Spice It Up

We have all heard the saying, "Variety is the spice of life." It's true. I am currently taking a very interesting class called Oriental Medicine Nutrition and Food Therapy taught by instructor Eric Baker. This class is so wonderful because it discusses Western diet, basic theory of flavors and energetics/temperatures, but also herbs and food and classical theory of diet. The required reading for the class is the Tao of Healthy Eating: Dietary According to Traditional Chinese Medicine  by Bob Flaws. 

I became more aware of the life and death importance of healthy diets after the sudden passing of my father in February 2, 2011 of an acute myocardial infarction, coronary artery disease, and hypotension. My dad loved food but he had a rich fatty diet that he refused to change. I took a good look at my diet and decided this was the year my family would commit to lifestyle change focusing on healthy eating. Many of my patients in the clinic have inquired about Chinese food therapy for weight loss, diabetes, high blood pressure, and overall improving their health.

So let's break out the spices and herbs and look at the health benefits, including higher energy, increased immunity and overall enhancement of our life and longevity.  It is so surprising how easy it is to incorporate herbs and foods in our diet. I wanted to share the spices I have incorporated in my family's diet and an herb I recently learned in Chinese nutritional class last week.                                


Garlic is a plant with pungent flavor. Garlic has been shown to improve cholesterol and lower blood pressure. According to the National Health and Medical Research Council, consuming half to one clove of garlic daily may reduce cholesterol by nearly 10%. In vitrostudies show garlic to have antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal activity. Your breath might suffer, but your heart will thank you. As an antibacterial, garlic is often used to treat minor infections. 

Curry, a staple spice combo in Southeast Asian cuisine, contains turmeric, the yellow spice that gives curry its distinctive color. The active component in turmeric is called cur cumin. If you are a fan of curry, you will be happy to know that this substance is associated with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-tumor, and anti-amyloid properties. Amyloids are plaque-like proteins that build up in brain tissue, and are responsible for diseases like Alzheimer's and rheumatoid arthritis. In one randomized control study, 107 patients with knee osteoarthritis received either 800 mg per day ibuprofen or 2 grams per day Curcuma extract. Both groups showed improvement in pain on level walking and climbing stairs. Basically, curry is linked with joint health.


Cinnamon is one of my family's favorite spices. Many clinical studies have linked it to lowering blood sugar. Both in vitro and human studies show improvement in insulin sensitivity with cinnamon polyphenols, as well as improvement in total and LDL cholesterol. Cinnamon is also thought to detoxify the system and stimulate brain function. Its antiseptic properties give it the ability to fight bladder infection, and if taken in the first 48 hours, a cup of strong cinnamon tea might just nip a bladder infection in the bud. Keep in mind that mixed study results make it difficult to prove these benefits on paper - but it doesn't hurt to sprinkle a teaspoon into your next bowl of oatmeal or make a patch of yummy cinnamon pancakes (my kids love them). 

Dang Gui (Bu Due Tang)  is a Chinese herb that tonifies the blood. Dang gui roots contain phytoestrogens, which are chemicals found in plants that mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. Dang gui is said to help balance women hormones level and is good for women's overall health. It is used to treat menstrual and menopausal symptoms, including migraine, cramps, mood fluctuations, and hot flashes. It is also said to help speed a woman's recovery from childbirth and symptoms of low energy/chronic fatigue. Dang gui has been used to treat angina, high blood pressure, and irregular heart. Some studies have shown that the antispasmodic, dilating effects of dang gui may help treat chronic pulmonary hypertension in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), especially when taken in combination with the drug nifedipine. Currently, there is a study to determine if dang gui has the ability to treat cancer, liver and kidney disease. Pregnant women should not take this herb.

Cardamom is found in curries, rice dishes, herbal teas, and breads, and is the spice that gives chai tea its main flavor. In Asia, cardamom has long been valued medicinally for its ability to increase circulation and improve energy. Cardamom may also improve digestion, asthma, bronchitis, halitosis, and even help improve a bad mood. Overall, cardamom helps with energy. 

In last week's blog, I mentioned cumin. Cumin  is an excellent spice addition to meat curries, stews, vegetables, seafood, and sauces. Cumin is thought to boost the immune system and also to improve liver function, reduce flatulence, and aid in digestion. It's good to take to keep colds and flus away!       

Ginger Root

I saved the best for last. Ginger is a root that helps relieve nausea, arthritis, headaches, menstrual cramps, and muscle soreness. I love ginger because it can treat so many symptoms. I often enjoy a cup of ginger tea. Preliminary research indicates that nine compounds found in ginger may bind to human serotonin receptors, which may influence gastrointestinal function. Research conducted in vitro tests show that ginger extract might control the quantity of free radicals and the peroxidation of lipids. In a 2010 study, daily consumption of ginger was shown to help ease muscle pain associated with exercise by 25%. Ginger root supplement has been identified in one study to help reduce colon inflammation markers such as PGE2, thus indicating a measure that might affect colon cancer.

Word to the Wise: Always discuss with your patients before treating conditions with spices and herbs to avoid any adverse interactions. For example, because garlic and ginger possess natural blood-thinning properties, individuals about to undergo surgery and those taking blood thinners should take extra precaution. An added personal side note, remember to keep herbs and spices in cool and dry places. Especially for spices, the peak life is six months in order to preserve their oils and prevent loss of pungent flavors.

Noted statistical data and research studies cited from Huonker et al. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemist, May 2010, www.sciencedaily.com, www.uofmhealth.org, www.tcmhealthinfo.org.

Remember to "spice it up" - and "herbs can be superb"! Thanks for continuing to support the AOM blog.