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The Healing Powers of Herbs and Spices

Mounting science points to major health benefits of these flavorful foods. Here are eight seasonings that may help stave off cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and more.

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About 20 years ago, Ben Stevens contracted a nasty strain of E. coli—a serious infection that can cause severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting—from a fruit stand in Boulder, Colorado, where he lived at the time. Within six weeks, doctors had Stevens on the highest dose of ciproflaxen, an aggressive antibiotic, to treat the illness that was eating away at his body; he had lost close to 50 pounds. Four to six weeks later, after two rounds of traditional medical interventions didn’t work, doctors told Stevens that there were no stronger prescriptions available to help him. Less than a month later, Stevens desperately boarded a plane to Jamaica, where he has family and friends, to find a natural remedy.

Once in Kingston, a friend who grew up studying Jamaican folk medicine, including homemade herbal cures, told Stevens to swallow whole papaya seeds for the next three days, drink cerasee tea twice a day, and avoid sugar and other foods. Within three days, the fever broke and his energy was back.

“I was on the beach playing frisbee with color in my cheeks,” Stevens recalls. “It was a sign from the universe that I needed to pay attention to what this old man could teach me. That experience is what triggered me to take a closer look at herbs and spices in a different way beyond their culinary attributes.”

Before returning to Boulder, Stevens began experimenting with a tasty homemade dry herb and spice mixture that he could bring home to help maintain his good health and make cooking fresh foods easy. He shared it with family and friends who raved about his high-quality seasoning and encouraged him to start selling it at his local farmer’s market. A few years later, Stevens founded Outer Spice, a collection of four low-salt and no-salt seasoning blends made with 15 herbs and spices that is now sold at select Whole Foods and online.

If Stevens’ story sounds like a fluke, know that there’s a perfectly good explanation for his miraculous recovery.

“E. coli is a very toxic chemical that induces inflammation. Chronic inflammation plays a very important role in cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and every chronic disease,” says Bharat B. Aggarwal, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Experimental Therapeutics at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. “If you were to control that inflammation, you could possibly control most of those diseases. That’s where spices and herbs come in—they can help regulate inflammation and, therefore, a lot of diseases,” says Aggarwal, who co-wrote the book Healing Spices: How to Use 50 Everyday and Exotic Spices to Boost Health and Beat Disease.

Research spearheaded by Aggarwal over the last decade led to the discovery of a molecule named tumor necrosis factor, or TNF, which promotes the production of inflammation. He also found that many herbs and spices contain antibodies that fight against this trouble-making molecule, which meant eating these foods could ultimately decrease the risk of developing chronic diseases. But this flavorful diet isn’t a quick-fix Rx. “It’s about making lifestyle choices,” explains Aggarwal, who teaches a cooking class with herbs and spices at M.D. Anderson. “It is believed it takes 20 to 30 years for cancer to show up. Most cancers start at age 20 and manifest around age 40 to 50. Herbs and spices can help minimize that inflammation over a lifetime.”

If you’re curious about exactly how certain herbs and spices can benefit you, here is a primer on the scientific evidence illustrating some of these flavorful foods’ effects. When consumed in combination with a healthy diet, exercise, and other positive lifestyle choices, you’ll find they not only enliven the palate but also aid in supporting a long and healthy life.

Curcumin

This compound, which gives turmeric and curry powder their beautiful yellow hue, has proven through extensive scientific research (more than 9,000 published papers!) to block TNF and, as a result, improve the immune system. It has shown to ward off diseases including cancer, diabetes, pancreatitis, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, gastrititis, allergy, and fever.


Crushed Red Pepper

A little heat doesn’t only add spice to your life, but also extra years. A new large study published in August’s British Medical Journal found that eating spicy foods almost daily may help people live longer. The major bioactive components, specifically capsaicin found in chili peppers, may reduce the risk of death from conditions like cancer and heart disease. 

Cinnamon

No need to take the “Cinnamon Challenge” to enjoy its potent effects. As little as a quarter teaspoon of antioxidant-rich cinnamon a day may help lower blood sugar levels, especially in people with type 2 diabetes. The popular spice may also decrease LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.

Onions

These flavorful bulbs that come in yellow, red, or white are packed with nutrients including vitamin C, sulphuric compounds, flavonoids, and phytochemicals. One particular flavonoid named quercetin acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and has shown to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer.

Cilantro

Taco night isn’t the only excuse to get more of this flavorsome herb. Another good reason to add this plant to salads, soups, dips, and more: A high concentration of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals has linked it to decreasing the risk of obesity and mortality from diabetes or heart disease, and improving skin, hair, and energy levels.


Related: Switching to Raw Foods Healed My Body and Changed My Life 


Rosemary

This fragrant herb contains carnosic acid, which has recently proven to protect against age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in American over the age of 50. An excellent source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, rosemary has also been traditionally used to boost the immune system.

Garlic

The smelly stuff may help ward off chronic illnesses like cancer and cardiovascular disease. Allicin, a major sulfur compound, gives garlic both its bite and health benefits, including reducing cholesterol levels and blocking carcinogen activity. Also garlic’s anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties can help fight athlete’s foot as well as sinus and yeast infections. 

Oregano

This aromatic herb’s oil might help fight off cold and flu. Carvacrol, an active ingredient oregano oil, is antimicrobial, which means it can help fight against some bacteria, viruses, fungi, and more. A recent animal study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology suggests it might be a cure for the norovirus, a foodborne infection, but further research is needed on human subjects before a conclusion can be drawn.

Additional source: Holly Lucille, R.N., a naturopathic doctor 

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