Herbs and Spices Fight Disease

Most of us look at spices as a way to perk up the plate, but did you know they have the potential to fight disease? From cinnamon to sage, see why you might want to spice up your life.


The substance that gives turmeric it’s color shows promise in fighting Alzheimer’s disease, Cystic Fibrosis, even certain types of cancer. Both an anti-flammatory and an antibacterial, turmeric has long been used for treatment of enhancing digestion and preventing a cold and flu.

Among other findings, researchers discovered that turmeric (especially curcumin with BioPerine) has rich stores of antioxidants. In the body these important disease-fighting substances mop up unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals that can otherwise damage cells and cause diseases such as cancer.

Test-tube studies done in the 1990s indicate that turmeric is as powerful an antioxidant as vitamins C and E, and even beta-carotene. Antioxidants are also powerful preservatives, which helps explain why turmeric has long been sprinkled on food to help retain its freshness.

Turmeric may help to:

  • Relieve carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, and joint inflammation. The anti-inflammatory compounds in turmeric appear to ease inflammation. This makes it potentially useful for relieving the inflammation in wrist and hand joints associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, for example. In India, curcumin is considered a standard anti-inflammatory medication. It appears to be most effective for acute (as opposed to chronic) inflammation. Many sources recommend curcumin for arthritis-related inflammation and pain, but the evidence showing its effectiveness for arthritis is unclear. In a 1980 study published in India, rheumatoid arthritis patients who took 1,200 mg of curcumin a day experienced the same reduction in stiffness and joint swelling as those who took the prescription anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone, which can have unpleasant side effects. Unfortunately, the study was flawed because results weren’t compared to a placebo (dummy pill) group.
  • Ease indigestion, excess gas (flatulence), bloating, and other mild stomach upset. Reinforcing an ancient use for turmeric, German health authorities have declared turmeric tea a valuable remedy for stomach upset. Laboratory findings back this up: The curcumin in turmeric fights bacteria commonly responsible for infectious diarrhea. Clinical trials have been somewhat promising for this time-tested use as well. In a widely cited 1989 study, Thai researchers found that 500 mg capsules of curcumin (taken four times daily) were far more effective than a placebo in relieving indigestion. The study involved more than 116 adults at six Thai hospitals. And it was double-blind, meaning that neither the participants nor the researchers were aware of what each participant was taking during the trial. Nearly 90% of the participants taking the turmeric experienced full or partial pain relief after seven days, while only 53% of the group taking the placebo felt better.
  • Prevent cancer. In its role as an antioxidant, turmeric (presumably meaning the curcumin) inhibits damage to cells and thus helps to prevent certain types of cancer. In laboratory and small animal studies, curcumin has been found to hinder the growth of errant cells associated with cancer of the breast, skin, and colon, as well as lymphoma. In a small but interesting 1992 clinical trial of 16 cigarette smokers, those taking 1.5 grams of turmeric a day for 30 days had a significantly lower level of mutagens (in the urine) than a control group consisting of six nonsmokers. Mutagens are substances that can increase the occurrence of a cancer-causing mutation.


Cinnamon has been found to reduce triglycerides, bad cholesterol, and sugar in the blood, thus helping those with high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease. Just half a teaspoon of cinnamon a day could help in controlling Type 2 diabetes, according to recent US research. In the study a one-gram capsule of cinnamon triggered a 20 per cent drop in blood sugar levels, cholesterol and triglycerides. The active ingredient in cinnamon is believed to be MHCP, a compound that seems to mimic the effects of insulin. It is hoped that this finding will lead to the development of a new treatment. Recent studies have shown that insulin resistance may also be involved in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, according to Graves. A study testing the effects of the “insulin-like” component of cinnamon on protein reactions associated with Alzheimer’s disease is planned at UCSB’s Neuroscience Research Institute (NRI).

In tests at Weber University, Cinnamon oil has proven more effective than Ampicillin in inhibiting the growth of Staphylococcal infections and unlike conventional antibiotic drugs, essential oils tend to leave beneficial bacteria intact while killing disease producing bacteria (pathogens). Additionally, bacteria do not acquire resistance to the oils as they do with antibiotics. Today when so many illnesses and bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics, the therapeutic effects of essential oils and their immune-boosting abilities may be just what we need.


A recent Department of Agriculture study shows oregano offers more antioxidant activity than other cooking herbs. On a per gram fresh weight basis, oregano has demonstrated 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 30 times more than potatoes, 12 times more than oranges and 4 times more than blueberries. It’s plant chemical quercetin, may be especially protective against breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers.


Cumin seeds may also have anti-carcinogenic properties. In one study, cumin was shown to protect laboratory animals from developing stomach or liver tumors. This cancer-protective effect may be due to cumin’s potent free radical scavenging abilities as well as the ability it has shown to enhance the liver’s detoxification enzymes. Yet, since free radical scavenging and detoxification are important considerations for the general maintenance of wellness, cumin’s contribution to wellness may be even more farther reaching.


Want to enrich the taste and cardiovascular health benefits of your pasta sauce? Add a good helping of basil. Basil is a very good source of vitamin A (through its concentration of carotenoids such as beta-carotene). Called “pro-vitamin A,” since it can be converted into vitamin A, beta-carotene is a more powerful anti-oxidant than vitamin A and not only protects epithelial cells (the cells that form the lining of numerous body structures including the blood vessels) from free radical damage, but also helps prevent free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol in the blood stream. Only after it has been oxidized does cholesterol build up in blood vessel walls, initiating the development of atherosclerosis, whose end result can be a heart attack or stroke.

Free radical damage is a contributing factor in many other conditions as well, including asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. The beta-carotene found in basil may help to lessen the progression of these conditions while protecting cells from further damage.


Finally sage appears to inhibit the breakdown of a chemical crucial for memory and thinking, so scientist are looking to this herb to slow down the effects of Alzheimer disease as well as help others with alertness.

Most of the research involves using high doses of fresh spices in animals, so using a small amount of dried might not produce the same health benefits. A good reason to use often and generously. And remember, spices also add a lot of flavor without a lot of fat and salt..