Herbs and spices have been used by people around the world since ancient times for both culinary and medicinal purposes.
In addition to adding flavor and nutrients to recipes, herbs and spices contain a variety of compounds that may help reduce inflammation, improve symptoms of certain medical conditions, and protect against the development of chronic diseases.
Here are the best herbs and spices for better health and how to use them in your diet.
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Ginger is the rhizome—a horizontal, underground stem—of the Zingiber officinale plant. It has a warm and spicy flavor and is commonly added to dishes like soups, baked goods, and curries.
Ginger has therapeutic properties and has been used in traditional medicine systems such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years.
Ginger contains multiple bioactive compounds, including gingerols, shogaols, and paradols, which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects in the body. Studies show that both eating ginger and taking ginger supplements could benefit health in several ways.
For example, a 2022 umbrella review that included 24 systematic reviews found that dietary consumption of ginger had significant positive effects on nausea, blood sugar levels, osteoarthritis, blood pressure, weight management, blood lipid levels, and inflammatory biomarkers.
Try adding ginger to your diet by grating fresh ginger into hot water for a warming tea and adding fresh or powdered ginger to your favorite recipes, such as smoothies, noodle dishes, salad dressings, and oatmeal.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is a collective name for a group of herbs commonly used in Mediterranean cuisine. Oregano belongs to the mint, or Lamiaceae, plant family and has a robust and earthy flavor.
Oregano contains plant compounds, including the terpenes thymol and carvacrol, which have powerful antioxidant properties. It was used in traditional medicine systems to treat ailments such as indigestion, cough, diarrhea, and bronchitis.
Due to its high antioxidant content, oregano supplements may help reduce oxidative stress markers. Oxidative stress occurs when molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS) overwhelm the body’s antioxidant defenses, which leads to cellular damage.
A 2023 study that included 24 male soldiers found that participants who were supplemented with 500 milligrams of powdered oregano immediately after completing an intensive physical fitness test had reduced blood markers of muscle damage and oxidative stress and increased blood antioxidant levels compared to participants who took a placebo.
Add fresh oregano to salads and pasta dishes, and use dried oregano to flavor sauces, dressings, and roast chicken.
Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) is a spice that gets its vivid reddish-golden color from carotenoid compounds like crocin and crocetin. Saffron has a slightly bitter flavor and is an important ingredient in Indian and Mediterranean cooking.
The major bioactive compounds found in saffron are crocin and crocetin, picrocrocin, and the terpene safranal, which gives saffron its distinctive odor. These substances can benefit health in multiple ways thanks to their cellular protective qualities.
Saffron has shown promise as a natural treatment for several conditions, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and type 2 diabetes. Saffron is thought to increase levels of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which may have positive effects on conditions like anxiety and depression.
Saffron can be added to dishes like curries, risotto, and seafood dishes and can also be taken in supplement form.
Cinnamon is one of the most popular spices in the U.S. Its warm, spicy flavor can be found in drinks like apple cider and in baked goods like cookies, pumpkin pie, and sweet bread.
This spice is packed with health-promoting compounds such as cinnamaldehyde coumarin, cinnamic acid, and eugenol, all of which have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Regularly consuming or supplementing with cinnamon may offer significant metabolic benefits. Studies have shown that people who consumed between 1-6 grams of cinnamon per day for 40 to 90 days experienced reductions in blood sugar, blood lipid, and blood pressure levels.
Experts suggest choosing Ceylon cinnamon or “true cinnamon” over cassia cinnamon, as cassia cinnamon contains higher levels of compounds that can be toxic and cause health risks when consumed in high doses on a regular basis.
Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is a staple ingredient in Indian cuisine. Often referred to as the “Queen of Spices”, cardamom contains active ingredients such as phenolic compounds and volatile oils which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, blood pressure-lowering, and antidiabetic effects.
Findings from a 2021 review suggest that cardamom may have beneficial effects on blood sugar, inflammatory markers, and liver health. A 2018 study that included 87 people with obesity and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) found that participants treated with three grams of cardamom per day for three months experienced significant reductions in inflammatory markers like tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) and interleukin-6 ( IL-6) as well as a reduction in liver fat.
Cardamom pairs well with both sweet and savory flavors and can be added to dishes like curries, baked goods, and meat dishes.
Garlic is well-known for its health benefits and culinary uses. It contains plant compounds that help inhibit proinflammatory proteins associated with chronic inflammation. Fresh garlic is rich in S-allyl-L-cysteine sulfoxide (alliin) and γ-glutamyl cysteine derivatives, while dried garlic powder is high in alliin and diallyl disulfide (DADS).
Garlic may help protect heart health by reducing atherosclerosis or the buildup of plaque in the arteries. A 2021 study that included information on 4,329 adults found that those who consumed raw garlic one to three times per week had lower carotid intima-media thickness (cIMT). cIMT is an early marker of atherosclerosis and is used as a measurement to assess a person’s risk of atherosclerosis-related disease.
You can add raw garlic to your diet by using finely minced garlic in salad dressings, salsa, pesto, sauces, and marinades.
Rosmarinus officinalis or rosemary is a pleasant-smelling herb that’s a staple in kitchens around the world. Rosemary is a potent source of rosmarinic acid, a type of phenolic compound found in a variety of plants.
Rosmarinic acid and other compounds found in rosemary have been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, pain-relieving, and anticancer effects.
What’s more, some evidence suggests that sipping rosemary tea may benefit those with anxiety and depression. A 2022 study that included 22 healthy volunteers found that drinking 100 milliliters of rosemary tea prepared with 5 grams of dried rosemary once a day for ten days significantly increased the concentration of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein that’s essential to brain function. Having low BDNF may increase a person’s susceptibility to stress and depression, which is why BDNF is considered a reliable depression biomarker.
Other studies have also shown that rosemary supplements could be helpful for treating depression.
You can make a relaxing tea with fresh or dried rosemary, lemon juice, and honey.
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Turmeric (Curcuma longa L.) is one of the most well-studied of all spices. Turmeric and its primary active ingredient called curcumin have been linked to a variety of impressive health benefits.
Decades of scientific research findings show that turmeric has powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anticancer properties and that both eating and supplementing with turmeric may improve health in several ways.
Turmeric may be effective for treating medical conditions like osteoarthritis, NAFLD, ulcerative colitis, and type 2 diabetes. Eating more turmeric-rich dishes, like curries, has also been shown to help improve cognitive function and protect against cognitive decline in older adults.
Try adding turmeric to dishes like curries and soups. Adding black pepper to turmeric recipes can significantly increase the bioavailability of curcumin.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), is one of the most important herbs in Ayurveda, which is the traditional system of medicine in India.
It’s commonly taken as a supplement and has been shown to have beneficial effects on cognitive function, athletic performance, mood, stress levels, and sleep. Some research suggests that ashwagandha may be especially effective for improving sleep quality in people with insomnia.
A 2021 review that included five randomized control studies containing 400 participants found that ashwagandha exhibited a small, but significant positive effect on overall sleep quality, which was more significant in the participants with insomnia. The researchers found that daily doses of 600 milligrams or greater taken for 8 weeks or longer seemed to be most effective for promoting restful sleep.
Aswhawagandha is generally considered safe, but you should always check with your healthcare provider before adding an herbal supplement to your diet.
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With its warm, slightly nutty flavor, nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) is a popular addition to sweet drinks and desserts like egg nog, Mexican hot chocolate, custards, and pumpkin pie. Nutmeg is rich in antioxidants such as terpenes and phenolic compounds. It’s also rich in myristicin, a substance that has been studied for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticancer, and antimicrobial properties.
In ancient times, nutmeg was used as a natural treatment for anxiety, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and nausea throughout India and other parts of Asia. Nutmeg shows promise in the treatment of certain health conditions, such as diabetes, but more human research is needed.
Try adding ground nutmeg to drinks like coffee and smoothies and to savory recipes like curries and poultry dishes.
Sage (Salvia) is a plant family that can be found growing in many areas around the world, including throughout North America. It has a variety of uses in both the culinary and traditional medicine worlds. Sage has an earthy taste, with notes of mint and pine.
Active compounds such as rosmarinic acid, camphor, luteolin, apigenin, and quercetin, give sage powerful therapeutic properties.
Studies show that sage supplements may have cognitive-enhancing effects and may help improve mood, alertness, attention, memory, and word recall in healthy adults and older adults with Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists have discovered that sage acts as a natural inhibitor of acetylcholinesterase (AChE), an enzyme that breaks down a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine (ACh). ACh plays an important role in cognitive function, so increasing the availability of ACh in the brain, can help improve memory, attention, and more.
You can reap the benefits of sage by including it in recipes like soups, grain dishes, and roasted vegetables.
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Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is an aromatic Mediterranean herb that’s high in antioxidants such as vitamin C, carotenoids, and the flavanoids luteolin and apigenin, all of which have powerful cellular protective and anti-inflammatory effects in the body.
Eating antioxidant-rich foods like parsley may help prevent cellular damage that may otherwise increase disease risk. For example, studies show that consuming a diet high in flavonoids may help protect against cognitive decline, heart disease, and death from all causes.
Fresh parlsey has a bright, slightly peppery taste and can be sprinkled on most any savory dish to add a pop of color and flavor.
A Quick Review
Herbs and spices are an important part of cuisines and traditional medicine systems worldwide. Herbs and spices such as garlic, oregano, cinnamon, turmeric, and rosemary are packed with plant compounds that have powerful protective effects in the body.
Adding a variety of herbs and spices into your diet could help improve your intake of antioxidant and ant-inflammatory compounds, which could help improve your overall health and reduce your risk of several chronic conditions.
Try using both fresh and dried herbs and spices in your favorite recipes to reap their impressive benefits.