The Healing Power of Culinary Herbs

Discover the everyday healing power of flavorful culinary herbs. Add herbs and let your diet do double duty by eating well to feed your appetite and your health.

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Herbs that deter harmful bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms keep foods from spoiling and help protect our bodies from such microbes.

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Flavorful Recipes With Healing Powers

• Herb Butter
• Herb Oil 
• Shrimp with Coconut Milk, Chile and Curry Leaf 
• Carrot and Ginger Energizer 
• Salsa Verde 
• Herb-Roasted Potatoes 
• Turmeric Yogurt Soup
• Chile Pepper Garnish
• Strawberry, Cantaloupe and Basil Salad 
• Online Exclusive Recipe: Bow Ties with Herb Sauce 

I once gave a friend a gift basket I had filled with packets of culinary herb seeds. On each packet I wrote the herb’s therapeutic benefits. My friend later said she was now sprinkling “little green things” on all of her food—a new habit that she still enjoys.

Culinary aficionados describe those “little green things” as they would a fine wine or an intoxicating perfume. For example, Jill Norman in The Classic Herb Cookbook (DK Adult, 1997) portrays mints as “…highly aromatic, the strong, sweetish yet fresh smell is instantly recognizable. The taste is pleasantly warm and pungent with a cooling aftertaste.”

Aromatic, flavor-rich herbs truly are intoxicating—not just in a culinary sense, but medicinally, too. Their flavors and aromas are rich in medicinal import. Herbs help us digest our food, detoxify our bodies, and keep our hearts and minds active. Even in smidgens, they make their presence felt.

Follow the links for more information or read the article page by page.

Shortcut to Digestive Herbs
Shortcut to Antimicrobial Herbs
Shortcut to Antioxidant Herbs
Shortcut to Memory-Boosting Herbs
Shortcut to Heart-Healthy Herbs

Digestive Herbs

Most culinary herbs help digestion. A few are outstanding.

Mint (Mentha spp.). Spearmints, peppermints and other mints are all respected for their digestive benefits. In the early Christian church, peppermint was so valued it was accepted as payment of tithes. Well-studied for its digestive effects, peppermint contains several carminatives—menthol, anethole and carvone—that settle the stomach and relieve gas. Peppermint is also a gentle “bitter herb.” Bitter herbs are those that aid digestion by stimulating bile production. 

Caraway (Carum carvi). Caraway seeds contain carvone and other compounds that relax the smooth muscles of the digestive tract. Seed extracts used in certain commercial herbal digestive aids (sometimes along with peppermint oil) have been found to improve chronic indigestion. Enjoy a small dish of caraway seeds with cheese, or sprinkle them into soups or stews.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale). The gingerols and shogaols in ginger are antispasmodics, soothing the stomach and stimulating peristalsis. Ginger encourages gastric emptying. It also relieves constipation, and may ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Gingerols degrade with cooking, processing and storage, so enjoy it fresh or minimally cooked.   

Other helpful digestive herbs: dill, basil, rosemary, fennel, turmeric and cinnamon.

Antimicrobial Herbs

Herbs that deter harmful bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms keep foods from spoiling and help protect our bodies from such microbes. 

Thyme (Thymus spp.). During World War I, thymol from thyme was a famous battlefield antiseptic. Modern disinfectants subsequently usurped its place. But even in modern kitchens, you couldn’t have a finer herbal weapon. Thyme combats a wide range of toxic bacteria and fungi, including those associated with food poisoning. Try marinating meats in thyme-laced seasonings  for a few hours before cooking.

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum). Cilantro contains a volatile constituent called dodecenal, which is antibiotic against salmonella. The bactericidal action apparently defends against any stage of growth of the salmonella bacteria. Use the lemon-scented leaves fresh, as the aroma, flavor and medicinal action decline with storage. Coriander seeds are also effective.

Other good antimicrobials herbs: garlic, lemon balm, oregano and cinnamon.

Clean kitchen tip: Tea tree is also antimicrobial. Make a natural all-purpose cleaner for your kitchen by combining 2 tablespoons borax with 1/4 cup lemon juice and 2 cups hot water in a spray bottle. Cap and shake well to dissolve the mineral. Add 20 drops tea tree essential oil and shake again to disperse the oil.

Antioxidant Herbs

Free radical damage to cells and tissues may contribute to many aging-related ailments, such as cataracts, macular degeneration, dementia, atherosclerosis and arthritis. Antioxidants scavenge free radicals. In foods, they also help prevent spoilage.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare). There is no better antioxidant herb than oregano. The USDA’s Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) list, which rates the antioxidant strength of many foods, ranks oregano highest among herbs. Only the spices cinnamon and cloves beat out oregano. Oregano’s potency resides in its flavonoids and phenolic acids, used by the plant to protect itself from light damage. Greek oregano, the most aromatic subspecies (O. vulgare ssp. hirtum), was used in the tests. 

Basil (Ocimum basilicum). Antioxidant action in purple basils comes mainly from anthocyanins, and in green basil from other flavonoids. Purple basils are better antioxidants, especially ‘Dark Opal’, which rivals Greek oregano for antioxidant action. Basil is most effective fresh. If you must cook it, add it at the end and sprinkle extra as a garnish.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum). Don’t toss a parsley garnish—it contains the antioxidants apiol, myristicin, vitamin C, lutein and zeaxanthin. Both flat- and curly-leaved types appear to have similar nutritional profiles, and parsley is most healthful uncooked. 

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Rosemary loves sunshine and poor, dry soils—conditions that encourage development of antioxidant phenolics, including carnosic acid. Carnosic acid may protect brain cells as it can penetrate the blood-brain barrier. It is an intriguing potential therapeutic agent for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Unlike more delicate herbs, rosemary retains its healthy properties when cooked.

Other antioxidants herbs: thyme, turmeric, sage, cloves, cinnamon.

Memory-Boosting Herbs

Some herbs help our brains function more effectively. 

Sage (Salvia officinalis, S. lavandulifolia, etc.). Sage is considered a brain stimulant. It is a good antioxidant, containing—like rosemary—carnosic acid as well as rosmarinic acid.  It is also anti-inflammatory, which can help allay degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Sage extracts have been shown to
inhibit the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s drugs target this enzyme. Sage varieties with variegated leaves are the mildest-flavored and may be less potent medicinally.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa). Turmeric is vying for super-herb status. A recent paper in the Annals of the Indian Academy of Neurology reviewed its benefits against Alzheimer’s. The herb supports macrophage cells in clearing out plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers; discourages chronic nerve-cell inflammation; neutralizes free radicals; and binds toxic heavy metals so they don’t congregate in the brain. Low amounts taken over a long time are more effective than high doses.

Other good memory herbs: garlic, ginger, rosemary.

Heart-Healthy Herbs

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum). The seeds of fenugreek—which are used in some Indian curries—contain sapogenins that help the body excrete cholesterol. Fenugreek helps lower triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (aka LDL or “bad” cholesterol). It reduces blood sugar, too. Fenugreek also contains coumarin (a blood thinner), so it should be used with caution if you are taking anticoagulants.

Garlic (Allium sativum). For years, garlic was thought to benefit cardiovascular health by reducing cholesterol and blood pressure, but thorough reviews in the last few years indicate that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, it appears that garlic may be most helpful in preventing blood clots. Small amounts (a clove or two daily) of fresh garlic over a long period can be helpful. Obtain your doctor’s approval if you are taking blood-thinning medications.

Other heart-friendly herbs: onion, chives, juniper berries and ginger.

A Little Will Do

Because many herbs are potent, small amounts used regularly may be safest. Anything beyond culinary amounts may be too strong for certain individuals, such as women who are pregnant or nursing; individuals with some health conditions (e.g., liver disease); or those taking medications such as blood thinners and blood sugar-lowering drugs.

Herb or Spice—Which Is It?

Culinary herbs are the leaves or flowers of plants, whereas spices come from barks, seeds or roots. Some plants supply both—the coriander plant, for example, which yields coriander seeds and cilantro leaves; and dill, its seeds and foliage both well-liked. Some seasonings, like the underground rhizomes ginger and turmeric, are accepted as herb or spice.

Gina Mohammed, Ph.D., is a plant physiologist who researches medicinal and other specialty uses of plants. She lives in Ontario, Canada. Visit her at