Herbs and Spices for Health

  • Culinary herbs have also been grown and used to flavor foods since antiquity.
  • Many of these herbs contain potent antioxidant compounds that may provide significant protection against chronic diseases.
  • Culinary herbs used to flavor food provide a variety of active phytochemicals that promote health and may protect against chronic diseases.

The medieval emperor Charlemagne was correct when he said “a herb is a friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.” Some herbs and spices may help to reduce some risk factors associated with common chronic diseases and may provide some protection against cancer, and stimulate the immune system. And don’t forget about flavor! The flavor provided by herbs and spices is related to aromatic ingredients in their essential oils and oleoresins. Some herbs, like saffron, paprika, and turmeric, add color to food.

Many health professionals recommend that for optimal health we should reduce our use the quantities of sugar and sodium to a greater degree; the substitution of herbs and spices is a tasty and healthier alternative.

Seasoning food with herbs and spices expands one’s palette without extra calories or sodium. Culinary herbs such as garlic, basil, caraway, cilantro, coriander, cumin, dill, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, and other herbal seasonings provide the healthier alternative by adding flavor and color to dishes with the bonus of possible added health benefits. Among some of the many herbs reported to have health benefits include the following:

  • Garlic has a long history of medicinal use dating back to 2600 B.C. Recent studies do show some potentially important and intriguing heart health findings that warrant further study. Dr. Matt Budoff, Professor of Medicine, Harbor-UCLA demonstrated for the first time the beneficial effect of aged garlic extract added to traditional cholesterol-lowering medicine on increasing the degree or regression of coronary blockages.  Many smaller studies have demonstrated beneficial lowering of blood pressure in those with hypertension.  Additional findings with garlic have been found in studies demonstrating resistance to  LDL-cholesterol oxidation -oxidation of so-called bad cholesterol called LDL may have a direct role in atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and risk of heart attacks. Specific recommendations await more study.
  • The curry spice Turmeric was traditionally called “Indian saffron” because of its deep yellow-orange color and has been used throughout history as a condiment, healing remedy and textile dye. Curcumin (diferuloylmethane) is a polyphenol chemical that is responsible for the yellow color of this spice and some its reported health benefits. It has been used in a variety of diseases in both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine as an anti-inflammatory, to treat digestive and liver problems, skin diseases, and wounds. In India, turmeric paste is applied to wounds to speed healing and is often used as a turmeric tea to relieve colds and respiratory problems. Some preliminary findings show curcumin’s anti-inflammatory benefit may extent to heart health for those with coronary bypass surgery possibly due to its ability to reduce the inflammatory molecule called hs-CRP (Am J Cardiol. 2012 Jul 1;110(1):40-4.)
  • Cinnamon (cassia cinnamon) is a tasty addition to many foods and often lead lists of commonly eaten foods with the highest levels of measured antioxidant activity. This seasoning has been reported to lower blood sugar, BP and cholesterol but definitive  evidence is not present. The American Diabetes Association confirms there is not enough evidence to recommend this spice.
  • Cayenne pepper is a hot chili pepper (Capsicum family) that is commonly used in Mexican and Southwestern American cuisine and has been part of Native-American folk medicine for at least 9,000 years. The active ingredient capsaicin has been found to reduce a chemical that carries pain signals to the brain called substance P. Capcaicin derived from this pepper is commonly used for treatment of musculoskeletal aches and  pains and is the active ingredient in many over the counter topical ointments. Creams or ointments containing 0.025-0.075% of purified capsaicin in several studies reduced symptoms of diabetic neuropathy and decreased pain and tenderness caused by osteoarthritis. Capsaicin has also been shown to reduce appetite and increase fat burning in many studies and is often a common ingredient in many commercial weight loss supplements.
  • Ginger is a popular spice that has been used with some success for nausea caused by morning sickness, chemotherapy and sea sickness. Ginger also appears to have strong anti-inflammatory properties, and can reduce mild pain with similar effectiveness as treatment with aspirin or ibuprofen.
  • Rosemary is a great seasoning with lamb dishes and is often used in marinades for other meats and poultry. Rosmarinic acid and other antioxidant compounds have anti-bacteria properties that may help prevent meat from spoiling, and may even make cooked meats healthier. Some studies suggest found that rosemary’s active aromatic ingredient, rosmarinic acid may help seasonal allergy sufferers. An anti-inflammatory effect appears to suppress allergy symptoms and reduce nasal congestion. Reports of  improved memory in seniors gives some credence to the belief that scholars from ancient Greece wore rosemary garlands to help them in their studies.
  • Peppermint provides pain relief for those with irritable bowel syndrome, a gastrointestinal disorder characterized by abdominal pain or discomfort and accompanied by a change in bowel habit. According to a study in the British Medical Journal (2008) peppermint has an anti-spasmodic benefit compared to placebo likely as a result of its smooth muscle relaxing properties. Some studies show peppermint in aromatherapy can help fight nausea and in a study of over 1,100 women in labor, peppermint aromatherapy caused significant reductions in nausea.
  • Saffron is known to have been a favorite in traditional Persian medicine as an anti-depressant and is often steeped into a medicinal tea or used to prepare rice.
  • Oregano (and marjoram a closely related herb) are common ingredients in Italian and Greek cuisine and may have clinically important antioxidant activity. Its oil and leaves have use in traditional medicine for treatment of cold symptoms such as cough, fever, congestion, body aches.
  • Spanish sage extract may improve brain and memory function, especially in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and has activity that mimics the effect of current Alzheimer’s disease therapy with anti-acetylcholinesterase activity (a key enzyme from destroying acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in memory and learning). In the Middle Ages sage was used for medicinal properties and was even used to help prevent the plague.
  • Holy basil (not regular or Thai basil) is considered a sacred herb in India and is regarded in traditional medicine as having anti-bacterial properties and can inhibit the growth of a range of bacteria, yeasts and molds. Holy basil may also have blood sugar lowering benefits.


The National Cancer Institute has identified some cancer-preventive properties of herbs including some of the following: Allium (garlic, onions, and chives); members of the Labiatae (mint) family (basil, mints, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme); members of the Zingiberaceae family (turmeric and ginger); licorice root; green tea; flax; members of the Umbelliferae (carrot) family (anise, caraway, celery, chervil, cilantro, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, and parsley); and tarragon. Collaborative studies with Chinese scientists reported the occurrence of stomach cancer was less with the consumption of garlic, onion, and other Allium species.  Those with the highest intake of garlic, onions, and other Allium herbs have a risk of stomach cancer that is 40% lower than that of people in the lowest intake. (You WC, et al. Allium vegetables and reduced risk of stomach cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst 1989;81:162–4).


The ability to reduce the burden of diverse chronic diseases like cancer or cardiovascular disease with the use of any one specific herb or spice (or individual food) is not likely. On the other hand, the available evidence strongly supports a healthy dietary pattern as the “evidence-based” approach to maintain optimal health. We recommend that in the absence of harm, consider the liberal use of herbs and spices along with a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables for more interesting and tasty meals. We must await for larger prospective studies in diverse groups of people to consider more conclusive information on specific herbs and spices and health outcomes.

Learn more:

MedChefs and the American Heart Association Dietary Guidelines