Herbs & Spices: Ancient Medicine through Food

Cat's spice rack

Cat’s spice rack

By Cat, Aug 2007 (Photo, right, by Cat)

A variety of whole foods is important in the human diet. These foods provide vital nutrients our bodies need; these nutrients come in three classifications:

  • Macronutrients are proteins, carbs (including sugars) and fats.
  • Micronutrients are all the vitamins and minerals (vitamins A, B-family, C, D, E, and K; and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, potassium, iron, and so on, present in whole foods. Of course you can get these from supplements, but they are far more efficient and helpful when consumed in whole foods.
  • Phytonutrients are cellular-level bio-chemicals in whole-food plants: fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices. New phytonutrients are ‘discovered’ every year. Like micronutrients, you can find some of these in supplement form, but they are far more efficient and helpful when consumed in whole foods.

Anti-Inflamatory Foods: an Introduction

Anti-inflamatory foods are a great place to start, because inflammation is a major problem for health.

Image, below, is from TTAC (The Truth About Cancer, 6). That article states:“Cyclic series of events innately drive cancer. Stress leads to cellular damage. Untreated damage creates more inflammation and genetic abnormalities that intensify the ability for cancer to develop. Inflammation breaks down healthy cells signaling allowing cancer cells to form tumors and spread throughout the body (metastasize).”

Micro- and Phytonutrients

A Learning Herbs article makes an important and revealing comparison of micro- and photo-nutrients in the diet (4). The following is from that article:

“When thinking about micronutrients, we need to think about getting enough of one food to give us adequate amounts of each nutrient. … When thinking about getting enough phytonutrients in our diet, it’s less about getting enough of one plant and more about getting a little bit of a wide diversity of plants.”

To get enough of these nutrients in your diet, be sure to consume from each whole food category every day, and eat a wide variety of these foods from day to day:

  • plant or animal protein foods,
  • plant or animal fats or fatty foods,
  • colorful vegetables,
  • colorful fruits,
  • herbs and spices

The remainder of this article focuses on the latter category.

Ancient Medicine: Herbs and Spices

Herbs & spices have been used since ancient times:

  • to enhance the flavor of foods
  • preserve foods
  • treatment for diseases
  • as body oils and ointments.

Their use has been mentioned in the Bible.  Alternative health providers have known about the health benefits of spices for years, and now modern science is finally catching up.  Perhaps the best known of the healing spices are cinnamon (to lower blood sugar and relieve inflammation) and turmeric (to relieve inflammation, especially arthritis).

In most cases, it is not a good idea to take large daily doses of spices, as liver damage can result.  However, it is perfectly safe to use them to flavor foods.  I strive to use at least one of these daily.

Radura Symbol: Irradiated Food

Radura Symbol: Irradiated Food

Avoid commercial spices because they have probably been irradiated with ionizing radiation. Instead, purchase organic spices if you cannot grow your own. Otherwise, check the label: Irradiated foods in the US and Canada must carry the international symbol for irradiated foods (the radura symbol; see left, from Wikimedia Commons (1))

The Five Flavors

This concept  gives its name to Chinese Five Spice, as it contains a mix of spices that provide the five flavors. These flavors from ancient Chinese medicine help to understand how the herbs/spices can help you stay healthy, and heal yourself when you are ill (5):

  • Pungent herbs are warming and spicy and are used to awaken the senses and get things moving.
  • Salty herbs are high in minerals and often affect the balance of fluids in our bodies.
  • Sour herbs stimulate digestion and build strength and they are often high in antioxidants.
  • Bitter herbs stimulate digestion and often have a cooling and draining effect that can help to modulate inflammation.
  • Sweet herbs nourish and build and are used to restore energy levels and modulate the immune system.

Ways to Use Herbs and Spices

The following suggestions are from Spice of life – Health & nutrition (2).

  • Add garlic and dried Italian herbs (basil, fennel seeds, garlic, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme) to pasta sauces
  • Sprinkle cinnamon on whole grain toast or muesli
  • Stew apples (and other fruits) with nutmeg and cloves
  • Add curry powder or paste to lean meat or legumes and vegetables
  • Add fresh herbs to salads and sandwiches
  • Serve cooked meat, chicken or fish with herb salsa
  • Infuse lemongrass or ginger in hot water as an alternative to tea
  • Use mint to garnish cool water or fruit drinks
  • Add oregano, rosemary and marjoram to roasted vegetables
  • Add rosemary to hot or cold potato salads

And here are some of my own:

  • Add cinnamon or nutmeg to pasta sauce for a Greek flavor;
  • Stir a little curry powder into brown rice toward the end of the cooking time;
  • Sprinkle nutmeg on egg custard before baking;
  • Add a little nutmeg to any white sauce;
  • Shake some coriander over winter squash or sweet potatoes before baking;
  • Rub a little allspice over a lamb, venison or buffalo roast along with some unrefined sea salt before roasting;
  • Add a little ground (or fresh minced) ginger to peach or berry cobbler
  • Add 1/4 teaspoon of any of these spices to your morning smoothie
  • Make an herbal infusion or tincture; for example, Digestive Bitters

Top Ten Spices & Herbs for Slowing Diabetes and Aging

These spices and herbs are potent in phenols, a type of antioxidant that wards off formation of Adanced Glycation Endproducts (AGEs) from glucose and other sugars, which would otherwise cause tissue damage and inflammation. This is according to a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Foods, June 2008 (see Pub Med (3)).

The top 10 most potent herbs and spices are:

  1. Cloves (ground)
  2. Cinnamon (ground)
  3. Jamaican Allspice (ground)
  4. Apple Pie Spice (mixture)
  5. Oregano (ground)
  6. Pumpkin Pie Spice (mixture)
  7. Marjoram
  8. Sage
  9. Thyme
  10. Gourmet Italian Spice


  1. Radura symbol: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Radura-Symbol.svg
  2. Spice of life – Health & nutrition (taste.com.au/news+features/articles/554/spice+of+life
  3. Pub Med: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18598169
  4. Healthy Breakfast: Sweet Potatoes, Kale and Eggs – LearningHerbs recipe, Copyright © 2016 LearningHerbs. (learningherbs.com/newsletter/healthy-breakfast-recipe
  5. Learning Herbs: learning herbs.com
  6. TTAC: https://thetruthaboutcancer.com/cancer-metastasis

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