In this age of conflicting research, fancy (and expensive) supplements and endless dialog about what we should do for our health, returning to the basics can be quite refreshing. After all, you can find some of the most effective herbal medicines right in your kitchen!
Culinary herbs like basil, dill and oregano all are great for your health—they’re high in antioxidants and have carminative properties, meaning they enhance digestion and help relieve gas and bloating. But other herbs have been shown to have powerful health benefits, too, ranging from lowering cholesterol to smoothing out blood sugar levels. Here’s a guide to several of the herbal superstars you likely have sitting in your spice rack, ready to boost the flavor and health-factor of your meals.
Garlic: Curb Cholesterol, Prevent Cancer
One of the most revered medicines in history, garlic (Allium sativum) is a powerful healer with antiviral and antibacterial properties. It was a favorite of the ancient Egyptians, who used the herb to prevent illness and increase strength and endurance.
Modern research shows garlic can help lower cholesterol. In a study conducted at Penn State University and published in 2000, researchers gave either garlic or a placebo to men with high cholesterol. At the end of the study, the garlic group averaged a 7 percent drop in total cholesterol levels. Although some studies (widely reported in the mainstream media) have shown garlic to be ineffective against high cholesterol and heart disease, most studies do show a positive effect. Note that garlic is not as powerful as statin drugs, however. If your cholesterol is very high and unresponsive to healthy lifestyle changes, you might need to take statins.
In studies, garlic also has been shown to improve ulcers; lower the risk of heart attack and stroke; prevent cancer; reduce blood sugar levels; and more.
Taking garlic: Most herbalists recommend taking the equivalent of about one clove of raw or slightly cooked garlic a day. Garlic supplements (brands like Kyolic and Kwai) also are effective; follow manufacturers’ dosage suggestions.
Safety concerns: Garlic (especially raw) can irritate the stomach. It also can impair blood clotting. Do not take it in large amounts if you have a clotting disorder, and discontinue use two weeks before any scheduled surgery.
Turmeric: A Multitude of Uses
A standout in Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine, turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a brightly colored herb with a multitude of uses. In the United States, it’s best known as the source for mustard’s bright-yellow color and as a key ingredient in curry powder. But turmeric’s active constituent, curcumin, is a powerful healer. Herbalists recommend the herb for its potent antioxidant properties; its liver-protective and detoxifying effects; to ease the pain of inflammatory joint conditions; and for its promising anti-cancer potential.
The majority of scientific research that exists on turmeric has been conducted in India. These studies have shown turmeric effective against many conditions, from food poisoning and scabies to arthritis, cancer and heart disease.
Taking turmeric: When taking supplements, follow label directions. Generally, herbalists recommend about 1 gram of turmeric daily for maintenance and up to 30 grams for acute conditions. Use turmeric liberally in cooking; add it to soups, sauces and vegetables, such as beans.
Safety concerns: When taken in medicinal doses, turmeric can increase the blood-thinning effects of drugs like aspirin and warfarin. Consult your physician if you take blood thinners and want to use turmeric. (There’s no cause for alarm when enjoying turmeric for culinary uses.)
Settle Your Stomach with Tasty Ginger
Feeling queasy? Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is just about the most effective remedy around for settling a nauseous stomach, and research backs its effectiveness for relieving motion sickness and morning sickness. Australian researchers gave 120 pregnant women either a placebo or a capsule with 1.5 grams of ginger powder (about a teaspoon). The ginger group experienced significantly less nausea, and the results were almost immediate. Ginger also is a warming herb that stimulates blood flow, which is beneficial for those with poor circulation. Ginger increases sweating and can shorten the duration of a cold or flu.
Taking ginger: Ginger generally is safe to take in fairly large amounts. Try a tea made with 2 teaspoons of fresh grated or chopped gingerroot per cup of boiling water; a capsule with 1,000 to 1,500 mg of powdered ginger; or ginger ale that contains real ginger, such as Reed’s.
Safety concerns: Some people experience heartburn when using ginger, but overall it is a very safe herb. Pregnant women should avoid taking more than three cups of ginger tea daily.
A great-smelling herb with a long history of use as a stomach soother, peppermint (Mentha ×piperita) is a good choice if you suffer from indigestion. In particular, it relaxes the intestinal tract and relieves painful gas. It also is helpful for easing nausea, heartburn, headaches, morning sickness and irritable bowel syndrome. (For IBS, it’s most often taken in enteric-coated capsules.)
Taking peppermint: Try a cup of peppermint tea made with 1 teaspoon dried leaves or 1 tablespoon fresh leaves per cup of boiling water; steep 10 minutes, then strain and drink. For enteric-coated capsules, follow label directions.
Safety concerns: None. However, peppermint essential oil should never be taken internally.
Cinnamon: A Cozy Spice That’s Great for Diabetics
The aroma of cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia, C. zeylanicum) conjures up cozy memories of warm fires and fresh-baked cookies—it’s a favorite for many of us. A 2005 study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research revealed that cinnamon might be a treatment for diabetes. In the study, researchers gave 60 type 2 diabetics a placebo or cinnamon capsules (in dosages of 1, 3 or 6 grams daily). Six weeks later, diabetics taking all three cinnamon doses experienced reduced blood sugar (by 18 to 29 percent).
Cinnamon also has a long history of use as a stomach soother and digestive aid. The spice enhances the activity of trypsin, an enzyme that breaks down proteins in the small intestine; cinnamon also accelerates the breakdown of fats.
Taking cinnamon: To make cinnamon tea, pour 1 cup boiling water over ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon in a muslin bag. Steep, covered, for 10 minutes. Drink up to three cups daily.
Safety concerns: Cinnamon can cause rashes in sensitive individuals. Do not give cinnamon tea to children younger than 2.
Thyme: Terrific for Taming Coughs
Delicious thyme (Thymus vulgaris), a mint family member well-known in French cuisine, is a great choice if you’re suffering from a cough, mucus congestion, sore throat or bronchitis. Research has shown that the herb’s expectorant (phlegm-loosening) properties can be attributed to two constituents: thymol and carvacrol. You’ll find the herb in many throat sprays, cough syrups and lozenges. The antiseptic oil also is used in Listerine and Vick’s VapoRub.
Taking thyme: To make thyme tea, steep 1 teaspoon dried thyme (or 1 tablespoon fresh) in 1 cup of water for 10 minutes; strain and drink up to three cups daily.
Safety concerns: In medicinal doses, do not give thyme to children younger than 2. Pregnant women should not use the herb in medicinal amounts.
Fenugreek for Blood Sugar, Cholesterol and More
With a flavor often described as similar to maple syrup, ground fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) seeds are a key ingredient in curry powders and other spice blends. The herb has a long history of use by nursing mothers to increase breast milk production. A 1996 study conducted in India showed that fenugreek can help lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels in type 2 diabetics. The research subjects were instructed to make no dietary or lifestyle changes, only to eat a bowl of soup that contained almost an ounce (25 grams) of fenugreek seed powder before each meal. After 24 weeks, cholesterol and blood sugar levels fell significantly.
Taking fenugreek: Make a tea by simmering 1 to 2 tablespoons fenugreek seeds in 4 cups of water for 15 minutes; remove from heat and let steep another 15 minutes, then strain and drink up to three cups daily.
Safety concerns: Avoid fenugreek during pregnancy.
Amy Mayfield is senior editor for The Herb Companion.