The kitchen herb and spice rack isn’t the first place most people look for remedies to sooth stomachaches and other minor discomforts, but it’s a good place to start. Before the advent of drug stores and medicine cabinets, people used local plants and herbs to treat illness and maintain good health. Eventually these plants became cultivated for regular consumption and found their way into everyday foods. Now regarded simply as seasoning, the medicinal uses of culinary herbs and spices have been largely forgotten. But from garlic to rosemary, you probably have plants with healing properties already in your kitchen.
Anise is one of the oldest known spices, dating back as far as 1500 B.C. It was used by the Romans to aid digestion after heavy meals and it is still used for this purpose today. Anise is a carminative spice, which means that it reduces intestinal gas. It also acts as an expectorant and a mild antispasmodic agent, helpful for expelling phlegm and quieting coughs during upper respiratory infections.
This nightshade plant can be eaten as a spice, taken as a medicine, or applied externally. Because it stimulates circulation and decreases pain, cayenne is a common ingredient in topical creams used for muscle spasms and joint pain. When taken internally, it can stimulate appetite and reduce inflammation in the body. It also acts as a diaphoretic to increase sweating. Researchers are investigating its use in cancer and obesity.
The use of cinnamon spans several centuries and many cultures. It has been most commonly used as a carminative spice but recent research has revealed antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal actions. Scientists have found cinnamon to be a promising treatment in type 2 diabetes mellitus because it acts as a hypoglycemic agent, lowering blood sugar and improving glucose and insulin metabolism. One study of diabetics found that cinnamon also lowered cholesterol and triglycerides. Other research has shown that it may be helpful in treating cancer and severe viral infections.
A plant native to Mediterranean regions, fennel is prized as both a food and a medicine. In India and other countries the seeds are chewed after meals to freshen breath and aid digestion. Fennel is carminitve and antispasmodic, reducing gastrointestinal gas, cramping and bloating. Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials have confirmed its success as a treatment for infant colic.
Historically, fenugreek has been used as a condiment, incense, embalming agent and health tonic. It has been used medicinally in Chinese and Indian traditions to ease indigestion, aid labor and delivery and stimulate lactation. Recent research has uncovered hypolipidemic and hypoglycemic actions, giving it good potential to treat high cholesterol, diabetes mellitus and insulin resistance.
Dating back to Hippocrates in ancient Greece, garlic has been used in many cultures for many complaints, including infections, abnormal growths, emotional health and conditions of the heart, lungs and gastrointestinal system. Modern studies have shown that it has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic properties, making garlic a good remedy for fighting infections. As a carminative and antispasmodic agent, it aids digestion. It has also been found to reduce blood pressure and levels of glucose, triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, and increase HDL cholesterol. Because garlic acts as an anticoagulant, it may prevent blood clots and stroke but high dosages can increase the risk of bleeding. Recent research has also shown that garlic can reduce rates of cancer, particularly ovarian and colorectal cancers.
Ginger has a long history of therapeutic use in Indian, Chinese and Japanese traditions. This root is anti-emetic, preventing and treating nausea and vomiting associated with motion sickness, pregnancy, chemotherapy and surgery. Ginger stimulates digestion while protecting the stomach lining and reduces gas and bloating. It is a warming spice and can act as a diaphoretic to increase sweating. Ginger also has expectorating and antitussive effects, expelling phlegm and quieting coughs during upper respiratory infections. It acts as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent used to treat arthritis and cancer. Because ginger reduces the aggregation of blood platelets, it can decrease the risk of blood clots and stroke, and high dosages can increase the risk of bleeding.
Rosemary has been popular in Mediterranean cultures for flavoring foods as well as preserving them. Historically, rosemary has been used as a medicine to treat respiratory conditions, hair loss, menstrual pain and indigestion. Most research on rosemary has focused on the constituent rosemarinic acid, found to have strong antioxidant actions. It is being studied for potential use in cancer and inflammatory conditions.
Tumeric has been used traditionally in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine to strengthen the body and treat fatigue, gallstones, gastrointestinal complaints, urinary conditions, menstrual pain and arthritis. One of its constituents, curcumin, has been studied for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer actions. Tumeric works as an anti-inflammatory agent with the same mechanism of action as pharmaceutical COX-2 inhibitors, drugs that reduce levels of enzymes that mediate inflammation in the body. As such, tumeric can be an effective remedy for inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. Studies have also shown great potential for the use of tumeric in both the prevention and treatment of cancer. Scientists have found that curcumin induces apoptosis (normal cell death designed to destroy cells when they become old, abnormal or cancerous).
Herbs as Medicine
Cooking with medicinal herbs and spices can have gentle, positive effects on the body. When used to treat specific conditions, therapeutic dosages are often significantly higher than amounts used in cooking and concentrated supplements may be necessary. Always talk to your doctor before taking any new medicines, whether natural or pharmaceutical, as interactions can occur and not all supplements are appropriate for all people.