Spices That Can Really Benefit Your Health

Sometimes, good things really do come in small packages. In addition to imparting big flavor to a dish, a little sprinkle from your spice cabinet may offer some significant health benefits. 

As dietitian Monica Auslander Moreno explained in an interview with WebMD: "Herbs and spices make food tastier while boosting your health ... You should be cooking with herbs and spices regularly — and, if possible, using several at a time." Whether fresh or dried, herbs are made from the leaves of a plant, while spices come from other parts such as the seeds, bark, roots, or berries. In addition to livening up the taste of food, many herbs and spices have been used as medicine for thousands of years. While some are now available in supplement form, Moreno suggests using the real thing, since herbs and spices may work synergistically with the food you add them to.

The authors of a 2019 paper published in the Journal of AOAC International noted that "there is now ample evidence that spices and herbs possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antitumorigenic [anti-tumor], anticarcinogenic [anti-cancer], and glucose- and cholesterol-lowering activities as well as properties that affect cognition and mood." These effects can be attributed to a variety of plant compounds, including sulfur-containing compounds, tannins, alkaloids, flavonoids, and polyphenols. So which herbs and spices should you be stocking your kitchen with?

Parsley

Although oranges have become the poster child for vitamin C, there are many other foods that are actually much richer sources of this important micronutrient. According to NutritionData, a single sprig of this flavorful herb contains 5 mg of vitamin C — 8% of your daily needs. This can add up quickly when you're dressing up pasta, potatoes, or other dishes.

Vitamin C is known for its immune-boosting properties, and while it's true that not getting enough of this vitamin can impair your body's ability to fight off germs, vitamin C plays a number of other very important roles in the body. It's necessary for the synthesis of collagen, a structural protein found in skin and connective tissues. Vitamin C is essential for proper wound healing, and is also needed to properly absorb and utilize iron from plant foods. It's a powerful antioxidant and can even help "regenerate" other antioxidants so they can be used again (via the National Institutes of Health).

Eating parsley may keep you looking youthful. As a 2017 paper published in Nutrients explained, vitamin C concentration is particularly high in the skin. In addition to helping create collagen (which gives skin its structure), vitamin C's antioxidant properties protect against cellular skin damage caused by UV radiation. Signs of aging like wrinkles can be prevented or postponed with vitamin C.

Cloves

Herbs and spices are particularly high in antioxidants, so using even just a pinch of these powerful superfoods while cooking can make a big difference. 

In a 2010 paper published in Nutrition Journal, researchers established the total antioxidant content of more than 3,100 foods. Excluding non-food herbal and dietary supplements, culinary herbs and spices had the highest average antioxidant content of any food category tested. The paper's authors found that within the realm of herbs and spices, cloves are king. They contain an average of 277.3 mmol/100 g. (For comparison, the next-richest source of antioxidants in this category was dried mint, with an average of 116.4 mmol/100g.)

But what exactly do antioxidants do, and why are they so important for good health? Antioxidants are chemicals that protect the body against damage from free radicals. Free radicals are highly unstable atoms of oxygen that try to "steal" electrons from other molecules in the body. This destabilizes the molecules and creates a chain reaction that leads to damage throughout the body, a process known as oxidative damage or oxidative stress. Substances that produce free radicals can be found in food and in our environment, and free radicals are also created as the byproduct of natural chemical processes in the body. Antioxidants are able to give free radicals the electrons they want without becoming destabilized themselves (via Live Science).

Turmeric

Turmeric is botanically related to ginger and a common ingredient in curry powders. Its main active compound, curcumin, gives the spice its distinctive yellow color and purported health benefits. 

Curcumin may have a positive influence on cholesterol and triglyceride levels, diabetes, certain types of cancers, depression, Crohn's disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But curcumin is best known for its anti-inflammatory properties. It's a commonly used remedy for those with osteoarthritis, and research suggests that curcumin may be as effective as NSIADs like ibuprofen (via the Mayo Clinic).

But it's important to note that although it often gets a bad rep, inflammation isn't always a negative thing. According to the Harvard Medical School, acute inflammation occurs immediately after an injury and produces warmth, redness, swelling, and pain. This brings white blood cells to the area, where they can begin the healing process. Problems arise, however, if the inflammatory response becomes chronic. In these cases, the body can get confused and begin attacking healthy tissue. Chronic, low-grade inflammation is believed to cause or worsen a number of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis. Chronic inflammation doesn't produce the telltale signs that acute inflammation causes, so it often goes unnoticed and unaddressed.

Dill

Dill is packed with both flavor and health benefits. It contains vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron (via WebMD). Dill is rich in antioxidants, particularly flavonoids and tannins. It may help lower blood glucose levels, and research suggests that the monoterpenes (a type of plant compound) found in dill have anticancer, antiviral, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. Dill is particularly high in one type of monoterpene known as d-limonene that's shown particular promise in preventing lung, breast, and colon cancer. Dill may even reduce severity of menstrual cramps (via Healthline).

Dill may also lower your risk for cardiovascular disease thanks to its positive impact on cholesterol levels. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, researchers had subjects consume six dill tablets daily for two months. At the end of the experiment, the subjects' total cholesterol had decreased by an average of 9.41%, and their triglyceride levels had decreased by 32.7%. In addition, their HDL ("good") cholesterol levels had increased by 3.91%. While participants in the study consumed dill extract rather than fresh dill, the research suggests that regularly consuming this herb could be beneficial for those with high cholesterol. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 93 million American adults have a total cholesterol level greater than 200 mg/dL, and approximately 28 million of those individuals have levels higher than 240 mg/dL. In addition, about 17% of adults have an HDL ("good") cholesterol level below 40mg/dL.

Garlic powder

In addition to keeping vampires at bay, garlic may be able to ward off bacteria and other disease-causing microorganisms. A 2014 paper published in the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine attributed garlic's antimicrobial properties to a compound known as allicin. Garlic may be effective against a wide range of pathogens, including Salmonella, E. coli, staph, candida (yeast), and the organisms that cause athlete's foot. Interestingly, garlic appears to harm disease-causing microorganisms while leaving the beneficial ones in our gut unharmed. The researchers also noted that "garlic has been found to contain a large number of potent bioactive compounds with anticancer properties." It may be able to inhibit the activation of carcinogens, protect DNA from activated carcinogens, and improve the body's ability to detoxify.

Preliminary research suggests that garlic may even be able to prevent the common cold. In a study published in Advances in Therapy, researchers gave 146 participants either garlic pills or a placebo and then followed them for 12 weeks in winter. Among those receiving the garlic, there were 24 colds, while the placebo group had 65. The garlic group experienced cold symptoms for only about a day and a half, while those in the placebo group took an average of a little over five days to feel better.

Thyme

Thyme, which is in the same plant family as mint, is a pantry staple that may possess a number of health benefits. The micronutrients in thyme, including vitamins A and C, manganese, iron, and copper, help support a healthy immune system. Studies suggests that thyme may be useful for improving blood pressure, combatting acne, destroying cancer cells, and improving mood. It's important to note, however, that most research has focused on thyme essential oil, which is far more concentrated than the fresh herb (via Healthline).

The health benefits of thyme are believed to stem largely from two active compounds: carvacrol and thymol. A 2018 paper published in Phytotherapy Research noted that carvacrol has antioxidant, anticancer, and antimicrobial properties. It's particularly effective against foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Bacillus cereus. Carvacrol is also found in oregano, peppermint, and bergamot. According to a 2017 review article published in Frontiers in Pharmacology, the phenol (plant compound) thymol, in addition to giving thyme its name, has a variety of functions that have made thyme an important part of traditional medicine for thousands of years. Thymol "has been shown to possess various pharmacological properties including antioxidant, free radical scavenging, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antispasmodic, antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic, and antitumor activities."

Ginger

Spicing up your meals with ginger may give your metabolism a boost and assist with weight loss. A 2013 study published in Metabolism concluded that although ginger didn't increase total resting energy expenditure (the calories we burn to keep our basic bodily processes like breathing chugging along), it did increase the thermic effect of food (the calories we burn as we break down food) by about 43 calories per day.

The chemical compound gingerol may give ginger its weight-loss properties. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that gingerol supplements decreased the activity of lipase (the digestive enzyme that breaks down fats) and amylase (the digestive enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates). When these enzymes are less active, the body isn't able to extract as much energy from food as it passes through the digestive tract. Gingerol also appears to lower insulin levels. This is important because in addition to driving glucose into the cells, insulin promotes fat storage, so keeping insulin levels low keeps body fat down. It's important to note, however, that this study was conducted on rats, not humans.

According to a 2020 paper published in Nutrients, ginger is also great at combatting nausea and vomiting, including seasickness and during pregnancy or chemotherapy treatment. There's also ample evidence to support the claims that ginger aids digestion, fights inflammation, and lowers risk for colorectal cancer.

Peppermint

Ginger isn't the only spice that can soothe a troubled tummy. Peppermint is also great for treating nausea and other digestive troubles. In particular, peppermint appears to be useful in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). According to a 2014 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, peppermint was more than twice as effective as placebo when it came to improving IBS symptoms, particularly abdominal pain. The authors cautioned, however, that those taking the peppermint sometimes experienced minor unpleasant side effects such as heartburn. It's important to note that, as with most studies on herbs and spices, researchers used highly concentrated forms (in this case, peppermint oil capsules) rather than the whole-food form you'd find in your spice cabinet.

According to Everyday Health, peppermint combats nausea by numbing and relaxing stomach muscles, which allows food or built-up gas to leave the stomach faster. If you're looking to tap into peppermint's anti-nausea benefits, peppermint tea is probably your best bet. But based on the results of a 2014 study published in the Journal of Perianesthesia Nursing, just smelling peppermint could do the trick. In the experiment, individuals experiencing post-operative nausea or vomiting performed controlled breathing exercises with or without peppermint aromatherapy. The breathing and aromatherapy combo had a significant positive impact on participants' nausea.

Cumin

Cumin, made from the seeds of the Cuminum cyminum plant, has found its way into many cuisines, including Indian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American. It's also been a part of traditional medicine in these regions for hundreds of years. Cumin is a surprisingly rich source of iron, with just one teaspoon providing 1.4 mg — 17.5% of the recommended amount for adults. Like other spices, cumin contains a variety of plant compounds that have antioxidant properties, including terpenes, phenols, flavonoids, and alkaloids. Cumin aids digestion by increasing production of bile and enzymes that break down food. The spice may also aid weight loss and fat reduction, lower cholesterol, and reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes (via Healthline).

According to a 2015 paper published n the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, cumin also contains at least five compounds that combat the formation of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). AGEs are harmful molecules that form when fat or protein combine with sugar in the bloodstream (via Healthline). A 2017 paper published in the Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry found that AGEs accelerate the aging process on a cellular level. AGEs are a biological waste product that builds up throughout the body and causes a "loss of protein function and impaired elasticity of tissues." The paper's authors concluded that preventing "AGE formation and accumulation in tissues can lead to an increase in lifespan."

Fenugreek

Fenugreek has a slightly sweet, nutty taste and is a spice frequently used in Indian dishes (via Healthline). It's also been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for thousands of years. It's a nutritional powerhouse, with one tablespoon providing 3 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein, and a whopping 20% of your daily iron needs. It may help stimulate breastmilk production in lactating women and increase testosterone levels in men. Preliminary research also suggests that it may reduce appetite, lower cholesterol, fight inflammation, decrease heartburn, and provide relief from certain skin conditions. 

However, fenugreek is best known for its ability to improve blood glucose levels and manage diabetes. A 2009 paper published in Current Opinion in Investigational Drugs noted that fenugreek has been used for centuries to help treat diabetes. It contains a protein called 4-hydroxyisoleucine, which appears to have a direct impact on the pancreas's insulin-producing islet cells. In this way, fenugreek can stimulate insulin production, thus keeping blood glucose levels under control. It also appears to decrease insulin resistance. This means that the body's cells, particularly those in the liver and muscles, are more sensitive to the effects of insulin and can better take up glucose and put it to work. This is good news for the 34.2 million Americans (more than 10% of the population) who have diabetes (per the CDC), particularly the 32.6 million who have type 2 diabetes (via the ASMBS).

Cinnamon

Cinnamon is one of those rare foods that's both extremely healthy and has a taste most people love. According to WebMD, there are two types of this spice commonly sold in the United States: cassia and Ceylon (true) cinnamon. A number of studies (mostly in animals) suggest that cinnamon may help lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels in diabetic individuals. It may also assist with weight loss, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), allergies, and infections. Cinnamon has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The compound cinnamaldehyde is believed to be behind many of cinnamon's supposed health benefits.

But pay close attention to which type of cinnamon you buy. According to Healthline, cassia cinnamon (the cheaper, more widely available form of the spice) contains high amounts of coumarin, a compound that could have adverse health effects when overconsumed. And you don't have to eat a lot of cinnamon to get too much coumarin. One teaspoon of ground cassia cinnamon contains 7-18 mg of coumarin. The tolerable upper intake limit (UL) for coumarin is 0.05 mg per pound of body weight, so the UL for a 130-pound woman would be only 6.5 mg. Excess consumption of coumarin has been linked to liver damage, mouth sores, and an increased risk for certain types of cancer.

Cayenne pepper

Cayenne peppers belong to the nightshade family and are a rich source of vitamins A and C and flavonoids, all of which have antioxidant properties. Along with other types of chili peppers, they contain capsaicin, a compound that gives them their heat and may have a variety of health benefits. High doses of capsaicin may reduce pain, improve athletic performance, lower blood sugar levels, and fight inflammation (via Healthline).

Using more cayenne pepper in the kitchen may also spice things up in the bedroom. Capsaicin triggers the release of endorphins and dopamine, which combine to give people a feeling of euphoria (via Business Insider). According to Roman's Health Guide, hot peppers have long been considered an aphrodisiac. Capsaicin triggers a number of physical signs often associated with sexual arousal, including a flushed appearance, rapid heart rate, and sweating. But cayenne may be a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to its effects on sex. Roman's Health Guide noted that a 2017 study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that male rats given capsaicin had a shorter refractory period — that is, they were ready for round two (or three or four) sooner. But the rats also experienced orgasm sooner. It's unclear, however, if capsaicin would have the same effects on human males.

Sage

In addition to its strong, earthy flavor, sage offers a number of health benefits. It's a solid source of vitamin K, providing 10% of your daily needs in just one teaspoon. It's also packed with antioxidants, including chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, rosmarinic acid, ellagic acid, and rutin. It has antibacterial properties and may also lower blood sugar levels, protect against certain types of cancers, and lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Some of the compounds in sage are phytoestrogens, making the herb useful for combatting symptoms associated with menopause such as hot flashes (via Healthline).

Sage is also a great choice for protecting brain health because of its impact on acetylcholine levels in the brain. Acetylcholine is a protein that conducts signals between neurons and plays an important role in cognition and memory. In fact, individuals with Alzheimer's disease have lower levels of acetylcholine in their brains, and medications to treat the early stages of the condition work by blocking the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine (via Harvard Medical School). According to a 2003 paper published in Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, sage also inhibits the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine and has been shown to reduce symptoms for those with early dementia. Another paper, published in the same journal in the same year, found that sage also enhanced memory in young, healthy individuals.

Rosemary

According to WebMD, rosemary is high in manganese, "an essential nutrient for metabolic health. Manganese also helps the body to form blood clots, allowing injuries to heal faster." Rosemary contains the antioxidant carnosic acid, which has been shown to slow the growth of cancer cells and prevent tumors from forming. Carnosic acid, along with another compound in rosemary called rosmarinic acid, have the ability to kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi, which means that eating rosemary may reduce the incidence or severity of infections. Rosemary may also improve memory, reduce stress, and ease anxiety.

If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you may want to consider swapping out your Benadryl for some rosemary. According to a 2004 paper published in Experimental Biology and Medicine, the rosmarinic acid in rosemary significantly improved nasal congestion and irritation in those with seasonal allergies. It also reduced the amount of histamine (a pro-inflammatory substance) and various types of immune cells in the mucus lining of nasal passages. As with many other studies examining the health impacts of spices and herbs, however, it's important to note that this study used highly concentrated rosmarinic acid extracts — not fresh rosemary. Still, this research is promising for the 24.4 million Americans battling seasonal allergies each year (via the Washington Post).