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Five Healthy Herbs and Spices with Powerful Benefits

In this article:

Turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, and cayenne are the spice rack’s mighty five.

Spices and herbs are the humble heavyweights of any well-stocked pantry. They naturally enhance food’s flavor and pack a powerful health punch with countless anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Embrace them, experiment with them, and work them into your meals whenever you can.

Spices have been essential in food preparation and preservation for thousands of years. Phytochemical compounds are responsible for their aromas and flavors—as unique as the countries of their origins. Exploring global dishes will take you on a sensory journey as you travel vicariously through your kitchen.

Turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, and cayenne boast some impressive health benefits, from stemming inflammation to boosting memory.

Invest in high-quality fresh and dried spices to raise your cooking game. Experimenting is the way to go, whether you mix and match or play up a single spice. A world of exotic flavors and wellness benefits awaits!

Turmeric

Bowl of turmeric powder with spoon

Turmeric’s active ingredient is a group of compounds known as curcuminoids (or curcumin). Curcumin gives turmeric its superstar spice status and bright yellow hue. At a relatively low dose, turmeric can improve attention, memory, mood, and fatigue. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties may be therapeutic for metabolic syndrome, arthritis, and anxiety. The resplendent root also relieves sore muscles, reducing exercise-induced inflammation before and after an intense workout.1Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS. Curcumin: a review of its effects on human health. Foods. 2017;6(10):92. Published 2017 Oct 22. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods6100092

How can you unlock turmeric’s potent benefits? Sprinkle it on scrambled eggs, simmer a pinch with rice, blend the powder into a smoothie, or brew golden turmeric tea. Because turmeric is fat soluble, it’s easier to absorb with a healthy fat, like avocado or coconut milk (a pair made in heaven).2Dei Cas M, Ghidoni R. Dietary curcumin: correlation between bioavailability and health potential. Nutrients. 2019;11(9):2147. Published 2019 Sep 8. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11092147,3Stohs SJ, Chen O, Ray SD, Ji J, Bucci LR, Preuss HG. Highly bioavailable forms of curcumin and promising avenues for curcumin-based research and application: a review. Molecules. 2020;25(6):1397. Published 2020 Mar 19. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules25061397

Ginger

Fresh ginger root and powder

Oxidation is a normal part of aging. However, with a build-up of stress, exposure to environmental toxins, and unhealthy lifestyle choices, this process can go awry. The result is oxidative stress, an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants. Ginger has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that could reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in neurodegenerative diseases, diminishing symptoms of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Migraine sufferers may also find relief with ginger oil, extract, or tea.4Arcusa R, Villaño D, Marhuenda J, Cano M, Cerdà B, Zafrilla P. Potential role of ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe) in the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases. Front Nutr. 2022;9:809621. Published 2022 Mar 18. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2022.809621

Ginger is an age-old safe and effective remedy for nausea and vomiting. In a chemotherapy study, participants on a ginger regimen reported significantly less nausea.5Panahi Y, Saadat A, Sahebkar A, Hashemian F, Taghikhani M, Abolhasani E. Effect of ginger on acute and delayed chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting: a pilot, randomized, open-label clinical trial. Integr Cancer Ther. 2012;11(3):204-11 https://doi.org/10.1177/1534735411433201 The jury is still out on whether ginger root alleviates motion sickness.

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Garlic

Whole heads of garlic

Garlic, a member of the Alliaceae family, is one of the world’s most widely used medicinal herbs. Over 1,000 years of therapeutic applications have built a case for garlic as a natural antibiotic and immune booster. Garlic also has impressive cardiovascular benefits, reversing plaque accumulation that leads to heart disease.6Matsumoto S, Nakanishi R, Li D, et al. Aged garlic extract reduces low attenuation plaque in coronary arteries of patients with metabolic syndrome in a prospective randomized double-blind study. J Nutr. 2016;146(2):427S-432S. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.114.202424 Scientists have studied the inner workings of aged garlic extract to lower blood pressure, reduce oxidative stress, and enhance circulation.7Serrano JCE, Castro-Boqué E, García-Carrasco A, et al. Antihypertensive effects of an optimized aged garlic extract in subjects with grade I hypertension and antihypertensive drug therapy: a randomized, triple-blind controlled trial. Nutrients. 2023;15(17):3691. Published 2023 Aug 23. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15173691,8Varshney R, Budoff MJ. Garlic and heart disease. J Nutr. 2016;146(2):416S-421S. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.114.202333 In an analysis of randomized controlled trials, allicin—garlic’s mightiest compound—significantly improved blood glucose among people with type 2 diabetes.9Wang J, Zhang X, Lan H, Wang W. Effect of garlic supplement in the management of type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM): a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Food Nutr Res. 2017;61(1):1377571. Published 2017 Sep 27. https://doi.org/10.1080/16546628.2017.1377571 You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck by chopping or mincing garlic cloves, which produces allicin.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon sticks and star anise stacked on table

Cinnamon may even out blood sugar and cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes.10Khan A, Safdar M, Ali Khan MM, Khattak KN, Anderson RA. Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2003;26(12):3215-3218. https://doi.org/10.2337/diacare.26.12.3215 Depending on the size and kind of meal—for example, a big, high-carb bowl of spaghetti—blood sugar levels can rise significantly after eating. Cinnamon quells those spikes, possibly by slowing the pace at which the stomach empties food.11Wang J, Wang S, Yang J, et al. Acute effects of cinnamon spice on post-prandial glucose and insulin in normal weight and overweight/obese subjects: a pilot study. Front Nutr. 2021;7:619782. Published 2021 Jan 21. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2020.619782 The beloved fall spice is also anti-inflammatory12Gunawardena D, Karunaweera N, Lee S, et al. Anti-inflammatory activity of cinnamon (C. zeylanicum and C. cassia) extracts – identification of E-cinnamaldehyde and o-methoxy cinnamaldehyde as the most potent bioactive compounds. Food Funct. 2015;6(3):910-919. https://doi.org/10.1039/c4fo00680a and may alleviate allergy symptoms by inhibiting bacteria and histamine production.13Shakila RJ, Vasundhara TS, Rao DV. Inhibitory effect of spices on in vitro histamine production and histidine decarboxylase activity of Morganella morganii and on the biogenic amine formation in mackerel stored at 30 degrees C. Z Lebensm Unters Forsch. 1996;203(1):71-76. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01267773

Cayenne

Red chili peppers

Cayenne pepper may boost weight loss.14Zheng J, Zheng S, Feng Q, Zhang Q, Xiao X. Dietary capsaicin and its anti-obesity potency: from mechanism to clinical implications. Biosci Rep. 2017;37(3):BSR20170286. Published 2017 May 11. https://doi.org/10.1042/BSR20170286 Chili peppers of all colors and intensity are easy to find, buy on the cheap, and prepare. Their main compound, capsaicin, has analgesic (pain-relieving) properties15Fattori V, Hohmann MS, Rossaneis AC, Pinho-Ribeiro FA, Verri WA. Capsaicin: Current understanding of Its mechanisms and therapy of pain and other pre-clinical and clinical uses. Molecules. 2016;21(7):844. Published 2016 Jun 28. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules21070844 and helps regulate energy balance and metabolism. Studies show multiple benefits when taken as a supplement, including reduced inflammation.16Azlan A, Sultana S, Huei CS, Razman MR. Antioxidant, anti-obesity, nutritional and other beneficial effects of different chili pepper: a review. Molecules. 2022;27(3):898. Published 2022 Jan 28. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules27030898,17Hamed M, Kalita D, Bartolo ME, Jayanty SS. Capsaicinoids, polyphenols and antioxidant activities of Capsicum annuum: comparative study of the effect of ripening stage and cooking methods. Antioxidants (Basel). 2019;8(9):364. Published 2019 Sep 2. https://doi.org/10.3390/antiox8090364

Honorable Mentions: Sage and Oregano

Fresh oregano grows in garden

Sage is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory herb that may improve glucose and triglycerides in people with type 2 diabetes.18Kianbakht S, Dabaghian FH. Improved glycemic control and lipid profile in hyperlipidemic type 2 diabetic patients consuming Salvia officinalis L. leaf extract: a randomized placebo. Controlled clinical trial. Complement Ther Med. 2013;21(5):441-446. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2013.07.004 Sage’s effects on memory and mood also show promise for Alzheimer’s and depression treatment.19Lopresti AL. Salvia (sage): a review of its potential cognitive-enhancing and protective effects. Drugs R D. 2017;17(1):53-64. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40268-016-0157-5 At higher concentrations, the herb may promote alertness, calmness, and contentedness.20Tildesley NT, Kennedy DO, Perry EK, Ballard CG, Wesnes KA, Scholey AB. Positive modulation of mood and cognitive performance following administration of acute doses of Salvia lavandulaefolia essential oil to healthy young volunteers. Physiol Behav. 2005;83(5):699-709. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2004.09.010 One study reported higher HDL cholesterol (the good kind) and lower LDL (the bad kind) among people who drank sage tea.21Sá CM, Ramos AA, Azevedo MF, Lima CF, Fernandes-Ferreira M, Pereira-Wilson C. Sage tea drinking improves lipid profile and antioxidant defences in humans. Int J Mol Sci. 2009;10(9):3937-3950. Published 2009 Sep 9. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms10093937 Healthy HDL levels help protect against heart attack and stroke.

A study by the American Chemical Society found oregano has more antioxidant activity than any herb.22Jimenez-Alvarez D, Giuffrida F, Golay PA, Cotting C, Lardeau A, Keely BJ. Antioxidant activity of oregano, parsley, and olive mill wastewaters in bulk oils and oil-in-water emulsions enriched in fish oil. J Agric Food Chem. 2008;56(16):7151-7159. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf801154r Research on oregano oil spotlights the antimicrobial, antiviral, and antifungal action of its components carvacrol and thymol, which may target the herb for future cold and flu treatments.23Leyva-López N, Gutiérrez-Grijalva EP, Vazquez-Olivo G, Heredia JB. Essential oils of oregano: biological activity beyond their antimicrobial properties. Molecules. 2017;22(6):989. Published 2017 Jun 14. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules22060989,24Saeed S, Tariq P. Antibacterial activity of oregano (Origanum vulgare Linn.) against gram positive bacteria. Pak J Pharm Sci. 2009;22(4):421-424. Oregano also has promise as a diabetes treatment. Taken as an oil or supplement, it could lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes.25Bower AM, Real Hernandez LM, Berhow MA, de Mejia EG. Bioactive compounds from culinary herbs inhibit a molecular target for type 2 diabetes management, dipeptidyl peptidase IV. J Agric Food Chem. 2014;62(26):6147-6158. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf500639f

INM thanks Dr. Jonny Bowden, the “Nutrition Myth Buster,”™ for contributing to this article.

Footnotes

  • 1
    Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS. Curcumin: a review of its effects on human health. Foods. 2017;6(10):92. Published 2017 Oct 22. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods6100092
  • 2
    Dei Cas M, Ghidoni R. Dietary curcumin: correlation between bioavailability and health potential. Nutrients. 2019;11(9):2147. Published 2019 Sep 8. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11092147
  • 3
    Stohs SJ, Chen O, Ray SD, Ji J, Bucci LR, Preuss HG. Highly bioavailable forms of curcumin and promising avenues for curcumin-based research and application: a review. Molecules. 2020;25(6):1397. Published 2020 Mar 19. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules25061397
  • 4
    Arcusa R, Villaño D, Marhuenda J, Cano M, Cerdà B, Zafrilla P. Potential role of ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe) in the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases. Front Nutr. 2022;9:809621. Published 2022 Mar 18. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2022.809621
  • 5
    Panahi Y, Saadat A, Sahebkar A, Hashemian F, Taghikhani M, Abolhasani E. Effect of ginger on acute and delayed chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting: a pilot, randomized, open-label clinical trial. Integr Cancer Ther. 2012;11(3):204-11 https://doi.org/10.1177/1534735411433201
  • 6
    Matsumoto S, Nakanishi R, Li D, et al. Aged garlic extract reduces low attenuation plaque in coronary arteries of patients with metabolic syndrome in a prospective randomized double-blind study. J Nutr. 2016;146(2):427S-432S. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.114.202424
  • 7
    Serrano JCE, Castro-Boqué E, García-Carrasco A, et al. Antihypertensive effects of an optimized aged garlic extract in subjects with grade I hypertension and antihypertensive drug therapy: a randomized, triple-blind controlled trial. Nutrients. 2023;15(17):3691. Published 2023 Aug 23. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15173691
  • 8
    Varshney R, Budoff MJ. Garlic and heart disease. J Nutr. 2016;146(2):416S-421S. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.114.202333
  • 9
    Wang J, Zhang X, Lan H, Wang W. Effect of garlic supplement in the management of type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM): a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Food Nutr Res. 2017;61(1):1377571. Published 2017 Sep 27. https://doi.org/10.1080/16546628.2017.1377571
  • 10
    Khan A, Safdar M, Ali Khan MM, Khattak KN, Anderson RA. Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2003;26(12):3215-3218. https://doi.org/10.2337/diacare.26.12.3215
  • 11
    Wang J, Wang S, Yang J, et al. Acute effects of cinnamon spice on post-prandial glucose and insulin in normal weight and overweight/obese subjects: a pilot study. Front Nutr. 2021;7:619782. Published 2021 Jan 21. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2020.619782
  • 12
    Gunawardena D, Karunaweera N, Lee S, et al. Anti-inflammatory activity of cinnamon (C. zeylanicum and C. cassia) extracts – identification of E-cinnamaldehyde and o-methoxy cinnamaldehyde as the most potent bioactive compounds. Food Funct. 2015;6(3):910-919. https://doi.org/10.1039/c4fo00680a
  • 13
    Shakila RJ, Vasundhara TS, Rao DV. Inhibitory effect of spices on in vitro histamine production and histidine decarboxylase activity of Morganella morganii and on the biogenic amine formation in mackerel stored at 30 degrees C. Z Lebensm Unters Forsch. 1996;203(1):71-76. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01267773
  • 14
    Zheng J, Zheng S, Feng Q, Zhang Q, Xiao X. Dietary capsaicin and its anti-obesity potency: from mechanism to clinical implications. Biosci Rep. 2017;37(3):BSR20170286. Published 2017 May 11. https://doi.org/10.1042/BSR20170286
  • 15
    Fattori V, Hohmann MS, Rossaneis AC, Pinho-Ribeiro FA, Verri WA. Capsaicin: Current understanding of Its mechanisms and therapy of pain and other pre-clinical and clinical uses. Molecules. 2016;21(7):844. Published 2016 Jun 28. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules21070844
  • 16
    Azlan A, Sultana S, Huei CS, Razman MR. Antioxidant, anti-obesity, nutritional and other beneficial effects of different chili pepper: a review. Molecules. 2022;27(3):898. Published 2022 Jan 28. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules27030898
  • 17
    Hamed M, Kalita D, Bartolo ME, Jayanty SS. Capsaicinoids, polyphenols and antioxidant activities of Capsicum annuum: comparative study of the effect of ripening stage and cooking methods. Antioxidants (Basel). 2019;8(9):364. Published 2019 Sep 2. https://doi.org/10.3390/antiox8090364
  • 18
    Kianbakht S, Dabaghian FH. Improved glycemic control and lipid profile in hyperlipidemic type 2 diabetic patients consuming Salvia officinalis L. leaf extract: a randomized placebo. Controlled clinical trial. Complement Ther Med. 2013;21(5):441-446. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2013.07.004
  • 19
    Lopresti AL. Salvia (sage): a review of its potential cognitive-enhancing and protective effects. Drugs R D. 2017;17(1):53-64. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40268-016-0157-5
  • 20
    Tildesley NT, Kennedy DO, Perry EK, Ballard CG, Wesnes KA, Scholey AB. Positive modulation of mood and cognitive performance following administration of acute doses of Salvia lavandulaefolia essential oil to healthy young volunteers. Physiol Behav. 2005;83(5):699-709. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2004.09.010
  • 21
    Sá CM, Ramos AA, Azevedo MF, Lima CF, Fernandes-Ferreira M, Pereira-Wilson C. Sage tea drinking improves lipid profile and antioxidant defences in humans. Int J Mol Sci. 2009;10(9):3937-3950. Published 2009 Sep 9. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms10093937
  • 22
    Jimenez-Alvarez D, Giuffrida F, Golay PA, Cotting C, Lardeau A, Keely BJ. Antioxidant activity of oregano, parsley, and olive mill wastewaters in bulk oils and oil-in-water emulsions enriched in fish oil. J Agric Food Chem. 2008;56(16):7151-7159. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf801154r
  • 23
    Leyva-López N, Gutiérrez-Grijalva EP, Vazquez-Olivo G, Heredia JB. Essential oils of oregano: biological activity beyond their antimicrobial properties. Molecules. 2017;22(6):989. Published 2017 Jun 14. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules22060989
  • 24
    Saeed S, Tariq P. Antibacterial activity of oregano (Origanum vulgare Linn.) against gram positive bacteria. Pak J Pharm Sci. 2009;22(4):421-424.
  • 25
    Bower AM, Real Hernandez LM, Berhow MA, de Mejia EG. Bioactive compounds from culinary herbs inhibit a molecular target for type 2 diabetes management, dipeptidyl peptidase IV. J Agric Food Chem. 2014;62(26):6147-6158. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf500639f

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The Institute for Natural Medicine, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. INM’s mission is to transform health care in the United States by increasing public awareness of natural medicine and access to naturopathic doctors. Naturopathic medicine, with its person-centered principles and practices, has the potential to reverse the tide of chronic illness overwhelming healthcare systems and to empower people to achieve and maintain optimal lifelong health. INM strives to fulfil this mission through the following initiatives:

  • Education – Reveal the unique benefits and outcomes of evidence-based natural medicine
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  • Research – Expand quality research on this complex and comprehensive system of medicine

About The Author(s)

Author

Institute for Natural Medicine Staff

Our dedicated content team of professional staff writers represents decades of experience covering essential natural health topics in an accessible, evidence-based, and engaging way. Guided by a shared passion for holistic well-being, each and every one of our writers strives to empower our readers to take charge of their health.

Supported by a rigorous fact-checking and medical editing process from licensed naturopathic doctors that examines the latest in peer-reviewed research, our team brings their in-depth knowledge of natural health practices into every piece of content we produce. We strive to be the gold standard for evidence-based natural medicine, providing trustworthy information and inspiring narratives to help you live your best health, naturally.

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