When it comes to staying healthy, our intuition almost always steers us in the right direction. However, there appears to be real science behind why we crave spicy curries and endless cups of chai in winter. The healing effects of spices have long been used in traditional medicine. And they are included in Indian, Chinese, Indonesian, Middle Eastern and other traditional cuisines for reasons that go far beyond flavour.
Now science is proving certain spices have powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Some spices can also boost our immunity and metabolic rate, lower blood sugar and blood pressure, relieve pain, support respiratory and digestive health and may even inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
Your kitchen can also be a treasure trove of ingredients to support your health and keep typical winter woes such as coughs and colds at bay.
Boost the flavour of your meals and do your health a favour at the same time by keeping some of the following spices handy: cardamom, cayenne, chilli, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, oregano, paprika, black pepper, nutmeg, saffron, star anise, rosemary, turmeric.
Fresh is best
Of course, fresh is best. Alternatively, if dried, choose spices in their whole form and grind them – for better flavour and health benefits. But if you find dried, powdered spices are more convenient, just make sure you use them before their expiry date and store in an opaque container away from your stove. Also try to buy them from a store with a high turnover to guarantee their freshness and therefore potency.
Choose spices instead of sugar & salt
Even a small amount of spices have been shown to have health benefits because they are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Plus amping up the flavour with some spice may mean you are less likely to add excess salt, sugar or fat to your meals.
Include a few cardamom pods in your morning porridge, winter puddings or crumbles and even smoothies. It’s good for your respiratory tract, can help lower blood pressure and has a mild diuretic effect. Bruise them whole and infuse them into your food or alternatively, use the already ground up spice.
Cayenne pepper and other red chillies contain capsaicin which helps boosts our metabolism. One study has also shown decreases in our levels of ghrelin – the hormone that signals we are hungry. Another study found that capsaicin can curb our cravings for fatty, salty, and sweet foods. And if you need further motivation to spice things up, chilli has been shown to help boost metabolism and lower blood pressure.
Cinnamon’s sweet effect
If you have a bit of a sweet tooth then adding cinnamon can help. One study showed that just three grams of cinnamon a day can help regulate blood glucose and another study showed that consuming two grams a week for 12 weeks can lower blood pressure.
Another study found cinnamon can help reduce muscle soreness after a workout delayed-onset muscle soreness
Plus cinnamon is antibacterial, stimulates circulation and digestion, helps regulate hormones and body temperature and is believed to boost immunity.
Could a clove a day keep the doctor away
Cloves contain eugenol oil which is anti-inflammatory. They are also good for boosting circulation, clearing respiratory congestion, soothing laryngitis and providing pain relief, particularly from toothaches.
Cough & cold support
Cumin is also believed to support the digestive system and aids coughs and colds due to its antibacterial effects.
Raw garlic’s antimicrobial, antiparasitic and immune boosting super powers are well-studied and proven. Meanwhile, cooked garlic increases circulation, regulates blood fats (lipids) and lowers blood pressure so include plenty of it in winter soups, stews and stir fries.
Why ginger is a winter essential
Ginger contains phytonutrients called gingerols which are antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial. It’s an immune booster, lowers cholesterol, reduces arthritic joint pain, fights inflammation, soothes nausea and helps clear mucus associated with coughs and colds. Add slices of fresh ginger to boiled water for a stimulating tea, or add it to porridge, curries, stir fries, stews, soups and fresh vegetable juices all season.
One study found just three grams of ginger a day can lower triglycerides (blood fats), total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.
Immune boosting oregano
While it’s technically a herb not a spice, oregano oil is high in phytochemical compounds with antioxidant effects plus it is antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal making it good for respiratory, urinary tract and yeast infections. If you do have a cold, put a few drops in a bowl of hot water and place a towel over your head for a healing inhalation or soothe your sore throat by drinking a few drops in a glass of warm water.
Nutmeg not only tastes nice…
Nutmeg is a delicious spice to add to warm nut milk and baked goods or sprinkle liberally on hot chocolate. It is antiviral and helps support your respiratory system. Plus it is high in magnesium, potassium and zinc (which helps protect against colds and flus). One study (albeit on young chickens) showed it increased the duration of deep sleep.
Protective effects of parsley
Parsley is another common but powerful herb that contains antioxidant flavonoids called luteolin which help protect our cells (including our skin) from aging. It is an anti-inflammatory, a rich source of vitamin A (for eye health), vitamin C, vitamin K, magnesium, folate and iron (add a squeeze of lemon juice to absorb even more of it).
Pepper your food
Meanwhile, piperine, the active ingredient in black pepper, helps you better absorb the anti-inflammatory curcumin compound in turmeric so they are a good team in winter. Black pepper also aids digestion, may help prevent cancer and heart disease, lowers blood pressure and may help prevent arthritis.
Go for golden spices
Saffron is expensive but a few threads go a long way. It’s an antioxidant that may help help with anxiety, depression, Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, insomnia and PMS symptoms. Soak a few threads in a little water then add to your soup or a mug of warm nut milk before bed.
The bright orange colour in turmeric contains flavonoids called curcuminoids, making it a powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial agent. It’s a great winter spice because it helps reduce the symptoms of cold’s and flu. Plus, studies show that it may help suppress the growth of cancer cells, prevent DNA damage and even help DNA repair. Turmeric also increases the production of bile and detoxifying enzymes which support your liver’s removal of toxins. All of which is very good news for your overall health and your skin. Golden turmeric nut milk drinks are having a moment right now but you can also add it to curries, fresh juice, soups, stews and stir fries – it is even delicious in apple pie. Just remember to add a pinch of black pepper to increase your absorption of curcumin.
What are your favourite spiced dishes?