By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
I love cooking with herbs and spices of all kinds. They can take everyday meals from good to great, and they have powerful benefits for your health, to boot.
Take rosemary, for example. You might know this fragrant herb as the garnish on a leg of lamb. But did you also know that rosemary is rich in antioxidants and polyphenol nutrients that can support memory, fight type 2 diabetes, and improve heart health?
Like virtually all spices, rosemary is under-appreciated for what it brings to the table nutritionally.
No more. I’m going to tell you why I recommend this spice be on everyone’s kitchen shelf and what health benefits you can expect from eating more of it.
Let’s start with where the health benefits of rosemary come from.
What Makes Rosemary So Good for You?
A member of the mint family, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a flowering shrub that originally came from the Mediterranean and some parts of South America.
You’ll find rosemary in a few different forms. As a spice or tea, rosemary is safe for just about anyone, assuming you’ve never had an allergic reaction.
As an oil, rosemary is a different story. The oil includes a potent extract of compounds in rosemary called triterpenes—and while these compounds have been shown in studies to prevent and slow cell oxidation and even to help stop the growth of cancer cells, they are definitely NOT safe to take orally.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus mostly on its benefits mostly as a spice, since rosemary’s nutrients are most concentrated in that form.
Dried or fresh, rosemary contains the antioxidant vitamins A, C, B6, and folate, along with essential minerals calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and manganese. But what makes rosemary a nutritional powerhouse is its high levels of polyphenols, flavonoids, and terpenes—plant compounds that play a major role in supporting health and balance in the body.
Here are some specific ways rosemary works…
Rosemary Benefit #1: Fights Inflammation
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times—if you can reduce inflammation in your body, you’ll be taking the most important step you can to protect your health and slow the aging process.
Inflammation is at the root of a number of diseases and chronic conditions. As a cardiologist, I’m most familiar with it as the underlying cause of atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries that leads to heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. But inflammation also contributes to other chronic, progressive diseases, including Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and fibromyalgia.
The polyphenols and terpenes in rosemary are great weapons against inflammation because they’re naturally occurring antioxidants. They have the power to neutralize free radicals in the blood, which shuts down the inflammatory response. As a result, veins and arteries are less likely to become narrowed or clogged, and you’ll have less pain, swelling, and stiffness associated with chronic conditions like arthritis.
Rosemary Benefit #2: Supports the Brain and Memory
Another substance you’ll find in rosemary is carnosic acid.
Carnosic acid is a specific kind of terpene that has shown promise in easing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. This substance has also been linked with Alzheimer’s disease. Some research suggests that rosemary can suppress the production of dangerous amyloid plaque in the brain—a key contributor to the memory loss and cognitive decline that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s.
Inflammation has also been linked to Alzheimer’s, which makes rosemary’s antioxidants doubly important.
Rosemary Benefit #3: Helps Even Out Blood Sugar Levels
In my book, one of the worst chronic health conditions you can develop is type 2 diabetes—because it speeds up the aging process by about 15 years.
The acceleration occurs because of excess sugar in the blood, which causes inflammation and binds to the surface of veins, arteries, and other tissues. For people with diabetes, the cumulative effect of this is that blood doesn’t flow properly—and that, in turn, leads to complications with vision, heart disease, kidney function, and neuropathy.
Most people with type 2 diabetes manage their disease through diet and lifestyle, and some also take medication that improves their bodies’ sensitivity to insulin.
An extract of rosemary appears to have an insulin-like effect that can help better regulate how the body processes of glucose. It’s certainly not a replacement for medication, but regularly adding rosemary to your meals may help reduce the amount of medication you need, or help prevent your disease from progressing to the point where you need pharmaceutical help.
This research suggests that rosemary could help treat other kinds of metabolic diseases, too.
Rosemary Benefit #4: May Ease Indigestion
I have to admit that there’s no hard evidence behind this one, but rosemary tea is often used to treat indigestion. In fact, In Germany, it’s approved for exactly that—easing stomach upset.
There’s certainly no harm in giving this a try the next time your stomach starts rumbling in an unfriendly way. You’ll still be getting great anti-inflammatory, brain-boosting, and blood sugar leveling benefits.
How to Use Rosemary and Get Its Benefits
Since the Mediterranean is one of the origins of rosemary, it’s a natural fit with just about anything in the PAMM diet.
PAMM, of course, is short for my Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean diet plan that combines foods from the Mediterranean and Pacific Rim regions of the world. Both areas are known for supporting long lives—there are certain areas of Greece and Italy where it’s common for people to live past 100!
PAMM is an anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy diet that features healthy fats, lean proteins, low-glycemic carbs, and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. And there are plenty of opportunities for using rosemary in a meal.
I love it as a rub for meats, especially if you plan to cook them on the grill. When meats are cooked at especially high heat, as they are on a grill, they can form carcinogenic compounds. Some studies have shown that rosemary may be able to block the development of those carcinogens. It also gives meat great added flavor.
One of my favorite ways to eat rosemary is infused in extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil is also a tremendous source of anti-inflammatory polyphenols, and with rosemary it delivers even more health benefits. I like to drizzle olive oil over veggies and salads.
Rosemary olive oil is also absolutely fantastic when you add a splash or two to pasta sauce. (Didn’t think pasta could be part of a healthy diet? It can—find out how.)
Another great idea is to make your own rosemary-infused butter by simply melting butter in a pan with dried rosemary leaves and a bit of garlic. Just don’t let the butter start to smoke or sizzle, though, or it will oxidize and create unhealthy fats.
You can also enjoy the health benefits of rosemary by drinking rosemary tea, or even breathing in rosemary steam.
By now I hope you agree that it’s time to bring rosemary to the front of the spice cabinet. There are just too many health benefits to keep it hidden anymore. If you’ve got a great healthy recipe that uses rosemary, be sure to share it in the comments!
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- Ibarra A, et al. Carnosic-acid rich rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.) leaf extract limits weight gain and improves cholesterol levels and glycaemia in mice on a high fat diet. Br J Nutr. 2011 Oct;106(8):1182-9.
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- Renee J. Everything you ever wanted to know about rosemary. Foodal.com. 17 Feb 2015. Accessed November 28, 2017.
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