Many natural wellness weapons are as close as your backyard or spice rack. Here are nine defenders that you probably have at your fingertips. Each one has numerous studies showing how it can benefit human health. Remember: Hippocrates famously advised, “Let food be your medicine.”
1 Saffron Leading the list is the most expensive spice in the world. Saffron is the tiny hairlike crocus stamen, harvested by hand in the Middle East. Though pricy, just a little, as much as a tenth of a teaspoon, has a mood lifting effect similar to Prozac. It also increases blood flow to the brain, which improves cognitive performance, and was shown to have a positive impact on the genes regulating ocular cells, potentially slowing or reversing degenerative eye diseases. Just a few threads into paella, risotto, or the Indian dessert called kheer, imparts flavor and an orange color. Saffron is delicate, so keep it in a cool, dark place, and only enough for three months, which should help to offset the hefty price tag.
2. Turmeric Another goldenboy, turmeric lends a bright yellow color and a ton of health benefits. Turmeric has been used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine for millennia. Its active ingredient, curcumin, is a strong antioxidant, shown to inhibit cancer growth in animal studies, reduce risk of amyloid plaque development, a factor in dementia and Alzheimer’s; and to regulate triglyceride and insulin levels, protecting the cardiovascular system. Turmeric is also a powerful COX-2 inhibitor that works like a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory to relieve pain without the uncomfortable side effects. A 2009 study found a daily dose was just as effective as ibuprofen for osteoarthritis. Turmeric also helps to regulate and have positive effects on people with autoimmune disorders. Work in about a teaspoon, three times a week, in soups, chili, curries, and chicken salad; it also makes a great tea when you boil a piece of the root for about 15 minutes.
3 Cinnamon is a hot topic now. Recognized for its antioxidant properties, it has compelling studies supporting its use in cases of cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s and cardiovascular problems. Cinnamon also helps insulin work better, reducing blood sugar levels, for those with type 2 diabetes. In fact because it helps keeps blood sugar low, it can help prevent the onset of diabetes. True cinnamon, often labeled “Ceylon cinnamon,” has higher levels of antioxidants, so seek it out. A quarter to a half a teaspoon a day is enough, easy to do with this favorite.
4 Sage They called wise men sages, and with good reason. Sage improves memory, mood and cognitive reaction. It’s also shown good results in those with Alzheimer’s or other dementias, because sage inhibits an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (as does rosmarinic acid, from another great spice, rosemary). Sage is also great for digestion, and it has estrogen-like effects, which might help curb hot flashes and other menopause symptoms. Sage’s earthy flavor is a natural on roasted meats, and potatoes. You can also use fresh snipped sage to make a tea.
5 Thyme Thyme tells a tale of good health, thanks to thymol, a volatile oil with strong antimicrobial properties, like the ones you find in Listerine. Thymol is used to decontaminate vegtables and ward off food-borne pathogens, such as staph and E. coli. Thyme also improves digestion and reduces gas. Add thyme to about everything, even lemonade, and just a teaspoon of fresh or a quarter teaspoon of dried, three times a week will keep you safe.
6. Ginger For centuries all over the globe, ginger has been used as a stomach settler and digestive aid. Ginger quells nausea, speeds food through the digestive tract, and protects against gastric ulcers. Its also been shown to help with pain, including menstrual cramps, muscle pain, and migraines. Its powerful COX inhibitors relieve pain of osteoarthritis or other chronic inflammatory conditions. With so many ways to use it, ginger, whether fresh, boiled as tea, pickeled, candied even as a ginger ale, is an easy one to swallow.
7. Rosemary In ancient Greece, students wore rosemary in their hair when studying, because it was considered a strong memory aid. The Greeks were right, though it’s better to ingest the carnosic acid of rosemary, which helps protect the brain from free-radical damage, lowering the risks of stroke and Alzheimer’s. Carnosol, another component of rosemary, has been shown to inhibit cancer growth. Rosemary is an easy add to roasted meats, potato salad, even pastries and just a teaspoon or two a week is all you need. Don’t overdo it though, too much rosemary has been linked to seizures and inefficient iron absorption.
8. Basil, Basil actually originates from India, where it’s traditionally used to treat asthma, stress, and diabetes. Basil also has strong antimicrobial and antiviral properties, like thyme. It’s also a great source of beta-carotene, which turns into vitamin A, as well as magnesium, iron and calcium. A tablespoon of fresh basil or a half a teaspoon of dried basil three times a week is enough, but this is Jersey so a little more won’t hurt.
9. Red Hot Chili Peppers Chilis have been spicing things up for a long time — almost 10,000 years. In addition to food, chilis are often used keep animals from crops, and the capsaicin in peppers is used in many over-the-counter pain relief ointments. Capsaicin inhibits the release of substance P, a biochemical that interrupts the transmission of constant pain signals to the brain. Chili works itself into many dishes, even chocolate and you only need a scant eighth of a teaspoon.
These common flavor-builders can build your good health too, so spice it up!