Herbs and spices: Healthy benefits backed by science

By John Murphy
Published August 7, 2020

Key Takeaways

Culinary herbs and spices not only make food taste better, they can make you healthier. Centuries—even millennia—of tradition supports these health benefits. But now, so do years of recent scientific research. 

“Spices not only enhance the flavor, aroma, and color of food and beverages, but they may also protect against the development of acute and chronic, noncommunicable diseases and help people maintain health,” wrote T. Alan Jiang, MD, PhD, in the Journal of AOAC International

Researchers have found that some of the bioactive elements of culinary herbs and spices include alkaloids, tannins, sulfur-containing compounds, vitamins, phenolic diterpenes, and especially flavonoids and polyphenols. As a bonus, people who eat spicy food often reduce their desire for salt and their salt intake, which lowers their blood pressure. So, if you want to be healthier—and eat better—spice up your dishes with some of these health-giving herbs. 

Red pepper for longer life

Red hot chili peppers aren't just a rock band—they also improve heart health and decrease mortality, among other benefits. These healthful properties largely come from capsaicin, the main bioactive component of chili pepper and the thing that “burns” your tongue. 

In terms of cardioprotection, a randomized, double-blind, controlled clinical trial of 42 adults with low HDL cholesterol showed that those who took capsaicin capsules twice daily for 3 months had reduced risk factors of coronary heart disease. Capsaicin may contribute to the prevention and treatment of heart disease, the researchers concluded. 

In regard to decreased mortality, a large population-based prospective study that included more than 16,000 US adults from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) III found that those who ate hot red chili peppers had a 13% lower risk of death.

Sage for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Salvia, which we call sage, comes from the Latin word for “to heal.” Sage has traditionally been used as an antioxidant and for its abilities to improve mental function and memory, “quicken the senses,” and delay age-associated cognitive decline. 

Science bears this out. “In vitro, animal and preliminary human studies have supported the evidence of Salvia plants to enhance cognitive skills and guard against neurodegenerative disorders,” according to the author of a literature review published in the Drugs in R&D

Researchers have tested the cognitive-enhancing effects of different sage species in at least five randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human trials. In one small but notable trial, researchers gave a daily dose (60 drops) of Salvia officinalis (common sage) extract to patients with Alzheimer’s disease for 4 months. Compared with patients on placebo, those given sage extract showed significant cognitive improvements in measures of the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale and the Clinical Dementia Rating Scale.  

‘Holy basil’ for diabetes

Tulsi, also called “holy basil,” has held a special place in Ayurvedic medicine in India for more than 3,000 years. It’s been used to treat everything from bronchitis to hiccups and from headache to snake bite, and more. 

In recent years, researchers have investigated this medicinal herb for numerous purposes, primarily for immunity and neurocognitive function, but most notably for metabolic disorders. 

In various randomized placebo-controlled clinical trials, patients with type 2 diabetes who ingested tulsi (as leaves, extract, or powder, depending on the study) showed significant reductions in fasting blood glucose, postprandial glucose, and urine glucose levels. Patients with metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes taking tulsi also showed improvements in HbA1c and lipid levels. 

Turmeric for fighting cancer

Turmeric is a main ingredient in curry powder and is found on the spice rack in many Americans’ kitchens. A major component of turmeric is curcumin, which gives turmeric its yellow color. Curcumin also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and is showing promise as a potential cancer treatment. 

“Curcumin (CUR)...was demonstrated, both in vitro and in vivo, to have significant anti-inflammatory effects, thus potentially counteracting cancer-promoting inflammation, which is a hallmark of cancer,” wrote the authors of a review article in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

“Although CUR has a low bioavailability, its role in advanced cancer treatment and supportive care was addressed in numerous clinical trials,” they added. “After promising results in phase I–II trials, multiple phase III trials in different indications are currently under way to test for direct anti-cancer effects. In addition, CUR exerts beneficial effects on cancer treatment-related neurotoxcity, cardiotoxicity, nephrotoxicity, hemato-toxicity, and others.”

Large, randomized clinical trials are urgently needed to investigate the meaningful effects of curcumin against cancer, the authors advised. 

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