When you add a dash of cinnamon to your cup of coffee or a spring of rosemary to your famous baked chicken, you may think you’re merely making your favorite drinks and dishes more flavorful. But spicing up your meals doesn’t just up the tastiness factor—it can also be a boon to your health and your beauty.
“The benefits spices offer you in terms of your diet and health are endless,” says Elisa Zied, R.D., author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips. “They can help control blood sugar, protect against inflammation that can contribute to chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes and may play a role—directly or indirectly—in weight management. Spices literally add spice to your life and diet but can also be a simple way to enhance meals and optimize your overall health, inside and out.”
Find out which health benefits are hiding in your spice rack and test-drive the top disease-fighting spices with our easy-breezy recipes.
The sweet spice, which contains iron, calcium, manganese and even fiber, is loaded with health benefits. “Cinnamon contains substances that work as antioxidants to protect cells against damage caused by harmful free radicals—substances found in the environment and inside the body that destroy cells,” explains Zied.
The spice may also be a diabetic’s new best friend. “Now we know that cinnamon has a remarkable effect on regulating blood sugar,” explains celebrity nutritionist Oz Garcia, Ph.D. Several studies suggest that cinnamon may help regulate blood glucose as well as blood pressure in people with type 2 diabetes. “One study found that consuming two grams of cinnamon for 12 weeks significantly reduces the HbA1c [a test that shows blood sugar levels], systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure in those with poorly controlled type 2 diabetes,” says Zied. Another study found that cinnamon extract significantly increased insulin sensitivity and improved hyperglycemia in mice.
What’s more, a dash of cinnamon may help curb your sweet tooth. “Sweet spices such as cinnamon can also satisfy cravings and when added to tea or fruit, may eliminate the need for supplemental sweeteners,” says Cheryl Forberg, R.D., chef, nutritionist for NBC'S “The Biggest Loser” and author of "Positively Ageless: A 28 Day Plan for a Younger, Slimmer, Sexier You."
The kick you get from hot chili peppers comes from capsaicin. Even though it may feel as though the spice is setting your mouth on fire, capsaicin actually helps ease pain. A recent British study found that when applied topically in the form of a patch, capsaicin is useful in reducing pain. That’s because over time, capsaicin depletes the pain-causing neurotransmitter substance P.
What’s more, the spice may help you slide into your skinny jeans. A Purdue University study found that eating red peppers can help suppress appetite and burn more calories after a meal, especially in those who don’t eat the spice often. Other research shows that capsaicin helps suppress body fat accumulation—in particular, a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that capsaicin plays a role in abdominal fat loss. That may be because the spice alters key proteins found in fat, triggering them to break down fat. And a Japanese study on mice found that taking capsaicin was as effective as exercise when it comes to maintaining body weight. However, keep in mind that the study was done on mice and take it with a grain of salt. In other words, don’t use that as an excuse to cancel your gym membership and munch on hot chili peppers instead.
The Mediterranean spice is a good source of iron and like cinnamon, animal studies have shown it may help lower blood glucose levels. But that’s not all. Cumin also has antibacterial properties, according to Zied. Several studies have found that the spice is effective at killing Helicobacter pylori, a bacteria linked with stomach ulcers, according to Zied.
Got achy joints from arthritis? Black cumin (nigella sativa) can help reduce inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis, according to several animal studies.
The bright yellow spice, which is part of the ginger family, does much more than make a mean curry. It may also help fight cancer. A new study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry found that curcumin—the potent antioxidant in turmeric—improves the effectiveness of chemotherapy in breast cancer patients and has potential to be developed into an adjuvant chemotherapy drug. Another study published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research found that turmeric supplements suppress a cell signaling pathway that fuels the growth of head and neck cancer. (The biggest downside: The study participants’ mouths and teeth turned bright yellow because of the spice—a small price to pay for reducing the risk of cancer.)
A staple of Italian dishes, oregano is loaded with antioxidants and can also help fend off bacteria. When it comes to natural and effective barriers against E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria, oregano oil was found to be the most effective antimicrobial, followed by allspice and garlic, according to a study in the Journal of Food Science, published by the Institute of Food Technologist. “A phytochemical in oregano called carvacrol has exhibited antibacterial properties,” says Forberg, who notes that oregano extract is used in some mouthwashes.
The spice is well known for its myriad health benefits, including anti-inflammatory benefits. “Two other phytochemicals, shogaol and zingerone, in ginger have anti-tussive and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Forberg. “This means they bring relief for cough and congestion from a cold or the flu. They are also known to minimize discomfort from the ravages of arthritis.”
Sore from the gym? Have some ginger. Research published in the Journal of Pain shows that consuming two grams of ginger supplements daily eased exercise-induced muscle pain by 25 percent over an 11 day period.
The herb, which is part of the mint family, can help suppress inflammation, according to a study in the Journal of Lipid Research. Researchers looked at the essential oils of thyme, clove, rose, eucalyptus, fennel and bergamot and found that they reduced COX-2 expression in cells by at least 25 percent. But the real star was thyme oil, which lowered COX-2 levels by nearly 75 percent.
Thyme oil also has powerful antimicrobial properties. Researchers who looked at the antimicrobial activity of eight plant essential oils found that thyme oil was the most effective—it almost completely eradicated bacteria within 60 minutes.Yet another study showed that thyme oil was able to inhibit antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Not to shabby.
Not a fan of the pungent flavor of rosemary? This may elevate your opinion of the herb: Rosemary may help cut your cancer risk. A 2010 study found that certain spices, especially rosemary, helped reduce carcinogenic compounds that are produced when ground beef patties are cooked. That may be because the herb is rich in antioxidants, according to Garcia. What’s more, “rosemary has shown significant antifungal and antibacterial activity,” says Forberg. “It has been studied specifically for its ability to interfere with candidiasis [yeast infection] growth.”
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