The health benefits of herbs and spices

Many herbs and spices are rich in certain compounds that boost well-being. You may want to add these to your kitchen for their great taste and health benefits.

  • Go easy on the chocolate bar — but go for the cocoa bean.
  • Cinnamon, cayenne and sage are good for meals and good for health.
  • Learn the truth about echinacea.

[3 MIN READ]

In the San Blas islands of Panama, the Guna (pronounced “coo-nah”) Indians are known to drink an average of 30 ounces of a cocoa beverage every day.

That sounds like a chocolate lover’s dream come true, and the results of this daily habit are just as impressive. According to researchers, the Guna islanders experience:

  • Low hypertension (just 2.2% of the island population)
  • Blood pressure that doesn’t increase with age
  • Fewer strokes

These stats are all lower than the islanders’ counterparts in mainland Panama. The researchers’ theory is that the high intake of the Guna Indians’ traditional cocoa beverage is part of the reason for their low rates of heart disease.

While cocoa is a key ingredient in chocolate, there’s a clear difference between a cocoa bean and a chocolate bar. The cocoa bean is actually a spice that appears to come with a number of health benefits. For instance, it’s full of flavonoids, the antioxidants that studies show can help boost heart health, lower cholesterol and reduce blood pressure, among other things.

But before you start eyeing that KitKat bar, keep in mind: Chocolate candy is mixed with sugar and other additives, which can defeat the healthy purposes of the spice. That’s why dark chocolate is considered a healthier choice than milk chocolate: It’s higher in cocoa and its associated nutrients.

The cocoa bean isn’t alone in its possible health perks. It’s just one of several spices that, along with herbs, are rich in certain compounds that boost well-being.

The cocoa bean isn’t alone in its possible health perks. It’s just one of several spices that, along with herbs, are rich in certain compounds that boost well-being. Contrary to popular belief, chocolate is not the same thing as a cocoa bean, although the cocoa bean spice is used to make chocolate bars.

A healthy tour of the herb and spice shelf: three more to note

Although herbs and spices are both plant-based, they’re not the same. Herbs are the leaves of a non-woody plant. Spices are most often made from a plant’s berries, seeds, roots or bark. Here are three more herbs and spices you may want to add to your kitchen for their great taste and health benefits.

Although herbs and spices are both plant-based, they’re not the same. Herbs are the leaves of a non-woody plant. Spices are most often made from a plant’s berries, seeds, roots or bark. 

Cinnamon for lower blood sugar and cholesterol

Most kitchen shelves aren’t complete without this beloved spice. Here’s why it may also be a welcome addition to your medicine cabinet.

Add for your health:

  • It can lower blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
  • It may lower high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Add to your meal:

Cinnamon is a great addition to coffee, yogurt and oatmeal. It also adds a distinctive flavor to chili and meats.  

Cayenne for pain relief

This type of chili pepper contains an active ingredient called capsaicin. As a spice, cayenne brings the heat — and can also ease your pain. 

Add for your health:

  • It can lower pain from arthritis and nerve damage caused by diabetes.
  • It may help reduce ulcers and increase fat burning. 

Add to your meal:

Add to scrambled eggs, stews, meat and poultry. It’s even a great way to spice up your hot cocoa — and possibly reap the benefits of both spices!

Sage for brain and memory performance

Even as far back as the middle ages, sage was used for its healing abilities. Current research shows it’s still going strong as a healthy herb.

Add for your health:

  • In studies of people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease, an extract of the herb improved brain function. While more studies are needed, existing findings offer very promising results.
  • Research shows sage extract also improves memory in healthy people of all ages. 

Add to your meal:

  • Use sparingly (it’s strong!) in stuffing for roasts, added to tomato sauce and to make sage butter.

What about echinacea?

A discussion about herbs for health wouldn’t be complete without a mention of this popular plant, which is often used to help fight colds and flu. But does it work?

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), taking echinacea after catching a cold hasn’t been shown to shorten the time that you’ll be sick.

However, taking the herb while you’re well may slightly lower your chances of catching a cold. More studies are being done to learn this plant’s effects on the human immune system.

Stay tuned!

Find a doctor

If you’re trying to improve your eating habits, make healthier choices, and upgrade your overall health, talk to your doctor. You can find a Providence nutritionist using our provider directory. Or you can search for a primary care doctor in your area.

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What spices and herbs do you use for your meals — and your health? Talk about it at #nutrition and with #healthyfood readers @psjh.

Related resources

Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease

Flavonoids: Important Biocompounds in Food

Cilantro? Why it's good for you and why some people absolutely (REALLY) hate it

The truth about turmeric: Is this trendy spice another health fad?

Turn Up the Heat:  5 Health Benefits of Eating Spicy Food

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)

Echinacea

Health Benefits of Culinary Herbs and Spices

 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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