Spices are known for imparting flavor, but they are also an integral part of maintaining health and preventing disease! The medicinal value of spices has been recognized for thousands of years by the ancient Indian medical system known as Ayurveda.1 Since many diseases are a result of weak immune systems or chronic inflammation, preventing these two states can make a big difference in your health.
The immune response is a built-in defense system, protecting the body from foreign invaders and infection by communicating between cells and their chemical signals. While our skin is the outer shield of our bodies, our gut mucosa serves as the internal barrier. What we eat (especially nutrients, alcohol, coffee, spices, and salted food) affects this barrier, which is the starting point of most immune responses. It’s true that a healthy immune system can ward off infection from cold-causing germs. However, our immune systems are also activated by the longer-term stimuli of physical stress, psychosocial stress or malnutrition.2
Chronic low-grade inflammation is a prolonged and abnormal immune response of altered cell communication that does not resolve itself, leading to ill health and a variety of life-threatening conditions.2,3 This “silent inflammation” is connected to several diseases of advanced age such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and certain cancers.4 Persistent inflammation is also involved in the development of obesity (and associated metabolic complications), inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.2,3,5 Inflammation of the nervous system plays a key part in neurodegenerative diseases, mood disorders (including depression and anxiety), and pain.2
Spices come from the roots, bark, and seeds of the plant, while herbs* are the leaves. Essentially, any part of the plant that is not a leaf and can be used for seasoning may be considered a spice.
Spices and other medicinal plants have many bio-active compounds. Some have antibiotic properties (boosting our innate immunity against infections) and others are anti-inflammatory agents.5,6,7 Nutraceuticals present in several spices have shown potential to inhibit or reverse inflammatory responses and help prevent many chronic diseases related to sustained inflammation:
- Anise (spice fennel) – Its chief compound, anethole, is anti-inflammatory and acts as an antiviral (against a certain herpes virus) and oral antibacterial agent.7
- Black pepper – Its active constituent, piperine, fights inflammation by altering inflammatory pathways.5,6
- Black seed or black cumin – Its immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory properties come from the compound thymoquinone (TQ). Experimental evidence suggests extracts containing TQ can potentially regulate immune reactions implicated in various infectious and non-infectious conditions.
- Cinnamon – This global spice has multiple inflammation-reducing compounds (benzyl cinnamide, cinnamic acid, and cinnamaldehyde) and modifies inflammatory pathways.5,6
- Coriander – It’s the anti-inflammatory gallic acid in coriander which regulates signaling pathways related to inflammation.5,6
- Cumin – Its compounds cuminaldehyde and oleorestin have anti-inflammatory action.5 Cumin is helpful for immunity.
- Garlic – This aromatic bulb’s organosulphur compounds (namely allicin) have immunomodulatory bioactivity.6 While it may not kill vampires, garlic is a potent antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial7
- Ginger – Its major compounds (6-gingerol, 10-gingerol and shogaol) exert important antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.5,6,7,8 Some research has proved that gingerdiones and shogaols can act similar to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).9 Ginger is an effective agent against the inflammation response from immune cells.7
- Turmeric – This yellow spice’s curcuminoids (namely curcumin) have anti-inflammatory properties.3,6,7,8 Curcumin is able to scavenge free radicals and other inflammatory mediators, thus regulating oxidative stress.3 Since curcumin is so potent, supplemental forms of it have been researched in the fight against neurodegenerative diseases arthritis, obesity, and diabetes mellitus.
- Did you know? Curcumin gives turmeric its characteristic yellow color, a signature of many curries. Since it has poor bioavailability, consume turmeric with meals containing healthy plant fats to increase its absorption.
Make your own spicy blend without salt! The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends the combination below for Mexican-style dishes. Just store in a tightly covered jar.
- ¼ Cup chili powder
- 1 Tablespoon each of ground cumin and onion powder
- 1 teaspoon each of oregano, garlic powder, and ground red pepper; and ½ teaspoon cinnamon.
Source: Eat Right: Eating Right With Less Salt (tip sheet). Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2017.
Many other spices are beneficial in alleviating inflammation including allspice, caraway extract, chili pepper, cloves, cocoa and fenugreek.5 *Herbs with anti-inflammatory activity include bay leaf, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme.5
A diet rich in spices that decreases inflammation and oxidative stress can promote healthy immune balance. Around the world, the basic concepts for following an anti-inflammatory diet include adding a variety of spices, especially ginger and curry.4 So what about the rest of your diet? An overall anti-inflammatory, antioxidant eating plan augments immune function, fights inflammation and hampers disease development.2,10 An anti-inflammatory Mediterranean eating plan includes spices daily.
A Mediterranean diet pattern, in particular, has an anti-inflammatory effect.11 This type of diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, red wine, seafood as well as monounsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fats.8 These components provide a lot of fiber, magnesium, carotenoids, and flavonoids which help reduce inflammation.8
No matter your taste preference or diet plan, there are immune boosting and anti-inflammatory spices you can include regularly. Use them often and in greater amounts to get the most benefit!
- Bioactive phytochemicals in Indian foods and their potential in health promotion and disease prevention. Rao BN. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2003; 12(1): 9-22.
- An Integrative Approach to Neuroinflammation in Psychiatric disorders and Neuropathic Pain. Lurie DI. Journal of Experimental Neuroscience 2018 Aug 13; 12: 1-11. doi: 10.1177/1179069518793639. eCollection 2018.
- Curcumin and Inflammatory Diseases: Learn About Its Potential Role in Prevention and Treatment. Sharon Collison. Today’s Dietitian 2014 Sept; 16(9): 56
- What is the Anti-Inflammatory Diet? Wendy Marcason. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2010 Nov.; 110 (11): 1780.
- Spice up your life: adipose tissue and inflammation. Agarwal AK. Journal of Lipids 2014; article ID 182575: 8 pages. doi: 10.1155/2014/182575. Epub 2014 Feb 20.
- Neuroprotection by spice-derived nutraceuticals: you are what you eat! Kannappan R, et al. Molecular Neurobiology 2011; 44: 142–159.
- Anti-carcinogenic and Anti-bacterial Properties of Selected Spices: Implications in Oral Health. Ganjre A, et al. Clinical Nutrition Research 2015 Oct; 4(4): 209-215. doi: 10.7762/cnr.2015.4.4.209. Epub 2015 Oct 31.
- Diet and Inflammation. L Galland. Nutrition in Clinical Practice 2010 Dec; 25(6): 634-640.
- Some phytochemical, pharmacological and toxicological properties of ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe): a review of recent research. Ali BH, et al. Food and Chemical Toxicology 2008; 46: 40920.
- Diet and Inflammation: A Link to Metabolic and Cardiovascular Diseases. K Esposito, D Giugliano. European Heart Journal 2006; 27, 15-20.
- Microbiome-mediated effects of the Mediterranean diet on inflammation. Bailey MA, Holscher HD. Advances in Nutrition 2018; 9: 193–206.
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