Using Spices to Improve Health

Can spices save your life?

That’s a bit dramatic, but there is a good deal of research on how spices can help us live a healthier life. As we experiment more with different recipes and different ways to cook, we have also expanded the variety of spices we use in the kitchen.

About a month ago, I started taking turmeric in capsule form as an anti-inflammatory to help with some osteoarthritis pain in my neck. I haven’t had a flare up since, but of course I don’t know if I can attribute that to the turmeric or just being more mindful of protecting my neck. Only time will tell there. But turmeric, as opposed to some of the powerful drugs on the market, has no side effects and certainly can’t hurt you, so I’m all for sticking with this plan!

Here is a list of 5 spices that we are trying to incorporate into our meals.

Cinnamon–I usually use cinnamon for toast or for sweetened baked goods, but cinnamon is actually good in many savory dishes as well. I’m thinking of trying it on sweet potato gnocchi, in chili, on rice or quinoa and as part of a rub for steak.

Cinnamon has been shown to boost our ability to process glucose and maintain even blood sugar levels. It also has been shown to help with cardiovascular risk factors, including diabetes. The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine studied the effects of cinnamon on individuals with type 2 diabetes and found that it substantially lowered blood sugar levels over a placebo within two months. Apparently, cinnamon may also offer benefits against cancer, yeast infections, cholesterol problems and food poisoning.

For best results, don’t use the 2-year-old jar of cinnamon in your pantry (I tell myself), buy the quills and grind them using a spice grinder or a nutmeg grater. Ceylon cinnamon in jars is supposedly the highest quality for pre-ground cinnamon.

Turmeric–Turmeric has been one of those mystery spices to me. While I use curry powder in cooking, I never owned a bottle of straight up turmeric, which is often used in curry powder mixes. Now, though, I am all on board the turmeric train. This Indian spice is packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory powers that apparently protect and heal every major organ of the body. They key compound in turmeric is curcumin, which prevents inflammation that, in turn, causes other health problems. In fact, it has been shown to be as effective as anti-inflammatory medications (including Celebrex) without the side effects. It also shows indications for treating skin diseases like psoriasis and eczema.

Tumeric is the only readily available form of curcumin. It is a root and apparently difficult to grind, so pre-ground powders are the best source. Tumeric from the allepy region of India has twice as much curcumin as turmeric from other areas of India.

Here is how we plan to use more turmeric: soups and stews, on stir fried vegetables, in chili, melted into butter and poured onto vegetables, in egg and chicken salad.

Coriander–Coriander is the seed pod of the cilantro plant. It tastes completely different though. I haven’t warmed up to cilantro yet, but coriander is lovely. The healing power of coriander comes from two oils in the coriander seed that are powerful antioxidants.

Coriander is a powerhouse when it comes to treating digestive ailments, including irritable bowel syndrome. A study in Digestive Diseases and Sciences found that when compared with a placebo, those taking a coriander treatment experienced three times the improvement in their IBS symptoms of pain and bloating. Apparently, coriander acts as an antispasmodic, relaxing the muscles in the digestive system and calming the bowel and colon. It also has indications for helping with diabetes, eczema, high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Here is how we plan to use more coriander seeds: in our favorite broccoli and shrimp dish, in meat rubs, soups, stews, and in roasted vegetables like cauliflower.

Fennel–I’m one of those weird people who loves the black jelly beans at Easter. I love licorice or anything with that flavor profile, so fennel is just wonderful. I don’t cook with fresh fennel though, and that might be something I try this spring. The chemical anethol, present in fennel seeds, is a recognized phyto-estrogen, and fennel seeds in tea or in food are highly effective in addressing menstrual cramping. Fennel apparently also alleviates colic in babies and addresses arthritis and colitis.

Fennel seeds are more effective than ground fennel, which loses potency after 6 months.

While I am alone in my love of licorice, we will add fennel seeds to our diet in making sausage or sausage ragout sauces, and to our Italian type seasoning blends to go on tomatoes, in tomato sauce and with olives.

Ginger–Ginger has been long known for its digestive healing properties, but I didn’t realize that it also helps with motion sickness. In a University of Michigan study, volunteers subjected themselves to a spinning chair, and were spun until they were nauseous. They were later given 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams of ginger and in subsequent tests, they took longer to become nauseous. Note to self: take ginger before getting on the teacup ride at Disney.

Fresh ginger is more effective than dried, powdered ginger. Knobs of fresh ginger will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks or indefinitely in the freezer.

We can add more ginger to our diet by using it in stir fry, using it in salad dressing, and as a tenderizer for meat. I also love it pickled with sushi.

So, yay, 5 easy ways to boost our healthy living while cooking and put a little variety into our dishes. I love all these ideas, but turmeric is definitely the most compelling little health booster I’ve seen. I’m on the lookout for recipes!

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