Best Spices for Health

There’s no doubt, the Pan-Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet will improve your health—but don’t stop there. It’s easy to take your cooking to the next level by adding healthy seasoning for richer flavor and extra health benefits.

Here are 10 options to help you get started:

1. Ginger

Ginger may be best known as a digestive aide, but it’s one of my healthiest spices because of the powerful cardiovascular support it provides. A natural anti-inflammatory and blood thinner, ginger has been linked with reductions in CRP, blood glucose, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. It has also been found in animal studies to inhibit a key enzyme that drives up blood pressure.

You can consume ginger in a few ways. One is to add chopped or grated ginger root to sauces, soups, and smoothies. Another is to drink ginger tea. (Add a dash of honey and lemon for extra flavor.) If the taste of ginger isn’t to your liking, you can also consider a supplement. A meta-analysis published in the journal Food & Nutrition Research found supplements to be just as beneficial to the heart as the food itself.

There is one very important caveat about using ginger, however. Because it thins the blood, patients taking aspirin, Coumadin (warfarin), and other prescription blood thinners should talk with their doctor about how much they consume.

2. Garlic

Throughout history, garlic has been used as an anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial agent. In fact, during World Wars I and II, it was known as “Russian Penicillin” because Russian army physicians used it to control infection and gastrointestinal disorders.

This healthy seasoning has heart health benefits, too. Studies show that it can help lower blood pressure and total cholesterol levels, as well as thin the blood. One trial even showed that a garlic extract could reduce some forms of coronary plaque buildup.

Including as much fresh garlic as you can handle in seasonings and sauces is a great way to reap its benefits; however, garlic is most beneficial when eaten raw. As garlic is chopped, crushed, or chewed, a sulfur compound called alliin combines with the enzyme alliinase to form allicin—garlic’s most medicinal compound. Heat deactivates allicin.

If the aroma or taste of raw garlic is too intense for you, try taking 500–1,000 mg daily of a garlic supplement. Look for products made with aged garlic extract, which has had positive outcomes in several studies.

Like ginger, it’s also important to use garlic judiciously. It, too, can combine with prescription blood thinners to excessively thin the blood. Work with your doctor to optimize your consumption.

3. Onion

Because onions belong to the same family of allium vegetables as garlic, they promote many of the same health benefits—including healthy cholesterol levels and normal blood clotting. But onions really shine when it comes to lowering blood pressure.

Onions are rich in the flavonoid quercetin. Research so far has identified three ways in which quercetin helps treat hypertension: (1) by reducing oxidative stress, (2) by improving endothelial function, and (3) by influencing enzymes that regulate blood pressure, such as ACE.

For maximum benefit, eat onions raw, in sandwiches, salads, or salsas. If you must cook onions, use low heat methods, which will preserve the integrity of quercetin. Onions also can be simmered in soups.

4. Turmeric (Curcumin)

The yellow color of turmeric makes it one of the most recognizable spices on store shelves—and its anti-inflammatory properties make it one of the healthiest.

Turmeric contains the compound curcumin, which has a long history in Chinese and Indian medicine as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial. Turmeric’s health benefits include supporting healthy blood pressure and clotting, and reducing the activity of several inflammatory mediators, including NF-kB and COX-2. Recent studies suggest that the spice also helps improve the body’s ability to collect and excrete excess LDL, which lowers the risk of oxidation and inflammation. One study reported that curcumin’s ability to reduce LDL and protect against atherosclerosis was comparable to lovastatin!

Still other research has linked curcumin to the prevention of cardiac hypertrophy (enlargement of the heart chambers) and reductions in tissue damage following heart attack—not to mention the hundreds of studies of curcumin’s effect on diabetes and cancer.

Cook with as much turmeric or curry as you can, and when the opportunity arises, order yellow curry dishes when dining out. Try adding it to a mug of hot organic milk sweetened with a teaspoon of honey as a healing nightcap. As a nutritional supplement, you can take 250–500 mg of curcumin daily.

5. Cayenne Pepper (Capsaicin)

Capsaicin, which gives cayenne pepper its heat, is the active component of this healthy seasoning and other hot peppers.

A common ingredient in topical pain relievers, capsaicin helps dilate capillaries, increase circulation, and raise body temperature in the affected area. When consumed orally, research shows that capsaicin improves endothelial function by helping cells produce higher levels of nitric oxide. This helps arteries dilate properly and lowers blood pressure. Capsaicin’s thermogenic properties have also been studied in the context of weight loss. Findings show that the seasoning may be able to increase calorie burn and blunt appetite.

It’s important not to overdo it with cayenne, because too much can harm cellular DNA. Try to limit eating hot peppers to once a week. If you supplement with capsaicin, 2,000–4,000 IUs every other day is recommended.

6. Rosemary

This healthy, antioxidant-rich herb is a cancer fighter that’s also good for the brain.

Rosemary can be especially healthy when cooking meat. High heat—such as frying, broiling, or grilling—can cause the formation of carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCAs); however, the carnosic and rosemarinic acids in rosemary can help prevent HCAs from forming. Rosemary also seems to stimulate the body’s production of enzymes that protect against cancer cells, and halts tumor development by preventing carcinogens from binding with DNA. In the brain, there is some evidence that carnosic acid may be able to inhibit the growth of amyloid plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

Add more rosemary to your diet by marinating meats and poultry in chopped, fresh rosemary before cooking, or add fresh rosemary to salads and sauces.

7. Cinnamon

The health benefits of cinnamon have gotten a lot of press over the past decade, mostly related to its ability to improve insulin sensitivity and control blood sugar levels. But its benefits aren’t limited to that.

Cinnamon is off the charts when it comes to antioxidant potential. In fact, scientists at the National Institutes of Health listed ground cinnamon as one of the top foods for increasing antioxidant levels in the blood. It’s also been shown to reduce arterial inflammation and the risk of blood clots.

Sprinkle cinnamon in oatmeal, tea, hot apple cider, and yogurt. Try mixing it with almond butter and eating a few teaspoons with an apple or banana. Don’t go overboard, though; ½ to 1 teaspoon per day will do the trick.

8. Cilantro/Coriander

People generally think of cilantro and coriander as different things, but these herbs are actually parts of the same plant. Cilantro is the leaves, coriander the seeds.

High in beta-carotene, cilantro can help lower risk of cardiovascular events and prostate cancer, and increase one’s immunity to colds and flu. This healthy herb is also a powerful detoxifying agent that can be used to help chelate mercury from the body. It is especially beneficial for diabetics, who produce more toxic metabolites due to compromised metabolism.

9. Basil

This spice has a long history in traditional medicine as a therapy for anything from headaches to digestive and liver ailments. I like it for its anti-inflammatory properties and proven ability to thin the blood and reduce blood pressure. The spice also helps modulate the immune and stress responses.

Basil’s benefits are due in part to its antioxidant phenol content, but credit also goes to the oils it contains. In addition to giving the plant its aroma, the oils are part of basil’s natural defense against insects and other environmental threats. In the body, the oils have an adaptogenic effect. That is, it helps keep blood sugar and stress hormones down when our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated.

Basil is the main ingredient in pesto sauce. It’s a favorite with pasta, but it also can be paired with meats, spread on sandwiches, or mixed with veggies. Basil also can be infused in extra virgin olive oil, and eaten with salads.

10. Fennel

This seasoning, which looks like celery but tastes similar to licorice, will add potassium, folate, and fiber to your diet. Potassium is vital for healthy blood pressure, while folate helps neutralize the harmful effects of homocysteine in the blood. Insoluble fiber is an excellent way to both feed your gut bacteria and sweep unneeded LDL cholesterol out of the body.

One study has shown that fennel also may suppress appetite, which is good news if you’re trying to lose weight. In the study, women were given either fennel tea, fenugreek tea, or a placebo tea and then offered a lunch buffet. The women reported less hunger and increased feelings of fullness after drinking the fennel and fenugreek mixtures, compared with placebo.

Add fennel to soups and salads, or roast or sauté as a side dish.

Bonus Seasoning:  Juniper Berry

One of the more colorful uses for juniper berries is making gin—but they can also be used as healthy way to spice up a meal (particularly meat). Traditionally, these berries have been used to relieve muscle cramps, detoxify the blood, and support digestion.

You shouldn’t eat juniper berries if you’re pregnant, and you should be careful with them if you take any sort of diuretic. The berries are a natural diuretic, and combining them with prescription meds could lead to dehydration or unexpected and dangerous changes in electrolyte balance.

What About Salt?

Don’t fall victim to the notion that you should cut salt from your diet to improve heart health. Certainly, you should cut back and be mindful of the hidden salt in processed foods. But you need some salt for your body to function correctly. Salt has a “sweet spot” – you can read more about it here.

Resources:

© 2011, 2016  HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.

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2 Comments

  1. margie petrone

    on October 9, 2014 at 10:36 pm

    Thank you so much for this wonderful information. I have been eating healthy for over 30 years. The only types of books I read is the Bible and then health and cook books. You provide so much information with great detail. Thank you for blessing me with your website and may God bless for blessing others.

  2. jER

    on October 17, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    EXCELLENT INFORMATION. DON’T FORGET to add black pepper to all foods when using salt. Curry leaves are excellent in preventing colds and help digestion, as also Asofoetida. Thank you.

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