Professional chefs and great home cooks know that careful seasoning is the secret to delicious food. A teaspoon of cumin can impart a smoky flavor that elevates a tex-mex chili to new levels, while a sprinkle of cinnamon can add a spicy, sweet note to both desserts and savory dishes. And in addition to making dinner taste better, these spices and others can actually make you healthier, too.
In ancient healing systems like Ayurveda, spices have long been used for both their flavor and medicinal purposes. And, finally, the modern world is taking notice. Spices like turmeric are being recognized for their ability to fight disease as well as—if not better than—harmful pharmaceuticals, and they’re providing people with a safe, natural alternative to drugs.
I live by the belief that food is medicine, and that certainly applies to spices. Here are five of my favorites.
If you only reach for cinnamon when you want to stir some into a bowl of applesauce or bake it into a breakfast pastry, you’re missing out on one of the most powerful healing spices in the world. In fact, out of more than 26 medicinal spices, cinnamon is ranked number one for its protective antioxidant levels. These antioxidants and other compounds then trigger cinnamon’s anti-inflammatory and immunity-boosting abilities.
Studies have shown that cinnamon may reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, reduced cognitive function and other diseases, in addition to reducing swelling and inflammation and serving as a natural pain killer. Additionally, cinnamon is a natural anti-microbial, antibiotic, anti-fungal and anti-viral agent that can kill harmful bacteria and viruses throughout the body, including those that cause the common cold.
Turmeric is everywhere these days, assuming the position of most popular spice in the health and wellness community. And it’s for good reason. Turmeric isn’t just a delicious addition to curry or a way to add a silky yellow hue to your favorite golden milk recipe. In more than 6,000 studies referencing circumin, one of the active healing compounds in turmeric, the spice has been shown to have equal or greater benefits than pharmaceutical medications.
Because of its wide-ranging healing powers, turmeric can replace anti-inflammatory drugs, anti-depressants, pain killers, diabetes medications, cholesterol drugs, steroids and other potentially harmful medications. Turmeric is also a potent gastrointestinal treatment and is effective in treating, IBS, IBD and Crohn’s disease.
In the Hindu language of Sanskrit, cumin is known as “Jira,” which means “that which helps with digestion,” and it is also one of the most mentioned herbs in the Bible. But you don’t have to speak another language or be particularly religious to benefit from this powerful spice. In fact, if you’re a fan of Mexican or Indian food—two ethnic cuisines that rely heavily on cumin smokiness—you’re likely already experiencing the healing abilities of cumin.
Cumin aids digestion by preventing the formation of gas in the gastrointestinal tract and by helping to stimulate the production of the acids, bile and enzymes that are responsible for the digesting food in the stomach. Cumin also contains vitamin C and vitamin E, which makes it effective in boosting the immune system and healing skin. Cumin is also effective in treating respiratory conditions, as it works as an expectorant and anti-congestive agent, helping to clear mucous from the airways while also treating the condition that caused the congestion in the first place.
Even if you don’t think you’re a fan of spicy food, once you learn about the medicinal benefits of cayenne pepper, I bet you’ll be adding some extra heat to all of your homemade dishes. Cayenne is commonly used to treat conditions of the heart and blood vessels, including poor circulation, excessive blood clotting, high cholesterol and heart disease. The chemical capsaicin, which is found in cayenne, is also a natural pain reliever and is an effective headache remedy.
I especially love cayenne because of its detoxifying properties. It stimulates the digestive system to help move toxins out of the body. It also increases body temperature and boosts metabolism, helping to burn fat naturally. For these reasons, cayenne is one of the key ingredients in my Secret Detox Drink.
Cardamom may sound unfamiliar to you, but if you like pumpkin or apple pie spice blends, you’re likely already a fan of this warm, slightly sweet spice. And you’re not the only one. Cardamom is known as the “queen of spices” and can typically be found in every Indian home. In fact, Indian men and women often chew cardamom pods as a way to naturally freshen their breath. Cardamom kills the bacteria that cause bad breath and can also prevent the development of cavities.
But cardamom isn’t just good for oral health. A study in the Indian Journal of Biochemistry and Biophysics showed that cardamom can help lower blood pressure, and a study in the Journal of Medicinal Food showed that cardamom may be helpful in fighting skin cancer.