For thousands of years, humans have relied on plants to treat almost every ache, pain and disease imaginable. Even now, people supplement or at times replace (though this author would never recommend such actions) medications with herbs or compounds claiming to be pure herb extracts.
Here, we list 10 Herbs that can improve your health and be easily found in your spice cabinet. Please bear in mind none of the following advice or information should replace physicians or standard medications, especially in cases of severe disease.
These are instead presented as herbs and spices to supplement a normal and healthy diet, or to aid in minor irritations.
Ten Herbs and Spices to Improve Your Health
An herb most commonly used for adding a floral, sweet and spicy flavour to fish and fowl dishes, Sage is a mainstay in nearly every home. What is often forgotten is that previously to making it onto a plate, both Pliny the Elder and Charlemagne hailed this green leaf as far more than a lovely scent. In fact, Sage contains quite a few active chemicals (admittedly in dilute amounts) that over a long period of time may promote better health. A prime example is Cineole, which is an antiseptic and a cough suppressant. Others are Chlorogenic Acid and Tannic acid which have been proven to aid in lowering blood pressure as well as a veritable laundry list of antioxidants, and most importantly a Cholinesterase Inhibitor.
The latter, which limits the breakdown of neurotransmitter Acetylcholine is being studied at time of writing as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Acetylcholine is used both as the primary nerve signal for skeletal muscles to contract and in the brain to help transmissions that are cognitive in nature. Recently, several small double blind studies have shown that this compound has increased cognitive function, behavior regulation, memory and alertness. That being said, it is clear much more research must be done for any definitive answer on exactly how useful Sage is. Sage is most useful and beneficial when fresh, so it is recommended that it be picked up at your local produce aisle or if you’re a budding Gardner, to grow sage in a sunny, semi-dry environment.
Wildly popular as the go to spice to pep up soups and prove masculinity, Capsicum annuum is the most common species of Chili pepper. In fact, this one species encompasses many varieties of chili from Bell to African Bird Eye. The active ingredient within Chilis is appropriately named Capsaicin, and is thought to be originally used by the plant as a defense mechanism against hungry creatures. This defense capability is reincarnated when pepper spray is used to deter anything from a mugger to a bear while camping.
Ironically, this chemical also has shown some use in neuralgia (pain associated with nerve damage), arthritis, and to treat rashes. Perhaps more common and obvious, Chilis can also be used to clear up minor nasal congestion by simple ingestion. Lastly, there is circumstantial, but not scientifically valid evidence of a possible connection between chili ingestion and lowered chances of heart disease as well as cancer.
An ingredient for stir fry and biscuits (cookies for Americans) alike, Ginger is valued as a particularly powerful spice that pairs well with sweet and savory dishes. It is also the go to home-remedy for nausea and seasickness, thanks to the chemical Gingerol, found in raw ginger. Interestingly enough, ginger’s medicinal properties are altered when cooked, dried and powdered. Gingerol when heated undergoes a chemical transformation into Shogaol and Zingerol which both can aid in cough suppression, as well as stomach and menstrual cramps. Further research is currently being conducted on other health effects, including a study which observes whether high doses of chemicals found in ginger may cause stomach ulcers.
High quality Saffron is by far the most expensive spice in the world with the highest premium sampling costing up to $4,700 per pound (roughly half a kilogram). Luckily, to impart flavor and benefits, only a few threads of saffron flower are needed as an average of 300 strands are present per gram. Cultivated since the seventh century B.C. in Iran, the flower has been seen as a useful medicinal herb. In recent studies of the plant, there is significant evidence to point that Saffron’s principle chemicals Crocin and Safranal may be useful in treating both Major Depressive Disorder and Premenstrual Syndrome. It should be noted however, high dosages of either chemical in studies involving pregnant mice have produced evidence that birth defects may occur. While mice are not perfect human analogues, it is still recommended that pregnant women exercise caution if exposed to large amounts of the flower.
If you’re a fan of potatoes, tabbouleh or or risotto, it’s a safe bet you have some fresh parsley in the kitchen. This lightly onion and citrus flavoured herb can add just the right amount of zing to many dishes, and can also be particularly handy if said dishes would otherwise cause you significant gastrointestinal distress. The oil found from the pressed leaves and roots of this plant have also seen use as a treatment for Urinary Tract Infections, and other microbial maladies. Hippocrates historically also noted that a large amount of parsley can cause abortions to occur, so as to be expected, it’s not recommended for pregnant women to ingest much of it. Furthermore, in doses high enough to cause said event, kidney and liver damage would likely also occur. However, when used in amounts within normal culinary standards, it is a beneficial and tasty addition to your diet.
While typically relegated to sweets (such as icing for cupcakes) lavender has a wide array of culinary uses. Whether you want a light floral taste to mild fish, a bit of sweetness in breads, or something to liven up the aesthetic of an otherwise plain dish, this flower is a must. It is also incredibly handy if you suffer from anxiety or sleep disorders, either ingested or when put into candles as aromatherapy. As of 2013, Germany has approved the use of Lavender Oil as an axiolytic (anti-panic drug) under the name Lasea. There’s also evidence that a simple cup of lavender and chamomile tea may also do the trick if you find yourself mildly stressed or having a hard time sleeping on occasion. There is a slight caution to males, though: Lavender has shown some evidence of causing Gynecomastia (enlargement of the breasts) due to an estrogen-like chemical found in the plant. This typically only occurs when ingested frequently or use of the essential oil is constant.
While now most commonly known as one of the three essential toppings to a Margherita Pizza, Basil has a long and illustrious history. The single most celebrated leaf of the world religions, Basil also has reason to be revered as a contributor to overall health. With antiviral, antimicrobial and potent antioxidants all found in the essential oil, it has become a plant of interest for many academic and pharmaceutical institutions. Basil has also been shown in mice to reduce the occurrences of blood clots, meaning there is a chance that regular consumption of the Basil may in fact help reduce the chances of suffering a stroke.
An herb known for its similarity in flavour to Licorice and Anise, Fennel is popular for its use in a wide variety of dishes, as well being a main ingredient of the oft-hallucination inducing drink, Absinthe. Besides being one of the best dietary sources of iron, calcium and magnesium available, there is evidence to point to fennel having some medicinal uses in regards to reproductive health.
Fennel contains a chemical called of the phytoestrogen class, methyl chavicol. This is a plant manufactured analogue to the female sex hormone, estrogen which has been shown to ease the discomforts of menstruation, as well as helping mothers who are breast feeding lactate. It also carries several compounds found to regularly protect the liver from minor damage related to free-radical oxidation. A chemical by the name of trans-anethole is also present in this plant, which is currently being researched as an insecticide against the primary vector of the Zika virus, the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
Garlic is one of those plants that has found a home in nearly every cuisine. From seasoning every meat imaginable to even being an ice cream flavour (worth a try if you’re particularly adventurous), there is little these bulbs haven’t been associated with. The same is true in regards to health. With the primary active ingredient being Allicin, there has been a significant amount of research into whether garlic extracts can be used to improve heart health as well as work as acting as an anti-inflammatory.
Externally, it has often been touted that the oils taken from garlic can prove to be a potent antimicrobial. It should be noted however, that significant quantities of garlic’s active ingredient can be an anti-thrombotic (prevents blood clots) . Individuals taking Warfarin or similar blood thinners should be careful about consumption.
Most often used as a colouring agent instead of for its very mild flavour, Turmeric can often be found in curry powders and rice mixes. However, for many generations it has also been seen as a principally medicinal herb and used in many religious ceremonies in India and Nepal. Curcumin, the primary active chemical in turmeric, is one of the most heavily researched plant compounds with over 120 academic research papers investigating multiple uses. These uses, including staving off dementia, cancer, kidney disease and diabetes are shown to have some backing, especially in populations where the herb is ingested daily. However, it has also been noted that bio-availability (a measure of how well the body can absorb the compound) is low, making effective dosages hard to nail down for individuals.