What if I told you that your favorite kitchen spices like cinnamon, black pepper, and ginger are more than just mouthwatering flavor-boosters—they might actually help you lose weight, have better sex, fight cancer, and even live longer? These 10 culinary medicinal spices could be a significant form of ecomedicine in your life.
Welcome to another installment in my “What is EcoMedicine?” series, part of my goal to create a compendium of well-researched scientific blogs on various kinds of ecomedicine or nature therapy. Since there are so many kinds of ecomedicine out there, I want to help you find what you need to begin to feel better—with actual scientific facts about what works and what doesn’t.
Today, we’ll be asking and answering the questions: what are medicinal spices or culinary spices? Who and what are they for? And what does science say about them? Read on to learn more.
What is a culinary medicinal spice?
Last time on the blog we taught you all about medicinal herbs, but today is all about medicinal spices. So what’s the difference? Remember, for chefs like me, herbs are leaves, while spices are everything else (flower buds, flowers, stems, root, bark, seeds, rhizomes).
If you’re looking for more info on “the leafy part,” check out the blog on medicinal herbs for information on rosemary, mint, thyme, and much more—but if you’re all about the bark, buds, and stems, you’ve come to the right place. There are a number of amazing spices to talk about with incredible (and well-researched) medicinal properties, so let’s get right to it!
Types of culinary medicinal spices
Your spice rack can help boost more than just flavor—it can help improve your cognitive function, may protect you from cancer, mitigate symptoms of menopause, and reduce your pain! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here are ten of my favorite culinary medicinal spices, along with their health benefits and the science behind why they work.
You might add this warm spice to your oatmeal, coffee, or apple pie—but did you know that the spice (which is technically a tree bark!) has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and can lower blood pressure and help with glucose control?
In a 2009 double-blind placebo-controlled trial involving 22 subjects with impaired fasting blood glucose and BMIs ranging from 25 to 45, subjects were given either 250 mg of an aqueous extract of cinnamon twice a day or a placebo. Subjects receiving the cinnamon extract exhibited reduced oxidative stress, and a positive correlation was observed between MDA and plasma glucose. The results supported the researcher’s initial hypothesis that cinnamon compounds could reduce risk factors associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
A systematic review and meta-analysis from 2019 looking at the effects of cinnamon supplementation on blood lipid concentrations. It assessed 13 randomized controlled studies and found that cinnamon supplementation significantly reduced total plasma cholesterol and triglycerides. And a similar systematic review from 2013 looked at the effects of cinnamon on blood pressure in patients with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. They found that consumption of cinnamon led to a “notable reduction” in both systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure.
Most people think ginger is a root, but it’s actually the underground stem of the tropical plant Zingiber officinale. And “zing” is right—this powerful spice packs a punch both flavor-wise and health-wise!
Ginger’s most well-known medicinal use is for nausea and vomiting, especially for the hyperemesis often experienced during pregnancy, a use which has been backed up by numerous medical studies. One 2014 randomized double-blind clinical trial looked at the effects of ginger on the nausea and vomiting symptoms of HIV positive patients on antiretroviral drugs and found that only 56.4% of the group receiving ginger experience nausea compared to 90.2% of the placebo group. What’s more, 47.1% of the placebo group reported an episode of vomiting compared to just 9.8% of the ginger group patients, causing the scientists to conclude that ginger was “effective in ameliorating of antiretroviral-induced N/V.”
But that’s not all ginger is good for; among other things, it can also relieve pain and inflammation. A randomized double-blind placebo-controlled 3-month clinical trial investigating knee osteoarthritis from 2016 found that cytokines deceased in a group that received ginger as compared to a placebo group, suggesting that “ginger supplementation may have promising benefits for knee osteoarthritis.”
- Black pepper
I always think a good dusting of freshly cracked black pepper makes everything taste better. As it turns out, black pepper is also an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-allergenic spice which can help you manage your weight and your mood!
A randomized crossover study from 2018 which aimed to look at the effect of black pepper on glucose metabolism and energy regulation found that consumption of black pepper-based beverage “modulated overall acute appetite by lowering ‘hunger’, ‘desire to eat’, and ‘prospective consumption’, and increasing ‘satiety’ and ‘fullness,’” making it a useful tool for those looking to manage their eating habits or weight.
Famously, a little black pepper (and its piperine, the active chemical inside) helps the absorption of curcumin in turmeric…by 2000 percent! Add black pepper to your curries.
There’s also a slew of research that suggests black pepper also has antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, gastro-protective, and antidepressant properties. However, the majority of the research so far is based on animal studies rather than human studies, so I hope more studies are done on human subjects so that we can have a more robust understanding of how black pepper functions in the human body.
Pungent, flavorful garlic is a staple in so many delicious cuisines and recipes, but this “stinking rose” is also antibacterial and anti-inflammatory—and while it might not protect you from vampires, it can protect you from a variety of cancers.
As I note in my book ChefMD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine, people in southern Europe who ate the most garlic had a 26% reduced risk for colorectal cancer, a 10% reduced risk for breast cancer, a 22% reduced risk for ovarian cancer, and a 19% reduced risk for prostate cancer, compared to those who ate the least garlic.
And garlic is also antibacterial and anti-inflammatory thanks to its active compound allicin. A randomised double‐blind, placebo‐controlled trial (RDBPCT) with a parallel‐design from 2018 found that a daily dose of garlic supplementation improved stiffness, pain and physical function significantly in overweight or obese women with knee osteoarthritis, while a 2007 randomized clinical trial found that aged garlic extract, when supplemented with B vitamins, folic acid and l-arginine, slowed the progression of subclinical atherosclerosis (also known as the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances in and on your artery walls, which can lead to coronary disease).
My favorite fun fact from my ChefMD book? When slicing or crushing garlic, be sure to let it stand for ten minutes before adding it to your dish in order to maximize its anti-inflammatory properties.
Earthy cloves actually start out as the bright red flower buds of an evergreen which then dry and darken to brown. They’re also powerfully antioxidant and good for keeping your blood pressure down.
In one study, 36 type-2 diabetics who ate up to three grams of cloves a day for thirty days showed a decrease in their blood sugar, as well as decreased triglycerides, total cholesterol, and LDL levels. And another found that among twenty-six spices, cloves are the most powerful antioxidants and exhibit the strongest free radical scavenging activity.
There are a number of test tube and animal studies that indicate cloves also have antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, and other properties, so I’m looking forward to more studies on the health benefits of cloves being done on human subjects.
- Red or chili pepper
The health benefits of fiery chili peppers (and their active ingredient capsaicin) has been long espoused by folks who say it helps people live longer, eat less, and improve symptoms of diabetes.
One fascinating 2017 large population-based cohort study found that “the consumption of hot red chili pepper was associated with reduced mortality” and “consumption of hot red chili peppers was associated with a 13% reduction in the instantaneous hazard of death.”
And a 2015 RDBPCT looking at the effect of chili peppers on blood glucose, lipid metabolism and pregnancy outcomes in women with gestational diabetes found that chili peppers “regularly improved postprandial hyperglycemia and hyperinsulinemia as well as fasting lipid metabolic disorders in women with GDM” as well as decreasing the incidence of large-for-gestational-age newborns.
Plenty of reasons to “make it spicy” the next time you order in!
Sweet and nutty fenugreek is often used in Indian cooking. It’s also great for folks who need help with diabetes, menopause symptoms, and sexual function.
A clinical evaluation from 2007 looking at the effect of fenugreek on blood glucose levels in both healthy and diabetic patients found that the groups who took the fenugreek had “significantly lower” glycemic indexes and saw “a slower and more sustained glucose release” than the group who hadn’t taken it, concluding that high-fiber fenugreek was “capable of lowering the [glycemic index] value of the food [which has] a beneficial effect on the [postprandial blood glucose levels] levels in persons with type 2 DM as well as in healthy people.”
For those folks dealing with menopause out there, you won’t want to miss this: A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial from 2017 found that the group which ingested fenugreek reported “significantly less daytime hot flushes and night sweats,” suggesting that fenugreek extract “may reduce menopausal symptoms in healthy women.”
But fenugreek’s not just for the kitchen—it might help you in the bedroom as well! A one-arm, open-labelled, multi-center study from 2017 found that fenugreek seed extract increased both testosterone levels and sperm count, as well as improving mental alertness, mood, and libido.
And while we’re on the subject of curry, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention turmeric, the bright orange spice that’s a powerful anti-inflammatory and tool in the fight against high cholesterol, IBS, and declining cognitive function.
Turmeric is well-known as an anti-inflammatory powerhouse; one post-hoc analysis of a randomized controlled trial from 2016 which looked at the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) found that it “significantly decreases serum concentrations of pro-inflammatory cytokines in subjects with [metabolic syndrome].”
It’s also a great tool for digestive issues of all kinds including IBS, ulcerative colitis, dyspepsia, and more. One partially blinded, randomized, two-dose, pilot study from 2005 gave one or two tablets of a standardized turmeric extract to participants a day for 8 weeks. They found that “abdominal pain/discomfort score reduced significantly by 22% and 25% in the one- and two-tablet group respectively… There were significant improvements in all bar one of the IBSQOL scales of between 5% and 36% in both groups, approximately two thirds of all subjects reported an improvement in symptoms after treatment, and there was a favorable shift in self-reported bowel pattern.”
And turmeric might even help your brain perform better! A population-based cohort study in Singapore from 2006 found that even those who occasionally ate curry (as well as those who ate if often) “had significantly better Mini Mental Status Exam scores than did subjects who ‘never or rarely’ consumed curry.” Is anyone else getting hungry?
Saffron is one of the most costly spices in the world by weight—so thankfully you get a lot of bang for your buck with these vivid crimson threads which can be used to treat depression, Alzheimers, and more.
This meta-analysis from 2019 on the efficacy of saffron in treating mild to moderate depression reviewed a number of randomized, controlled clinical trials and ultimately concluded that “saffron is significantly more effective than placebo… and non-inferior to tested antidepressant drugs.”
And a 16-week, randomized and placebo-controlled trial from 2010 looking at saffron in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease found that “at least in the short-term, saffron is both safe and effective in mild to moderate AD.”
Saffron has also been shown to have effects on PMS, erectile dysfunction, appetite and more—so looks like it might be worth the expense!
Fragrant cumin is great for amping up flavor in all sorts of dishes—and it’s also great for pain relief and IBS.
An investigation of the effect of black cumin oil on pain in osteoarthritis geriatric individuals from 2018 found a “significant decrease in pain severity” in the group that took the oil as opposed to the control group, concluding that “the pain relieving properties of black cumin oil is effective on geriatric individuals living with knee pain.”
And a pilot study from 2013 found that “abdominal pain, bloating, incomplete defecation, fecal urgency and mucus discharge in stool were statistically significantly decreased during and after treatment” with cumin extract, especially for those with IBS and constipation. As the study pointed out, due to cumin’s low cost and easy availability, it has the potential to be an incredible and accessible tool in the fight against gastrointestinal symptoms.
Spices are a must-have ingredient in your nature therapy toolkit. They have an amazingly wide range of scientifically documented health benefits—and they taste pretty good too! So next time you hit the farmers’ market or grocers, make sure your spice cabinet is all stocked up, and bon appetit!
(Remember: Ecomedicine is a far more diverse and interesting field than people might realize—it’s much more than just “going outside!”—and so the purpose of these blogs is to show you the exciting range, diversity, and nuance of the many therapeutic interventions that fall under the umbrella of ecomedicine. You can check out the other blogs I’ve written on the site, on topics like gardening for dementia, therapeutic horticulture, pet therapy, adventure therapy, blue care, ecotherapy, care farms, forest bathing, hydrotherapy, breathwork in nature, earthing and grounding, greening the indoors, light therapy, and culinary medicinal herbs.)
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