Compelling scientific research over the past two decades shows that not only are spices good for us but the evidence indicates that they are actually essential components of a balanced diet.
The health benefits of spices can be best appreciated by dividing them into 10 principal categories.
1. ANTIOXIDANT ACTIVITY
An antioxidant is a substance that prevents oxidative damage by neutralizing the highly reactive and destructive free radical molecules that are produced during cellular energy production. Damaging oxidative stress occurs when there are insufficient antioxidants available to “mop up” excess free radicals. Oxidative stress can be caused by infections, drugs, smoking, pollution, radiation, excessive exercise, psychological stress and obesity.
Damage caused by oxidative stress has been implicated in a range of diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Some antioxidants are produced by the body, but these need to be supplemented by the antioxidants found in foods. The best way to do this is by regularly eating a variety of antioxidant-rich foods such as culinary herbs and spices.
Spices have the highest antioxidant activity of all food groups including fresh fruit and vegetables (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition July 2006).
There exists a pervasive type of systemic inflammation underlying a wide range of chronic diseases that causes damage to most tissues and organs. This type of inflammation may be caused by a number of factors including obesity, infection, gum disease, toxins and autoimmune disease.
The phytonutrients found in spices can reduce the pathological effects of inflammation by acting against each of these contributory factors as well as by direct anti-inflammatory action.
The most potent anti-inflammatory spices are bay leaf, garlic, ginger, oregano, rosemary, thyme and turmeric.
3. IMMUNE SYSTEM
A healthy immune system is vital for the prevention of cancer, infections and other diseases. Although our immune systems weaken as we age we can counter this by eating a diet rich in spice-based immune boosting compounds. These will help aid our aging immune systems by helping to fight off cancer and infections and prevent the development of autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus etc.
Spices particularly rich in immunomodulating phytonutrients are black pepper and garlic.
4. ANTI-TOXIN EFFECTS
We are continuously exposed to a number of toxins – from environmental pollutants to the cancer-causing chemicals found in certain foods, such as red meat. While the body has mechanisms to deal with a limited variety and quantity of toxins, it needs additional help to counter sustained levels of these substances.
Spice-derived compounds are extremely effective in augmenting the body’s mechanisms for combating toxins.
Spices such as mustard, wasabi, caraway, citrus, coriander garlic, rosemary and turmeric neutralize a whole range of environmental carcinogens and toxins.
The fundamental cause of cancer is DNA damage that can occur as a result of aging, genetic susceptibility, and exposure to an assortment of carcinogens.
Many of the phytochemicals found in spices act as potent preventive agents against cancer by defending DNA against free radicals and other toxins. They prevent the overproduction of toxic chemicals within the body, assist the body’s detoxification processes and modulate a range of mechanisms involved in the development of cancer.
Spices can also act as powerful treatments for certain types of cancer.
Some spices enhance the effects of the traditional cancer treatments of radiotherapy and chemotherapy, as well as reducing the negative side effects of these therapies.
The most important anticancer spices are anise, basil, black pepper, caraway, clove, fennel, garlic, ginger, green tea, mustard, rosemary and turmeric.
The phytonutrients found in spices help to control many of the pathological mechanisms that underlie diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Cinnamon, fenugreek, garlic, coriander, ginger and caper are the spices most effective in lowering blood glucose and abnormal blood lipids.
The myriad of antioxidant compounds in spices also help to protect against the severe oxidative damage to which all diabetes sufferers are subject.
7. ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE
The precise cause of Alzheimer’s disease is unknown. However several factors such as oxidative stress, inflammation and the accumulation of toxins in the brain are known to be associated with its development. Communities that include high levels of spices in their diets have lower incidences of Alzheimer’s disease than those who do not do so.
Turmeric, rosemary, ginger and garlic show impressive protective and curative effects against this disease. Their anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory anti-toxin and other effects all contribute to their position as the most important food group in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
8. HEART DISEASE
Cardiovascular disease is associated with a range of factors including raised cholesterol and triglyceride levels, high blood pressure, ‘sticky’ platelets, obesity, smoking, diabetes and chronic systemic inflammation.
Spices are powerful preventative agents against cardiovascular disease as they modify most risk factors as well as other illnesses and pathological processes associated with this condition. Caper, cinnamon, coriander, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, mustard, oregano, rosemary, thyme and others exhibit powerful, protective effects against the development of heart attacks and strokes.
9. MACULAR DEGENERATION
Macular degeneration, also known as age related macular degeneration (AMD) is a disease of the macula of the eye that is found predominantly in elderly people and is the leading cause of central vision loss in the USA for those over the age of 50 years.
Several very large studies have shown conclusively that those individuals who eat a diet rich in antioxidants reduce their risk of developing macular degeneration by up to 35%.
Aging is a complex, multifaceted process that is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. The processes underlying aging such as oxidative stress and inflammation are common to many age-related illnesses such as those mentioned above.
Therefore the aging process can be retarded by foods, such as spices, that contain high levels of antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and other protective compounds.
By including a wide variety of spices in our diet or taking a natural, balanced spice supplement we can add a vital lifestyle factor to our disease-fighting armamentarium.