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Top Three Super-Spices
Top Three Super-Spices
Since ancient times, spices have been venerated for their exquisite taste, medicinal properties and spiritual propensities. Even today, shamans and priests burn spices to pay homage to the divine. But in modern kitchens, we tend to turn to spices merely for seasoning, often forgetting they also offer healing benefits.
“Spice as medicine is the oldest apothecary on the planet,” says Esther Cohen, founder and director of the Nourishment Education Foundation and Boulder, Colorado-based Seven Bowls School of Nutrition, Nourishment and Healing. “Not only do spices spark our palate, they ignite our hormonal system, improve our immunity and calm our nerves.”
With more than 1,400 studies published on turmeric alone, as well as a growing body of research on cinnamon and cayenne, these invigorating spices deserve a place in your kitchen pharmacy. This particular trio of spices works well together, says Cohen, becoming even more effective when used in tandem. Folding one or two of them into your cooking every day can have a huge impact on your health.
For all of these spices, Cohen recommends buying them as fresh as possible and using the plant in its most natural state (i.e., as a spice added to food) for a “more potent, synergetic effect.” If you have a condition that calls for a more concentrated dose, she suggests taking an additional supplement after consulting with a medical professional.
A bulbous root belonging to the ginger family, turmeric is bright yellow and has a pungent, earthy taste. “Energetically, turmeric—a relative of ginger—impacts the large intestine the most. Its action is to ground, warm and stimulate,” says Cohen. In medical terms, this translates into an impressive range of benefits, most of which stem from its anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have linked turmeric’s active ingredient, curcumin, with relieving pain and arthritis, decreasing blood clots, preventing cancer, strengthening digestion, detoxifying the liver and healing skin wounds.
In an October 2006 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, researchers at UCLA found that turmeric may help clear the brain of amyloid beta, the basis of plaques found in Alzheimer's disease. A more recent study, published in January 2012 in Molecular Carcinogenesis, found that curcumin, when combined with trichostatin A, enhanced the drug’s ability to inhibit breast cancer cells.
Try it: Sprinkle it into soups, stir-fry or eggs. For a soothing digestive drink, try one teaspoon of turmeric mixed with a cup of warm milk and honey to offset the spice’s astringency.
As a supplement: If you take turmeric as an extract, the standard dose is 400 mg to 600 mg three times daily, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
A bright red pepper actually classified as a fruit, cayenne has an unmistakable hot and fiery taste. Cayenne’s energetic territory is the heart, says Cohen. “It rallies our inner strength and invokes courage.” Physiologically, capsaicin, the compound responsible for cayenne’s heat, prevents blood clots, stimulates digestion, boosts metabolism, eases pain, clears congestion and, used topically in a cream, treats arthritis. In addition, it’s packed with antioxidants, containing one of the highest concentrations of vitamin C by weight of any food.
The latest research on capsaicin highlights its capacity to aid in weight loss. A January 2009 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition linked capsaicin to abdominal fat loss, and other studies suggest it may help suppress appetite. “Spicy foods such as cayenne break down fat, make you sweat and stimulate metabolism,” says Cohen.
Try it: Add it to dips, stews, spaghetti sauces, pizza or even salad dressings—anything that could use a little zest. For a tasty, detoxifying drink, try mixing hot water with lemon juice, maple syrup and a dash of cayenne.
As a supplement: Capsaicin can be taken in capsule form, 30 mg to 120 mg three times daily, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
An aromatic bark with a sweet, slightly pungent taste, cinnamon is one of the most popular spices in the United States. “Cinnamon has an especially strong influence on the stomach and spleen,” Cohen says. “And its protective, bark-like nature brings warmth, energy and increased circulation to these organs.” While cinnamon currently claims the spotlight for its ability to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners also prescribe it for flatulence, diarrhea and painful menstrual periods.
A growing body of research suggests that cinnamon improves how insulin functions and could play a significant role in the treatment of diabetes.
A groundbreaking study published in the December 2003 issue of Diabetes Care found type 2 diabetics who took 1, 3, or 6 grams of cinnamon per day exhibited reduced glucose, triglyceride, LDL (bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol levels. A more recent study published in September 2009 in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine showed cinnamon taken twice daily for 90 days improved hemoglobin A1C (a test that shows average blood sugar level for the past two to three months) in poorly controlled diabetics.
Try it: Sprinkle cinnamon on fresh fruit, oatmeal, yogurt or your morning latte—or add a pinch to chili. For an immune-boosting indulgence, make Mexican hot chocolate, which combines ordinary hot cocoa with one half-teaspoon cinnamon and a dash of cayenne.
As a supplement: Ask your health practitioner for advice on dosage, as high levels of cinnamon can be toxic. A standard recommendation is 1/2 to 1 teaspoon (2 to 4 grams) of powder daily.
Elizabeth is an award-winning journalist who has written about everything from agave syrup to placebos to zero waste. She writes for the magazines Natural Health, Backpacker and FitPregnancy, among others, as well as a handful of websites, including Gaiam and Natural Medicine Journal. She also has coauthored a 52-card oracle deck with guidebook called The Mother’s Wisdom Deck (Sterling Publishers).
March 15th, 2012