscess or a boil.

As an anti-fungal, garlic helps in the battle against the afore-mentioned athletes foot, as well as ringworm and scabies.

Garlic’s anti-inflammatory properties can reduce inflammation and help ease the symptoms caused by infection or injury.  It has a very positive effect on the swollen joints of osteo and rheumatoid arthritis.

There is evidence that garlic can play a part in supporting the body’s immune system, helping to fight and reduce the frequency of, coughs, colds, flu’ and catarrh – especially when eaten fresh and preferably raw.

The antioxidant properties found in the compounds of garlic may play an important role in the prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, protecting against cell damage and  consequent aging.

Did you know?

Crushed garlic rubbed onto any part of the body will result in ‘Garlic’ breath!

Historically garlic has been given to athletes to improve energy levels.

It is said that breast-feeding babies enjoy the taste of garlic!

As a detoxifying agent, garlic reduces the lead in lead poisoning.

To get rid of ‘black spot’ and ‘mildew’ in the garden sow garlic beneath the affected plants!

In conclusion garlic has a reputation difficult to surpass in terms of beneficial nutrients.  Its medicinal properties have been known for thousands of years and it has even been found more effective than modern, conventional medicine.  A wonder herb, no less, that deserves a place alongside all other well being herbs and spices!

Garlic is found in the following spice blends.

Essential store cupboard ingredients include – Garlic salt and ready crushed garlic (in jars)

The Chilli Pepper (Capsicum annuum)

Of the nightshade family, the chilli pepper is “a small, hot tasting pod of a variety of capsicum, used in sauces, relishes and spice powder.  There are various forms with pods of differing size, colour and strength of flavour.” (Oxford Dictionary of English) The pods are the ripe fruit or berries of the chilli plant and have been a dietary addition for thousands of years, not only for their distinctive taste but also for their many health benefits. They were first discovered in the tropical and subtropical parts of America –  came to Europe in the 15th century and from here their popularity soon spread throughout the rest of the world.

Eaten raw, cooked or in a fine powder form, chillies were originally used to keep food from spoiling in warm climates, preventing the growth of up to 75% of bacteria. They certainly liven up many dishes from around the world but it is not just for their culinary ‘fire’ that they are so well known. The main heat producing chemical in chillies, capsaicin, accounts not only for their very distinctive taste, but also for their many, more surprising, medicinal properties – in which case the hotter the better!

On the Scoville (heat rating) scale the green bell pepper scores zero. On the other hand pure capsaicin scores 16 million. As a consequence chilli peppers, especially the red hotter versions, may not be well tolerated by everyone either because of their intensely hot taste or their potential for causing upset stomachs. How, then, can they potentially contribute towards our well-being and be a miracle aid for so many health issues?

Chilli peppers are nutritionally amazing. They contain a vast array of vitamins and minerals and antioxidant plant compounds. Many of the following claims showing the medical benefits of consuming chillies have been scientifically proven. A small minority remain controversial.

In large ‘doses’ chillies are capable of reducing severe bleeding even in situations where emergency measures have been required. They are similarly useful in the treatment of stomach ulcers.

Chillies support cardiovascular health by regulating blood pressure and keeping cholesterol levels in check thereby reducing the possibility of blood clots. Being high in potassium, they can improve blood circulation by preventing arteries from contracting, generally improving the heart’s overall activity.

Although chillies could be regarded as pain-causing, these heat-producing pods are in actual fact a natural pain-killer and anti-inflammatory. By improving blood circulation their anti-inflammatory properties have been shown to reduce the need for conventional pain relief in osteo and rheumatoid arthritis, HIV and diabetic neuropathy, shingles and psoriasis. By desensitising the nerves responsible for the pain of migraine, the effects of yet another distressing condition seem to be mitigated. Historically they have been used to relieve the pain of toothache and are evidently still used as an analgesic.

Spices create the greatest anti-oxidant activity of all foods and this, together with its anti-inflammatory properties, means that the capsaicin in chillies is potentially useful in preventing and treating cancer without affecting normal cells. Leukaemia and those cancers which are hormone dependant, such as breast and prostate cancer, are regarded as particularly suitable for study.

Surprisingly, capsaicin is an anti- irritant and as such is capable of relieving many problems associated with the digestive tract. Aiding the flow of gastric juices it can lessen acidity, prevent and heal peptic ulcers and as an anti-oxidant can have a positive effect on all types of digestive upsets.

Chillies are a thermogenic food which, by boosting metabolic rate, can burn calories without the need for additional exercise. They have also been found to curb appetite by increasing the rate at which we feel ‘full’. Dream scenario!

Rich in anti-oxidants ( which are only found in plant-based food) chillies can be useful in fighting viruses such as colds and ‘flu. Both beta-carotene which is converted by the body into vitamin A ( incidentally – essential for good eye health) and vitamin C (which protects cells) help to build the immune system.   They also support our immunity in the fight against fungal infections such as ringworm, athlete’s foot and yeast infections. Vitamin C has an important role to play in healing wounds too.

Chillies have been found to adjust the amount of insulin that is necessary to control blood sugar. It is hoped that they may play an important role in the future in preventing and treating type-2 diabetes.

Iron-rich foods such as chillies are essential in maintaining haemoglobin levels in the blood, preventing anaemia and fatigue. Also, on a very positive note, by lowering blood pressure and expanding blood vessels, improving blood flow, the capsaicin in chillies can bolster cognitive function and lessen the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Chillies are high in potassium which is important for muscle contractions, nerve signals and fluid balance. They contain vitamin B6 which is needed for a healthy nervous system, folic acid which is essential in pregnancy to prevent serious birth defects and several vitamins necessary for a healthy nervous system.

Capable of killing various pathogens – as an anti-bacterial chillies can benefit various conditions including chronic sinus infections: As an anti inflammatory it can prevent and control the symptoms of allergies.  It is capable of maintaining collagen, a key protein for healthy hair and skin.

Eating chilli powder can even (or maybe not surprisingly!) purify unpleasant breath…

It has long been thought that spices aid longevity and chillies vie for a leading role. Making the most of the beneficial health-giving plants of the natural world, especially the well-being herbs and spices that exist, would seem a ‘no – brainer’ where we rely so heavily on medications produced by the pharmaceutical industry.

There seems to be an ever increasing list of potential uses for chillies, especially the hotter varieties.  More research is necessary to fully understand all the possible medicinal benefits of this many-faceted and exciting addition to our diet.

Cinnamon (from the genus Cinnamomum)

Cinnamon is an aromatic spice made from the peeled, dried and rolled bark of a S.E. Asian tree. (Oxford Dictionary of English)

One of the most well known and popular of all spices cinnamon has traditionally been used to treat digestive problems but has more recently been found to have other amazing health benefits. It is yet another example of a spice with surprising properties of which we may be totally unaware.

There are two types of cinnamon of which vary by region – cassia (Cinnamomum Aromaticum, Cinnamomum Burmannii) – which Indonesian is an example and true cinnamon (Cinnamonum Verum, Ceylon Zeylanicum) also known as Ceylon cinnamon. Sri Lankan is a good example of the latter.

With no sodium and no cholesterol it is high in iron and potassium and, together with its vast array of other features, it is capable of being a natural food preservative. Without any serious additional calories, it is still difficult to believe how cinnamon, with its wonderful culinary capabilities, has so much potency and can be such a great source of healthy nutrition. When it comes to the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial and antimicrobial properties of many herbs and spices, cinnamon is well ‘up there’ with all the other medicinal herbs and spices!

As with so many other herbs and spices, cinnamon regales us with numerous properties essential in maintaining good physical condition. Many of its benefits are probably due to the high concentration of cinnamaldehyde – a compound which gives cinnamon its distinctive taste and smell.

One of cinnamon’s strengths lies in its anti-inflammatory properties, most useful in fighting infections and repairing tissues that have been damaged when chronic inflammation has attempted to destroy them.

Cinnamon is full of antoxidants which are thought to be credible weapons in the fight against diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes potentially preventing or slowing down the progress of these serious conditions. In this respect cinnamon stands out as a superfood.

As an antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal, cinnamon is looking very promising. It has been shown very effective in some areas and more research is needed. It may prove useful in the fight against tooth decay!

Cinnamon is capable of reducing ‘bad’ and improving ‘good’ cholesterol. It is thought to reduce blood pressure. Consequently it must be seriously considered in the prevention and treatment of heart disease.

Type 2 diabetes sufferers can also benefit from the health giving properties of cinnamon. It has been shown to reduce insulin resistance and to improve blood markers which are both of major significance in lowering blood sugar.

Studies have been undertaken in connection with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s which affect the performance of brain cells. They are looking very hopeful.

Experiments have also been conducted that show the potential worth of certain cinnamon extracts in the fight against cancer. Their effect on the growth, spread and longevity of cancer cells has serious implications in this on-going battle.

Cinnamon has also been linked to the fight against HIV-1, the most commom form of the virus.

All in all cinnamon represents a potentially formidable ally in the war against illness and disease.

A few terms it may be worth examining:

Anti-inflammatory. Inflammation “is the body’s attempt at self protection: the aim being to remove harmful stimuli, including damaged cells, irritants or pathogens – and begin the healing process.” (brendamuella.com) However when inflammation goes into ‘over-drive’ and becomes chronic it can trigger many serious diseases. This is where anti inflammatories come in.

Antioxidant. Antioxidants ”help prevent the harmful effects of free radicals. They are molecules that neutralise free radicals, unstable molecules that can harm cells” (Atli Arnarson Ph.D) . A balance is required between the proliferation of free radicals and the body’s response in detoxifying them. Antioxidants come into play to reduce the harmful effects of free radicals.

Antibacterial. Bacteria are minute single cell organisms – they exist everywhere around us and can be good or bad. “A bacterial infection is a proliferation of a harmful strain of bacteria on or inside the body.” (on-health.co.uk) Antibacterials interfere with the growth and spread of bacteria.

Antimicrobial. Microbes or microorganisms are single or multiple cell, come in various guises (eg. bacteria, viruses, fungi), are to be found everywhere and can be beneficial or potentially dangerous. Antimicrobials come in various man made forms such as antibiotics, antiseptics and disinfectants.

The preferred way to ingest agents with the positive credentials set out above must be the natural way via a healthy diet.

Can Food Help Immunity?

Whilst “there are no specific foods that will prevent or treat COVID -19…there are still many positive things you can do to support your health.”  By “making sure you’re supporting your immune system by eating a plant-rich diet that supports the trillions of microbes living within your gut.”  (The microbiome)

“The microbes that live in your gut play an essential role in the body’s immune response to infection…and overall health”.

“You can increase the diversity of your microbiome by eating lots of plant-based foods, which are high in fibre, and limiting ultra-processed and junk food.”

Eat “plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains; healthy fats like high-quality extra virgin olive oil; and lean meat or fish for those who wish.”

Load up on brightly coloured fruit and vegetables…such as spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes, red peppers, mango, papaya and apricots.”

“…frozen fruit, berries and veg are just as good for you as their fresh counterparts and will last much longer than two weeks. Canned fruit, beans and pulses are also a long-lasting option.”

Tim Spector, of King’s College London recommends:

“You can also boost your microbiome by adding in artisan cheeses and natural yoghurt, which both contain live microbes.  Try a regular shot of other natural probiotics like kefir (fermented milk) or kombucha (fermented tea).”

“…tuck into some kimchi – a tasty mix of fermented vegetables like cabbage with chili and garlic…”

Recommendations also include avoiding alcohol, sweets, sugary drinks, artificial sweeteners and similar additives.

You may also like to read

Unveiling the Spice Dilemma: Are spices Adulterated in the UK and if so, how?

Understanding Spices

Spices have long been integral to the UK's culinary landscape, adding depth, flavours, and richness to a myriad of dishes. From the pungent aroma of cumin in Indian curries to...

Read More

A Guide To Choosing Biodegradable Wedding Confetti

Understanding Spices

Confetti is an essential part of any wedding day. Not only is it a wonderful way to greet a newlywed couple, but it also provides some beautiful photo opportunities. The...

Read More

10 Unique Edible Gifts

Seasonal Ideas

It’s no secret that any handmade gift will always be more special than a store-bought one. Homemade food gifts are especially wonderful, a labour of love that shows someone you...

Read More

Healthy Winter Comfort Foods

Health and Wellbeing

It’s no secret that winter’s cold and gloomy weather makes us crave indulgent dishes like fondue and baked goods like sticky toffee pudding and apple crumble. While Christmas is the...

Read More