By Becca Newell
Spices don’t just add heat to food; they also add fragrance and flavors—from subtle to strong—that completely transform dishes. Enviable meals aside, these potent powders from roots, seeds, and plants are thought to have medicinal properties, too. It’s been said that variety is the spice of life, so why not add a little varietal seasoning into your diet?
Okay, so this spice does have quite the kick to it, but its remedial attributes pack a punch, too. Cayenne’s’s heat stems from a substance called capsaicin—often found as an active ingredient in ointments developed to relieve pain, predominately in cases concerning joint or muscle discomfort. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, applying capsaicin to the skin “reduces the amount of substance P, a chemical that carries pain messages to the brain,” resulting in relief. Cayenne is also thought to encourage weight management. There are numerous conflicting reports on this matter, but a 2011 study—funded by the National Institutes of Health and McCormick Science Institute—suggested a sprinkling of the spice atop of lunch or dinner helped to suppress appetite, particularly among those participants who typically refrain from consuming spicy foods. That finding alone, however, indicates that the spice’s effectiveness diminishes as the body becomes desensitized to it.
A rhizome—an underground stem that grows horizontally—widely used medicinally for centuries in Asia, ginger is often recommended to relieve nausea. One study from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that ginger supplements, when taken with anti-vomiting medication, reduced post-chemotherapy nausea by 40 percent. In one review of ginger and its efficacy in combatting nausea and vomiting, several trials were studied with the results indicating ginger as favorable over a placebo in treating motion and morning sickness. Other studies suggest the spice might be helpful in reducing inflammation, more specifically in relieving osteoarthritic pain. Results, however, are varied.
Popular in Thai and Indian cuisine, predominantly curries, this spice’s active ingredient—the compound curcumin—is thought to have antioxidant properties that help with lowering cholesterol and reducing osteoarthritis-related pain. For centuries, it’s been a prominent fixture in Traditional Chinese Medicine. A 2008 study, published in the African Journal of Food Science, found that raw and heat-processed turmeric significantly reduced the cholesterol of rats, while other research suggests turmeric extract could be substituted for ibuprofen in lowering osteoarthritic pain. A large majority of studies—still in their preliminary phases—focus on curcumin and cancer prevention. In one laboratory study, the combination of curcumin with chemotherapy killed more bowel cancer cells than with the sole application of chemotherapy. Another study in mice suggested the compound prevented breast cancer cells from spreading. Extensive research is necessary to form a scientific basis, but, so far, the potential for turmeric to have anticancer properties seems promising.
Considered one of the most expensive spices in the world—harvesting is a labor-intensive process, done by hand—powdered saffron comes from the dried stigma, or thread-like pollen receptors in a flower, of the Crocus sativus plant. Studies suggest the spice is effective as an anti-depressant, relieving menstrual discomfort, improving PMS symptoms, and lessening the degenerative conditions of Alzheimer’s disease. Several studies have shown that the natural compound crocetin, found in saffron, has cardiovascular protective properties. A small clinical trial by the Department of Medicine and Indigenous Drug Research Center saw participants’ health improve over six weeks, particularly those with cardiovascular diseases, after consuming 50 milligrams of the spice (dissolved in milk) twice a day.
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