Cooking Healthy with Spices

by Dr. Stephen Sinatra
Filed Under: Heart Health, Food and Nutrition
Last Reviewed 02/15/2014

Cooking Healthy with Spices

The cooking cardiologist—that's how my wife sometimes thinks of me.

I guess she's right, because the kitchen really gets my creative juices flowing, particularly when it comes to cooking healthy with foods that provide a double dividend of good taste and good health. Spices provide an easy and tasty way to punch up your recipes' nutritional values and flavor profiles.

Cooking Healthy with These Five Spices

WATCH: Dr. Sinatra Talks About His Top Healing Spices

Video courtesy of HeartMDInstitute

Cooking Healthy Tip #1: Curcumin

You may not have heard of curcumin before, but you probably have heard of turmeric, the spice that is best known as an ingredient in Indian curry and yellow mustard.

Turmeric has been my No. 1 cardiovascular spice for years, and its yellow color comes from curcumin—a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound that's been found to combat tumors and reduce the excess platelet aggregation that occurs in sticky, clot-forming blood. Curcumin also helps keep NF-kappa B, a protein complex involved in the body's inflammatory reactions, in check. Elevated NF-kappa B production has been linked to cancer, as well as inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

Curcumin has an impressive list of positive research findings. In fact, two intriguing animal studies from the Journal of Clinical Investigation suggest that curcumin may offer a good deal more cardiovascular protection than previously thought.

In one study, researchers at the University of Toronto found that curcumin blocks a wide range of biochemical reactions involved in cardiac hypertrophy (enlargement of the heart chambers), inflammation and fibrosis. These are undesirable developments associated with heart failure. In another study, investigators at Japan's Kyoto Medical Center found that curcumin helps support healthy blood pressure in addition to preventing cardiac hypertrophy. They concluded that curcumin "may provide a novel therapeutic strategy for heart failure in humans."

I would go beyond the typical cautious research lingo of “may provide” and come right out and say “does provide.” In my clinical experience, curcumin definitely helps protect against thickening of the left ventricle, a common result of longstanding hypertension. We call this a pressure overload. The heart muscle thickens and becomes stiff in order to push blood out.

My recommendation: Cooking healthy with plenty of turmeric. As a nutritional supplement, take 250-500 mg of curcumin daily.

Cooking Healthy Tip #2: Ginger

Ginger—the smart man's aspirin—is a potent blood thinner and anti-inflammatory agent, and it's the main reason I drink ginger tea on a regular basis.

Ginger is also a handy natural anti-emetic agent, which means it's good for dealing with nausea. I used to always bring it along when my kids were younger and we went fishing out on the ocean, as it's great for motion sickness. I'd just cut up pieces of fresh ginger root and boil them. The boys would drink down the brew and keep seasickness at bay.

Clinically, ginger is a great aide for treating the nausea that accompanies certain types of heart attacks—usually those involving the back wall of the left ventricle (the part of the heart that is fed by the right coronary artery). During a heart attack, the weakened heart struggles to maintain blood pressure. Stress hormones spike, and patients experience dread, anxiety and fear—all of which stirs up severe nausea in about half the cases.

I routinely prescribe ginger tea whenever I work in the coronary care unit at my hospital.

I recall a particular woman whose nausea was so severe that none of the anti-emetic medications would help her. She was so sensitive to these drugs that they actually made her feel worse. I called the nearby health food store and had some organic ginger tea delivered to the hospital. We boiled a cup and had the woman take a few sips at a time. Within a half hour, she was feeling a little better. In three hours, her nausea was gone.

Patients who are administered codeine or morphine can also develop nausea. Ginger tea generally helps in those cases as well.

My recommendation: Drink commercial organic ginger tea, or make your own from ginger root. Chop the root into small pieces and boil for about five minutes. You can also cook healthy with sliced or grated ginger to spice up any dish, as I frequently do with wild salmon.

Cooking Healthy Tip #3: Garlic

Like ginger, garlic is an excellent natural blood thinner.

Each time I mention this effect, I think of an incident that occurred early during my post-graduate studies. There was another young doctor training with me who was going to specialize in hematology. He had nicked himself shaving and couldn't quite stanch the cut for several days. He became concerned that there might be something wrong with his own blood-clotting chemistry. However, he finally realized it was the garlic supplement he was taking on a daily basis! Once he stopped the garlic, his shaving nick healed properly.

I never forgot that incident. As a result, I instruct some patients to lay off garlic—as well as ginger—if they are on a pharmaceutical blood thinner like Coumadin.

Of course, garlic is a fabulous anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial agent with a long history in folk medicine. 

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Hippocrates recommended garlic for infections, wounds, cancer, leprosy and digestive disorders. During World Wars I and II, Russian army physicians frequently used garlic to control infection, pus and gastrointestinal disorders. The success they had gave rise to garlic's nickname as “Russian Penicillin.”

Garlic is powerful medicine indeed. These days, I tell patients to use it (either by eating a lot of it or taking 1,000 mg a day) to fight Lyme disease. I discovered years ago that the Borrelia bacteria that cause Lyme disease are seriously disabled by garlic.

This seasoning also has a favorable effect on blood pressure. 

A recent Australian review of 11 studies in which hypertensive patients were randomly given garlic or placebo found that garlic can lower blood pressure as effectively as some drugs. On average, the mega-analysis turned up blood pressure reductions of 8.4 systolic points, and 7.3 diastolic points. The higher a patient's blood pressure was at the beginning, the more it was lowered by taking garlic. Reducing blood pressure on this scale can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and heart disease-related death. Dosages taken by the subjects in the studies ranged from 600 to 900 mg over a period of three to six months.

Garlic is also a great vehicle for adding sulfur to the diet, an important and largely ignored mineral. Sulfur provides an essential raw material for muscle and connective tissue, enzymes that conduct countless chemical reactions, and compounds that protect us against toxicity and harmful oxidative stress.

My recommendation: There's an old saying among Italian chefs that there's never enough garlic in a dish. I'm no different. I chop up at least one clove when I make spaghetti sauce. For healthy cooking, include garlic, especially in your salads and sauces. If you have an aversion to garlic's trademark odor, then try an odor-free supplement. Take 500-1,000 mg daily.

Cooking Healthy Tip #4: Cayenne Pepper

Either as a powder or in its whole form, cayenne pepper is widely used to sharpen the taste of dishes (such as in Szechuan cuisine). However, it has also long been used as an herbal medication.

It can be ingested for relief from stomach aches and gas, and cayenne powder can be mixed with water and then gargled to combat sore throats. It can also be rubbed on the skin for temporary relief of arthritic pain or muscle aches.

The key compound in cayenne pepper is a pungent substance called capsaicin, which is the main active ingredient in a number of over-the-counter "hot creams" for joint and muscle pain. Capsaicin creates the sensation of heat through a thermogenic effect that raises body temperature and boosts circulation in the area where it's applied. Taken orally, it may help to burn calories and contribute to weight loss.

Over the years, patients have told me that capsaicin, available as a supplement, has helped alleviate angina and improve heart failure. I don't know the precise reason why, but I suspect it has vasodilating properties, which explains why it increases circulation (and temperature) wherever it's applied. It's also an antioxidant that is known to reduce lipid oxidation and decrease platelet stickiness.

Cayenne is a guaranteed winner to add for healthy cooking, or a recipe that needs a spicy pick-me-up. Just don't overdo it. Too much cayenne may be harmful to DNA.

My recommendation: As a supplement, you can take 2,000-4,000 mg of cayenne every other day. You can also cook with red pepper in chili or other dishes once a week.

Cooking Healthy Tip #5: Onions

Because they're in the same family as garlic, it's no surprise that onions have similar effects. I value the fibrinolytic qualities of onions, which means they promote the dissolving of blood clots. Onions also help normalize blood pressure. When I was researching my book Lower Your Blood Pressure in Eight Weeks, I collected quite a bit of positive data on onions.

To start, they're packed with sulfur and quercetin, two important flavonoid compounds. At the beginning of the year, I reported about a University of Utah study in which quercetin supplements significantly reduced blood pressure in hypertensive patients. The participants took 730 mg of quercetin daily for one month, and the group averaged a solid drop of seven systolic points and five diastolic points.

More recently, I read about a South African study in which quercetin was given to salt-sensitive rats with induced hypertension. There was a significant blood pressure-lowering effect, most likely due to improved kidney function. The researchers suggested that quercetin may be worthwhile for people whose blood pressure is influenced by their salt intake.

Like cayenne, onions also have a thermogenic effect. And, while there aren't any studies to support it, that thermogenic effect may be why some patients have told me that eating a lot of salads with raw onions have helped them lose weight.

My Recommendation: Eat raw onions for best medicinal results. According to animal studies, cooked onions don't have the same medicinal punch.

Even though raw onions are more powerful, cooked onions still have plenty of sulfur and quercetin, making them ideal for healthy cooking.

Add Some Spice to Your Diet

Now that you know the health benefits of these ingredients, you may be wondering how to start working them into your own healthy cooking.

Here are some of my favorite recipes that use one or more of these heart-healthy spices.

Visit my recipe archive for more heart-healthy recipes.

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