The Spices of Life

By Parul Kharod

The masala dabba is one of those utensils present in every Indian kitchen. It is an item that is unique to Indian cuisine, but we take it for granted. This humble non-descript container holds an impressive group of plant-derived chemical compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties. The various spices that we use daily are composed of an impressive list of phytonutrients, essential oils, antioxidants, minerals and vitamins that are vital for good health.

Health Benefits of Spices

Anti-inflammatory and Anti-Oxidant properties: Herbs and spices can help fight inflammation and reduce damage to cells as they all have phytochemicals that act as anti-oxidants. For example, turmeric has been used for thousands of years to help lower inflammation as well as treat congestion, wounds, bruises and other skin conditions, including smallpox and shingles.

Anti-clotting: The components in spices such as turmeric act as a blood thinner and help prevent clogging of platelets in the blood vessels, and thus help to ease blood flow, preventing stroke episode, and coronary artery disease.

Digestive properties: The active compounds in spices such as ginger and peppermint may improve digestion by helping food move easily through the gut and stimulating the secretion of digestive enzymes.

Antiseptic: Turmeric is said to have antiseptic properties, and can be used for sore throats, tonsillitis, and as a poultice for wounds. Gargling with warm water with thyme can help relieve sore throats and bronchitis symptoms. Thyme is also being used as an antiseptic mouthwash in the treatment of caries and gingivitis. Spices have been used to treat worm infestation in the gut.

Rubefacient: Massaging with certain essential volatile oils in spices (cloves, peppers, etc.) may help by increasing local blood circulation. They can be used for arthritis and sore muscles and used either as a poultice or in hot baths.

Aromatherapy: Spice essential oils are being used in the aromatherapy as well as deodorants in the perfume industry.

Good source of minerals: Spices contain a good amount of minerals like potassium, manganese, iron, and magnesium.

Spices Come In Many Forms:

Spices can come from different parts of a plant. Here are a few examples:

• Leaves of aromatic plants: bay leaf, rosemary, thyme, cilantro, basil, mint
• Fruits or seeds: fennel, nutmeg, coriander, fenugreek, mustard, and black pepper
• Roots or bulbs: garlic, galangal, turmeric, ginger
• Bark: Cinnamon, Cassia

Choose the Real Thing

Herbs and spices are sold as supplements. Research is increasingly showing that supplements do not have all the same beneficial effects as the original source. It is best to eat the herb or spice instead of taking it in a pill form. The supplement industry is not as regulated as pharmaceuticals. Therefore, there is no oversight. Labels and claims can be misleading and it is difficult to obtain a supplement that is pure and without adulteration or contamination.

This was general information about spices. Let's look at health benefits of some spices that we use on a daily basis.

Turmeric (Haldi): Turmeric has the longest list of benefits. Curcumin is the active compound in turmeric. Research suggests that for better bioavailability or curcumin, it is best to consume black pepper with turmeric.

• Helps lower blood glucose, triglyceride, fatty acid, cholesterol and liver fat
• Help heal the pain, swelling and inflammation associated with ligament injuries
• Aid in the treatment of bacterial and viral infections
• Cleanses and nourishes the skin to retain its elasticity
• Helps to aid the digestive tract to absorb nutrients and normalize metabolism
• Helps with wound healing
• Guards your stomach by destroying fungus, viruses and bacteria that can cause food poisoning, diarrhea and other diseases
• Remedy for inflammatory conditions like arthritis, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis - studies show that the highly bioavailable form of curcumin in fresh, raw turmeric is more effective than the anti-inflammatory drugs available for rheumatoid arthritis.
• A source of iron
• May protect against and slow down progression of multiple sclerosis
• May help fight off Alzheimer's.
• Help relieve chronic digestive issues such as ibs (irritable bowel syndrome), colitis, Crohn's disease, diarrhea, food poisoning; also reduces the itching and inflammation from hemorrhoids
• Helps remove bad (ldl)cholesterol from the body
• Prevents cancer cells from spreading and growing into tumors
• Relieves inflammation of the air ways and prevents asthma.

Cayenne Pepper (Lal Mirch):

• Capsaicin, the active ingredient found in cayenne peppers, helps lower inflammation and pain in joints and muscles
• Helps with weight loss by increasing metabolism and suppressing cravings for salt and sugar
• Opens airways and acts as a decongestant
• May help balance blood sugars
• Improves blood flow (circulation), and help lower blood pressure

Mustard Seeds (Rai/Sarson):

• Contain phytonutrients that protect against stomach, intestinal, and colorectal cancer
• Excellent source of minerals such as selenium, magnesium, and other micronutrients
• Helps with migraine intensity and recurrence
• Helps fight infections

Cumin (Jeera):

• Aids in digestion
• Boosts the immune system
• Treats skin disorders
• Fights cancer
• Treats respiratory problems

Fenugreek (Methi):

• Lowers Cholesterol
• Balances blood sugars
• Heals mouth ulcers
• Eliminates dandruff
• Heals stomach disorders
• Relieves sore throat
• Eases menstrual discomfort
• Increases breast milk

Black Pepper (Mari/Kali Mirch):

• Improved oral health
• Relief from indigestion and constipation
• Treatment of respiratory disorders
• Treatment for ear aches, gangrene, hernias, and tooth decay

Ginger (Sonth):

• High in gingerol, a substance with powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties
• Relieves nausea
• Reduces muscle pain
• Lowers blood sugar & cholesterol
• Prevents cancer & Alzheimer's

Cloves (Laving/Long):

• Treats tooth decay and halitosis
• Improvse digestion
• Strengthens the immune system
• Prevents headaches

Cinnamon (Taj/Dalchini):

• Reduces Insulin Resistance
• Lowers LDL cholesterol
• Antifungal, Anti-viral Antibacterial, and Anti-inflammatory properties
• Prevents cancer & Alzheimer's

The bottom line is that spices have myriad health benefits. Use a variety of these spices to flavor your food while limiting salt, sugar and supplements.

Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist and works as a Clinical Dietitian with Outpatient Nutrition Services at WakeMed Hospital in Cary and Raleigh. She can be reached at