Dr. Sinatra's Top Healing Herbs and Spices
Reprinted with permission from Dr. Sinatra's HeartMDInstitute
Not only do the foods we eat affect our health, but so can the herbs and spices we use to enhance their flavors. In addition to following a Pan-Asian Mediterranean (PAM) diet, I highly recommend adding the following medicinal herbs and spices to your culinary bag of tricks.
Though often reserved for not-so-nutritious pies and coffee drinks, cinnamon is a powerful healing spice deserving more widespread use in the kitchen. Not only does it help lower blood sugar by supporting insulin sensitivity and function, but cinnamon is off the charts when it comes to antioxidant potential. In fact, scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), listed ground cinnamon as one of the top foods for increasing antioxidant levels in the blood (other noteworthy spices on the list include ground cloves, and dried oregano, rosemary, thyme, and turmeric).
A powerful anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial agent, this alleged vampire repellant has a long history in folk medicine. Almost 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates recommended using garlic to treat wounds, infections, leprosy, cancer, and digestive disorders. Later, in the 20th century, garlic earned its reputation as “Russian Penicillin,” as Russian army physicians often successfully used garlic to control infection and gastrointestinal disorders during throughout World Wars I and II.
Today, cardiologists often recommend garlic to promote cardiovascular heath. Garlic is both a powerful antioxidant and blood thinner. It is commonly recommended as a cholesterol-lowering agent, and has been shown to help lower triglycerides – blood fats that are closely linked to heart disease. Garlic can even lower blood pressure as effectively as some drugs (as shown in studies where subjects supplemented with daily dosages ranging from 600 - 900 mg over a period of 3-6 months.
This incredible herb also helps safeguard against cancers, especially those of the stomach, colon and ovaries, and it can knock out the Borrelia bacteria responsible for Lyme disease. Eating or supplementing with garlic is also a great way to get more sulfur in our diets. An important and largely ignored mineral, sulfur helps us build muscle and connective tissue, contains enzymes important for countless chemical reactions and shields us against toxicity and oxidative stress.
According to the wisdom of Italian chefs, “there’s never enough garlic in a dish.” Including as much fresh garlic as you can handle in seasonings and sauces is a great way to reap the health benefits of garlic. By chopping or smashing raw garlic, we access allicin, its most medicinal compound. If the pungent aroma is more than you can stand, try taking 500–1,000 mg daily of an odor-free garlic supplement.
Like garlic, ginger is also a natural blood thinner* and potent inflammatory agent, so much so that it is often referred to as “smart man’s aspirin.” Ginger is also commonly used as a digestive aid. It is particularly helpful for treating nausea, especially if due to motion sickness or medications like codeine or morphine.
You can get your daily ginger dose in a few ways. Peel and grate or chop ginger root and add it to sauces, stir-fries, soups and even fruit and vegetable blender drinks. You can also make ginger tea from the root and drink it hot or cold; try it plain or with honey and lemon. If you don’t have the time to prepare your own meals and drinks with ginger, you can also take ginger in supplement form.
Because onions and garlic belong to the same family of allium vegetables, they promote similar health benefits. Not only can onions reduce the strongest chefs to tears, but they can help decrease levels of unhealthy fats in the blood, prevent clot formation and lower blood pressure. These translucent layered bulbs can also help lower blood sugar - even at the same rate as popular diabetes drugs.
One of the reasons onions are so healthy, is that they contain two important flavonoid compounds that act as antioxidants: sulfur and quercetin. Quercetin supplements have been shown in studies to significantly reduce blood pressure in hypertensive patients (who took 730 mg of quercetin daily for one month). Researchers also suggest that quercetin may help people whose blood pressure is influenced by salt intake.
To maximize their health benefits, onions are best consumed raw, possibly on sandwiches or in salads and salsas. If your taste buds simply can’t stand the characteristic onion “bite,” try adding them to cooked meals utilizing low heat methods (which will preserve the integrity of quercetin); simmer them in soups, cook them in olive oil over low heat until soft and add them to sauces and main or side dishes.
Turmeric, the spice which gives yellow curry powder its distinctive color, contains a compound called curcumin, which has powerful healing potential. Some researchers believe the predominance of curry in the Indian diet explains why there is so little arthritis or Alzheimer’s disease there, compared with the U.S. Curcumin has a long history as an anti-inflammatory agent in Chinese and Indian medicine, and has proven itself in numerous clinical studies.
As an effective antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound, curcumin helps protect against cancer and enhances cardiovascular health. Not only does curcumin help support healthy blood pressure and prevent blood clots, but it can raise HDL cholesterol levels by almost 30 percent. Additionally, researchers in Japan have found that curcumin helps prevent cardiac hypertrophy (enlargement of the heart chambers) associated with heart failure.
Cook with as much turmeric or curry as you can, and when the opportunity arises, order yellow curry dishes when dining out. Try adding it to a mug of hot organic milk sweetened with a teaspoon of honey as a healing nightcap. As a nutritional supplement, you can take 250 – 500 mg curcumin daily.
Widely used to give meals some extra punch, cayenne pepper has also long been utilized as an herbal medicine. Added to foods, cayenne can help provide relief from stomach aches and gas. When mixed with water it can be gargled to help combat sore throats. Rubbing it on the skin can also bring temporary relief of arthritic pain and muscle aches, not a surprise since the key medicinal compound in cayenne – capsaicin – also happens to be the main ingredient in various over-the-counter creams which ease muscle and joint pain.
Capsaicin has a thermogenic effect when applied to the skin, which increases local circulation and raises body temperature. With potential vasodilating properties, as well as the ability to combat oxidation and prevent blood clots, ingesting capsaisin can bring cardiovascular benefits. Doing so may also help one burn calories and lose weight.
Caveat: It’s important not to overdo it with cayenne, as too much may harm DNA; try to limit eating hot peppers to once a week. If you supplement with capsaicin, 2,000 to 4,000 IUs every other day is recommended.
Savory rosemary has a lot of cancer-protective potential, especially when added to meats cooked at high temperatures. Using high heat to fry, broil or grill meats can cause the formation of potent carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Rich in carnosic and rosemarinic acids, rosemary can help prevent the creation of HCAs during the cooking process, and can help prevent cancers of the breast and colon.
Rosemary seems to halt tumor development by preventing carcinogens in the body from binding with DNA. It has also been shown to stimulate the body’s production of enzymes that protect against cancer cells. Marinate meats and poultry in chopped, fresh rosemary before cooking, or add fresh rosemary to salads and sauces.
Wondering how to add more cinnamon to your diet? Sprinkle it on cardioprotective oatmeal, as well as to teas, hot apple cider, and yogurt. Try mixing it with almond butter and eating a few teaspoons with an apple or banana. For medicinal benefits, consume ½ to 1 tsp of cinnamon per day.
Although cilantro and coriander are different names for the same plant, most people associate cilantro with the leaves and coriander with the seeds. Both forms of this plant, which is part of the parsley family, are commonly found in Chinese, Mexican and Indian cuisines.
High in beta-carotene, cilantro can help lower risk of cardiovascular events and prostate cancer, and increase one’s immunity to colds and flu. As a powerful detoxifying agent, cilantro is also used to help chelate mercury from the body. As such, it is especially beneficial for diabetics, who produce more toxic metabolites due to compromised metabolism.
Since garlic and ginger can thin the blood much like aspirin, patients taking pharmaceutical blood thinners like Coumadin (warfarin) should consult with their doctors about how much of these herbs they consume in food or supplement form.
For more articles like this, visit Dr. Sinatra's HeartMDInstitute
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Dr. Stephen Sinatra is a highly respected and sought-after cardiologist and nutritionist with more than 30 years of clinical practice, research, and study. His integrative approach to heart health focuses on reducing inflammation in the body and maximizing the heart's ability to produce and use energy. More About Dr. Sinatra
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