Spice up your health
Dashes of herbs and spices like turmeric and oregano may rev more than just your taste buds
Naturopathic doctor Robert Pearman holds fresh garlic, ginger and baby dill. Use fresh spices when possible for health effects, suggests Pearman, since dried ones lose their potency over time.
Photograph by : John Lucas/CanWest News Service
Published: Thursday, February 01, 2007
EDMONTON -- Thyme for some sage advice on how to spice up your health. Adding dashes of basil, oregano and rosemary or a few cloves of garlic to your diet can help reduce your risk for certain cancers, lower blood pressure, control blood sugar, improve heart health and even maintain a healthy weight.
But some caution has to be exercised before diving into the spice jar.
Because you're using a little bit of these herbs in food to enhance flavour or as a garnish, it's not as problematic as going out and buying concentrated capsules, says Robert Pearman, a naturopathic doctor who also teaches holistic nutrition at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton. Spices become diluted or their properties changed when they are cooked, so don't stop taking your arthritis medication because you're using more cinnamon.
"Still, I tell my patients any time they start to add new things to their diet to monitor themselves a little more closely for any combined effects," he says. "You have to be careful with large amounts of some of these substances, if you're using blood-pressure medication, for example, or you have a medical condition."
Medical research has linked ginger, for example, with nausea and vomiting when taken in stronger dosages. At the same time ginger is a diffusive stimulant that can help settle a sore stomach.
A lot of herbs and supplements do have impacts on different enzymes in the body that metabolize medication, and it has been shown that they can dramatically change the action of certain medications, agrees Dana Wilkinson, research co-ordinator for the Human Nutrition Research Unit at the University of Alberta. However, the amounts of herbs and spices sprinkled into cooking recipes shouldn't have such effect. Still, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor if you are in poor health, on medications, or have a chronic health problem before increasing your consumption of any one herb or spice, Wilkinson advises.
So OK, herbs and spices won't hurt you. But can they actually help you? At the very least, using more herbs and spices can reduce your intake of salt and sugar which is a good thing, Wilkinson says. And they can enhance the taste of veggies, which could get you to eat more; another good thing.
The health benefits of herbs and spices are largely unproven, Wilkinson says, but that doesn't mean it can't be true. Like many foods, such as broccoli, spices are complex, and "we don't have a comprehensive understanding of all the possible impacts they can have," she explains. "But it's definitely not wrong to say that they might have benefits ... and in small amounts there's generally not anything to worry about," Wilkinson says.
In fact, she suggests sprinkling or marinating meat with fresh herbs such as garlic, rosemary, oregano, basil, thyme or lemon juice or olive oil before barbecuing to potentially counteract the formation of carcinogens. According to research, these herbs and spices reduce or block heterocyclic amines (HCAs), chemicals linked to cancer, especially of the colon and breast, that are created when high heat reacts with protein in red meat, poultry and fish.
Any improvements from shaking up your diet will be gradual, but greater when you use fresh spices over the dried versions, Pearman says. Store dried spices in airtight containers, but don't keep them too long. Once the spice smell is gone, usually the health benefits are too.
Now that you know the ground rules, start sprinkling.
If you want to stay young, eat rosemary. It's one of nature's most powerful antioxidants, says Pearman. It's also credited for improving memory by improving blood circulation.
Eat curry. Research has found curcumin (the source of the spice turmeric, which gives curry its characteristic bright yellow colour and strong taste), shrinks pre-cancerous lesions known as colon polyps.
Eat more curry. Turmeric is also a known anti-inflammatory, so it helps relieve back pain.
Fighting a cold? Basil, oregano, and rosemary again, may help. Oregano can actually stand on its own when it comes to being an antibacterial, an antiviral and an antifungal, Pearman says.
Thyme is antibacterial, so is sage. Thyme is also good for relieving coughs, including whooping cough.
If you've got gas and you're bloated and burping, try nibbling on some mint.
Caraway and dill can help with indigestion.
Garlic, that old herbal chestnut, helps lower blood pressure and improves heart health by improving circulation, Pearman says. But you need to have about three medium cloves a day to get the maximum benefit.
To boost your mood, sprinkle some nutmeg on your food. It can give you a slightly euphoric feeling, Pearman says. So can rosemary. Because it improves circulation and liver function, people just feel better.
Clove is a well known reliever of toothache pain.
Bladder infections or irritation of the urethra, as well as acne, are helped by eating parsley which is very high in vitamin A. However, that same concentration of vitamin A can be bad for pregnant women. Vitamin A has been linked to birth defects in the first trimester of pregnancy, Pearman says.
"It's the same reason Accutane or other drugs high in Vitamin A and used to treat acne can be a problem during pregnancy."
Cayenne improves circulation because it gets the blood going.
"Sometimes you can actually break a little bit of a sweat from the increased circulation," Pearman says.
Breastfeeding moms who need to cut back their milk supply will find a sprinkle of sage will help them dry up a little.
Dry mouth? Black pepper helps to enhance the amount of saliva in the mouth.
And if you're trying to cut calories but your sweet tooth is thwarting your efforts, add some cinnamon to your diet, Pearman advises. "It can sometimes reduce a person's cravings for sweets and sugar."
About the only spice you don't need to shake up for health is salt. Sodium chloride is necessary to daily diet, Pearman says, but the salt in foods, particularly processed foods, accounts for 75 per cent of a person's daily salt intake. He suggests replacing salt or cutting the amount with a tasty combination of basil and oregano instead.
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