There’s good reason to season: Doctors and dietitians agree that your spice rack can be just as essential as your medicine cabinet when it comes to preventing and treating disease. Research consistently shows that many spices and herbs have medicinal qualities and can help prevent everything from cancer to the common cold. We asked two experts—Glen Aukerman, MD, medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Ohio State University Medical Center, and Ruth Knill, PhD, LAc, a Chinese herbalist—about the spices and herbs that best improve overall health. Here are their picks, plus easy ways to work them into your diet.
10 Spices That Heal
Cumin: Prevents Cancer
HOW IT WORKS: It’s no surprise to many spice researchers that cancer rates are lower in India, where cumin is a diet staple. Studies show that the curcumin in this spice inhibits the enzymes that help cancer cells invade healthy tissue and also keeps tumors from developing the new blood vessels that help them grow. TRY TO GET: 6 teaspoons of seeds or 1/2 teaspoon of powder a day. USE IT: Toss a bowl of root veggies, such as sweet potatoes, parsnips, cauliflower, and turnips, with olive oil and 1 teaspoon cumin powder. Bake at 300 degrees for 25 minutes or until tender, and add salt, pepper, and chopped cilantro to taste before serving.
Ginger: Calms Nausea
HOW IT WORKS: Chinese medical texts dating back to the fourth century BC tout ginger’s antinausea properties, and modern clinical studies offer scientific proof that it works—a substance in ginger shuts down a nerve receptor in the body that triggers the vomiting reflex. TRY TO GET: Juice from 1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger or 1/2 teaspoon dried ginger four times a day. USE IT: Add 1/2 teaspoon grated ginger and a few drops of toasted sesame oil to your usual tuna salad recipe for an Asian-style flavor.
Basil: Combats Colds
HOW IT WORKS: Basil is rich in antioxidants, which help boost immunity. It’s also an antimicrobial, which fights the germs that can cause colds. TRY TO GET: 1 to 2 tablespoons a day. USE IT: Toss 1 tablespoon chopped basil into a shrimp stir-fry during the last 3 to 5 minutes of cooking. Or slice strawberries, toss with honey, and set aside for 15 minutes until juicy. Then top with a few tablespoons of finely chopped basil.
Cinnamon: Fights Diabetes
HOW IT WORKS: People with type-2 diabetes have difficulty processing insulin, the hormone that tells cells to remove excess sugar from the bloodstream. But studies show that cinnamon contains a substance that can help cells respond to insulin. The result? A reduction of blood sugar levels by an average of 18 percent to 29 percent, according to a recent Pakistani study. TRY TO GET: 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon (or one stick) a day. USE IT: Mix 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon into 2 tablespoons peanut butter, and spread over apple slices.
Rosemary: Improves Memory
HOW IT WORKS: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” Ophelia said to Hamlet more than 400 years ago. Today, a variety of studies back up Ophelia’s claim. The ursolic acid in rosemary inhibits the breakdown of a neurotransmitter essential for memory. TRY TO GET: 1 to 2 teaspoons a day. USE IT: Make a rosemary-infused simple syrup by mixing 1 cup water, 1/2 cup sugar, and 2 sprigs rosemary. Bring to a boil so sugar dissolves, and let sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Drizzle over a fall fruit salad of chopped apples, pears, and red grapes. Use 1 cup syrup to 4 cups fruit.
Garlic: Reduces Cholesterol
HOW IT WORKS: Although researchers disagree about how effective garlic really is at lowering cholesterol, a review of several studies conducted by the Linus Pauling Institute found that people who took garlic for three months had a 6 percent to 11 percent reduction in total cholesterol. Because garlic is an antioxidant, it may prevent the oxidation of cholesterol in the arteries. TRY TO GET: 3 to 5 crushed cloves a day. USE IT: Roast up to 5 garlic cloves, and add to homemade hummus before pureeing.
Nutmeg: Lowers Blood Pressure
HOW IT WORKS: “Warming spices” like nutmeg can bring blood from the center of the body to the skin. This helps disperse the blood more evenly throughout the body, reducing overall pressure. TRY TO GET: 1/2 to 1 teaspoon a day. USE IT: Steam 1 head of broccoli and one potato until soft, and then puree with 1/4 cup butter and 4 to 5 gratings of fresh nutmeg or 1/4 teaspoon of ground nutmeg.
Cloves: Helps Arthritis Pain
HOW IT WORKS: According to Chinese medicine, cloves have hot and moving properties that relieve arthritis pain caused by cold and stagnation. Cloves contain a phytochemical that interrupts the pathways of a protein complex in the body that’s been linked to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. TRY TO GET: 1/2 teaspoon a day. USE IT: Sauté 1 cup fresh parsley (finely chopped), 1 clove garlic (crushed), 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, and 1 teaspoon cloves in 1 tablespoon olive oil. After 3 minutes, add 4 cups shredded rhubarb chard, and fry until soft and tender, about 5 minutes. Serve hot with chicken or fish.
Turmeric: Curbs Inflammation
HOW IT WORKS: An ancient spice that gives curry its deep golden-orange color, turmeric reduces the inflammation in the body that causes pain. Curcumin, a component in turmeric, inhibits cell enzymes that contribute to inflammation. TRY TO GET: 1/2 to 1 teaspoon a day. USE IT: Add a dash to organic canned soups, such as tomato, lentil, or black bean varieties.
Thyme: Eases a Cough
HOW IT WORKS: Thyme is an antispasmodic, which helps with bouts of nonstop coughing. Thyme’s antiseptic properties also make it very effective against inflammation of the throat, which can cause coughing. TRY TO GET: 2 to 3 teaspoons a day. USE IT: For a simple vinaigrette, whisk together 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh thyme leaves with 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon honey, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil.