Spices Kill Bacteria and Protect Cells
I love cinnamon and ginger in pumpkin pie, sage in stuffing, oregano in onions, garlic in potatoes, even turmeric in dip. And I know that herbs and spices are more than holiday treats for taste buds: Recent research shows that it’s health-savvy to sprinkle herbs and spices in your food all year long.
“We now know they act as potent antibiotics, blood thinners, anti-cancer agents, anti-inflammatories, insulin regulators and antioxidants,” says Harry G. Preuss, Ph.D., physiologist at Georgetown University Medical Center and a top researcher in the field. “In tiny doses, eaten regularly in food, common herbs and spices are unique health boosters.”
4 formidable herbs and spices
— Ginger vs. inflammation. Inflammation is a suspect in heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis. The exciting news: Ginger compounds (gingerols) reduce pain in animals and act as Cox-2 inhibitors, similar to the anti-arthritis drug Celebrex, Australian scientists have found. Further, gingerols thin the blood “just like aspirin,” the scientists noted, suggesting that gingerols also fight heart disease. The best evidence that ginger is anti-inflammatory: University of Miami research shows that patients with osteoarthritis of the knee who took 255 milligrams of ginger extract twice a day for six weeks had less knee pain than those not getting ginger. As a side effect, ginger-takers had more episodes of mild gastrointestinal distress.
— Oregano vs. germs. “No wonder oregano has been used since antiquity to fight infections,” Preuss says. He recently found oregano oil as effective as the common antibiotic drug vancomycin in treating staph infections in mice. Bonus: It wiped out an infectious fungus. A daily dose of oregano oil, mixed with oils from fenugreek, cumin and pumpkin seeds, reduced blood pressure and improved blood sugar and insulin sensitivity in diabetic rats. In Texas research, oregano killed parasites in humans. The point, Preuss says: People who eat small regular doses of oregano may get antibiotic and antidiabetic benefits, although more tests on humans are needed to verify it.
— Turmeric vs. cancer. The yellow spice turmeric, a constituent of curry powder, contains high concentrations of the potent antioxidant curcumin. New tests suggest curcumin helps stifle cancer. In test tubes, 80% of malignant prostate cells self-destructed when exposed to curcumin. Feeding mice curcumin dramatically slowed the growth of implanted human prostate cancer cells. It may do the same in breast and colon cancer cells, researchers say, speculating that curcumin blocks the activation of genes that trigger cancer. Bonus: Curcumin’s anti-inflammatory activity reduces arthritic swelling and progressive brain damage in animals. In UCLA research, eating food laced with low doses of curcumin slashed Alzheimer’s-like plaque in the brains of mice by 50%.
— Cinnamon vs. diabetes. Adding cinnamon to food, especially to sugary ones, helps control spikes of blood sugar, says researcher Richard Anderson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Cinnamon can help normalize blood sugar by making insulin more sensitive,” he says. He recently isolated cinnamon’s most active ingredient: methylhydroxy chalcone polymer, or MHCP, which increased the processing of blood sugar by 2,000%, or 20-fold, in test-tube studies. So using cinnamon in tiny amounts — even sprinkled in desserts — makes insulin more efficient. Cloves, turmeric and bay leaves also work, but they’re weaker. This is a big deal. Avoiding high circulating levels of blood sugar and insulin may help ward off diabetes. In animals, steady lower insulin levels are a sign of slower aging and greater longevity.
|Racking up the spices
— Strongest antibiotics. The most ferocious killers of 30 bacterial species in Cornell University tests are (in order) onion, garlic, allspice, oregano, thyme, tarragon, cumin, cloves, bay leaf and cayenne pepper.
— Strongest antioxidants. Tops are oregano, thyme, sage, cumin, rosemary, saffron, turmeric, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, coriander (cilantro), basil and tarragon, according to several reports. A new test at the University of California, Davis, finds thyme similar to vitamin E in antioxidant power.
— Dried vs. fresh. All forms have similar benefits; the healthful compounds are more concentrated in dried herbs and spices.
— Warnings. Spices may be more beneficial taken together than taken separately. Proper doses are unknown. If you want to try therapeutic doses, consult your doctor.
SCIENTIFIC SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE
— Martinez-Tome M, J Food Prot 2001 Sept :64 (9): 1412-9
— Lee KG, J Agric Food Chem 2002, Aug 14; 50(17): 4947-52
— Sherman, P. and Billing, citation TK
— Naidu KA, Mol Cell Biochem 2002 Jan; 229(1-2): 19-23
— Cole, et al. J Neuroscience 2001 Nov 1; 21(21): 8370-7
— “Food Chemical News”, December 17, 2001
— Altman RD, Arthritis Rheum 2001 Nov; 44(11): 2531-2
— “Agricultural Research”, July 2000
This EatSmart column is reprinted from USAWEEKEND Magazine and is copyrighted by Jean Carper. It cannot be reprinted without permission from Jean Carper.