Spices Make Great Medicine

Isthmus | January 27, 2005
Not even the woods and the wilder faces of Nature are without medicines, for there is no place where the holy Mother of all things did not distribute remedies for the healing of mankind, so that the very desert was made a drug store.

--Pliny, Natural History, Book XXIV (60 AD)

Long before aspirin became available to heal what ails us (it was first marketed in 1899) and pharmaceuticals were created in the lab, our ancestors grabbed from nature’s pharmacy. Plants naturally contain medicinal chemicals, which our bodies easily recognize. Even aspirin was formulated from the discovery of salicin from willow bark and salicylic acid from the herb meadowsweet; both are still used in the herbal tradition to relieve pain.

Medicine surrounds us in nature, and that includes garden herbs and spices we’re more familiar with finding in recipes for sauces and soups, curries and cookies.

If our kitchens are our pharmacies of the future, what do you have on hand in yours? If you have thyme, rosemary, cinnamon, sage, celery seed, or turmeric, you already have some good “drugs” -- antibiotics, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and digestive aids. Explore using more herbs and spices to season meat or vegetable dishes, to add to soups, desserts, or beverages. Over time, you’ll discover which ones you gravitate towards and can intentionally select them based on their medicinal properties as you cook or make teas. Even if you’re not sick, it’s a great way to boost your general well being.


Anti-oxidants, the preoccupation of aging baby-boomers, have been on my mind lately too. These substances, provided by vitamins E, C and beta carotene, are thought to slow cell destruction (aging) and inhibit “free radicals” -- unstable cells that may cause further cell damage. Green tea is all the antioxidant rage (and a great base for a kitchen herb tea), but did you know that the USDA studied nearly forty culinary and medicinal herbs several years ago and found many to be rich in polyphenols -- a natural antioxidant?

In this area, the oreganos, from the beloved mint family, compete with vitamin E in their strength. Mexican oregano (Poliomintha longiflora) is the strongest, followed by Italian oregano or sweet marjoram (Origanum majoricum). We love oregano in our spaghetti sauces and on our pizzas, but it is also great in chicken (or other) soups.

Have you ever made an herbal butter? Just blend oregano or other ground herbs in butter or ghee, let it sit to enhance the flavor, and spread on bread, baked potatoes, or steamed vegetables. Some of the other good antioxidants are rosemary, basil, turmeric, ginger, and cayenne.


USDA researchers have found that cinnamon can help metabolize sugar by enhancing insulin sensitivity, particularly aiding those with diabetes. Adding 1/4 to 1 teaspoonful of cinnamon to food metabolizes sugar up to twenty times more efficiently. It’s an easy addition to your morning oatmeal or fruit smoothie.

But that’s not all: Cinnamon, as well as cardamom and cloves, are considered warming spices. In the Indian Ayurvedic tradition, warming spices stimulate “agni,” or digestive fires, to promote better digestion. Where there is strong digestive “fire,” you feel better and more alive. Warming spices enhance circulation and generally relax us; they are considered aphrodisiacs by many cultures. If so, then Chai, black tea made with a blend of spices, including cinnamon and cardamom, is our current love potion of choice. Indians have revered it for hundreds of years, but undoubtedly prefer their art of blending freshly ground herbs and brewing with a fine tea to pouring the potion out of a box. Homemade Chai is easy to make for your friends or sweetie.

Add cinnamon to warm up fruit in the winter -- tasty with bananas, pears, mangoes, or treat yourself to a classic baked apple. Need Grandma’s touch of comfort? Rice pudding with cinnamon can’t be beat.


Fennel is also good for the belly, acting as a natural antacid -- it neutralizes excess stomach acid. A cup of fennel tea is a sweet treat and helpful for nausea too. Fennel is one of many carminatives (helps relieve intestinal gas), including dill, cardamom, cinnamon, thyme, and sage. Recently I removed my “curiously strong” peppermints from their tin and filled it with fennel seeds for breath mints. Ground fennel seeds will sweeten a vegetable soup, or add an interesting flavor to sauces.


And what about baby’s digestion? One of the great spices for settling kids’ upset stomachs is dill. The plant is strong in volatile oils, as are all strongly-scented herbs, and it is antibacterial and one of the herbs the USDA found was a good antioxidant. It is safe for children and the seeds are relatively high in calcium. The tea is good for new mothers as it gets passed on to the baby; the Norse even have a lullaby called Dillia.

Rosemary and thyme

We often lament that we don’t have time to cook as much as we like, but I’ve found that herbs and spices can help bring packaged foods and soup to life. I like to add dried rosemary or thyme, and maybe some parsley and turmeric to my favorite Progresso chicken and wild rice soup. I’ve mixed up a few shakers of my favorite spice blends that I keep on hand and you could keep one in a desk drawer at work to add to a frozen dinner or cup of soup.

Do you want some great fast food? Make a crock pot of cannellini or other white beans with a few tablespoons olive oil; midway through the cook, add four sprigs of fresh rosemary and take out the stems after the beans are soft. How simple is that? You can blend some of the beans if you want; you’ll be surprised how flavorful this soup is. Rosemary is a very strong medicinal plant, and in ancient times was sacred to the goddess Aphrodite (Venus); you can’t go wrong with her. This is a plant worth befriending for general prevention. Romans used sprigs of Rosemary to purify their public drinking water and Rosemary leaves were burned for purification in French hospitals until the 20th century. Rosemary is one of the powerful antioxidants, with both anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. A friend regularly adds it to scrambled eggs, a good dish to experiment with many different kitchen herbs.

Turmeric and celery seed

We’re seriously questioning the pain killers and anti-inflammatory medications we’ve come to trust -- even those we can buy over the counter. Recent reports link their long-term use to stomach bleeding, and Vioxx, a popular prescription arthritis and pain medication, was voluntarily pulled from shelves when studies suggested concerns about heart attacks and stroke.

Turmeric, the spice that gives curry its golden orange color, and celery seed are both high in anti-inflammatory volatile oils that can reduce the pain and swelling of arthritis. Turmeric is rich in curcumin, which works a bit like aspirin, according to herbalist James Duke, head of the USDA Medicinal Plant Laboratory for over 30 years. Duke swears by celery seed to lower his levels of uric acid and alleviate his gout.

Celery seed has nearly two dozen anti-inflammatory compounds and has been considered both a food and medicine since the Middle Ages. Celery seeds also soothe the nerves, relax blood vessels, and act as a natural diuretic. Try adding ground celery seeds to your vegetable or soup dishes. American taste buds love sweet and salty, but you might be surprised that you appreciate celery’s mild bitter flavor. Bitter and sour can bring us back into balance.

If you’re concerned about your cholesterol, try adding turmeric, garlic, or ginger to your meals. By itself, turmeric doesn’t have a very appealing flavor, but it is an aid to protein digestion, so can be added to a spice blend in meaty soups or stews. A curried stir-fry is also a quick meal.

Herbs and spices don’t make the best of family keepsakes. If you’ve inherited some old spice tins and still have them in your cupboard, consider replacing them. The medicinal properties are held in the volatile oils that decay over time, so vibrancy matters! Buy an inexpensive coffee grinder and reserve it just for grinding your own spices. This way, you can get the most medicinal value because you’ll keep the oils protected until you need them. Penzey’s suggests buying only what you can use in a year’s time and storing them in a cool, dark place.

This year, resolve to get to know your plant neighbors. Expand your culinary curiosity and experiment with a few kitchen tea recipes. You may not be crazy about all of them, but are likely to make a few new friends.

Pregnant or nursing mothers and people with chronic conditions should consult with their physicians before changing their diets. When you add any new food, herb, or medicine, start with small amounts and watch for side effects. If you have concerns about herbs interacting with your medications, seek the advice of your physician or pharmacist.

Good for what ails ya

You can create healing teas right from your kitchen.

I recently created some kitchen medicinal magic myself. During the end of a holiday family reunion, I found myself with some serious head and respiratory congestion and a cold. Taking my own advice, I kicked up the vitamin C, and made antiviral teas from sage or rosemary, with lemon and honey, sometimes adding sliced garlic cloves, initially taking a cup every few hours. A few days later I was breathing freely. Rosemary, cinnamon, sage, thyme, and garlic are all antiviral and great to drink during the course of a cold. Then again, it could be that the healing remedy was simply the hand-picked Arizona lemons my father provided from the neighbor’s yard. Delicious medicine!

This is my recipe adapted from Stephen Harrod Buhner‘s book Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria. You can increase ingredients to suit your own taste.

The Best Cold and Flu Tea

(also good for tummy upset and indigestion)

1 teaspoon sage

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Pinch cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon honey

Pour 1 cup boiling water over sage and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Strain out the sage, add remaining ingredients and drink hot.

You can also try this recipe with rosemary, cinnamon, or thyme; all of these are both anti-viral and anti-bacterial. Dill and fennel are other good choices, especially if you have some indigestion.

For a more powerful tea, try slicing a clove or two of garlic. Need sweet? Choose honey, rather than sugar, to add to any medicinal tea. Look for wildflower honey because it contains the nectar from many different medicinal plants; bees love them and so will your immune system.

For kids? Try juice of 1/4 lemon, cinnamon and honey, but do not give honey to children under the age of one.


Dr. Duke’s phytochemical database


McCormick Spices’ “Enspicelopedia”: spice fact and folklore


Chai recipes


Penzeys Spices



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