The Healing Power of Spices Prerana Sangani, MD, MPH
Updated: Nov 14, 2019
I learned to cook with my mother in an Indian household. We used numerous tasty, delicious ingredients and spices in preparing rich, colorful foods. Unbeknownst to us at the time, many of the spices were full of healthy, healing properties. I am now a physician, with a predominately Western medicine practice. I have enjoyed blending my knowledge of Western medicine with the Eastern healing traditions of my youth. Western medicine is increasingly embracing those traditions as it deepens its understanding of the science supporting the medicinal qualities of foods like those spices that infused my childhood. The foods from South Asia are regularly prepared with spices such as turmeric, black pepper, fenugreek and asafetida. These same spices are part of the revolution happening in today’s “food is medicine” movement. Also included in this revolution are anti-inflammatory foods, super foods and foods rich in nutritive value. In this article, we will focus on the health benefits of spices. Turmeric Turmeric has received wide attention in the past year or two, and there is a good deal of science surrounding its benefits. Turmeric is found as a root herb in nature. When ground up, it becomes a bright yellow powder with a distinct odor. It contains the active compound called curcumin which has a number of medicinal properties. Evidence has shown that curcumin can lower blood sugar levels, act as a powerful anti-inflammatory (especially in arthritis), has antimicrobial properties, acts as an antioxidant, and that it potentially reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Indian cooking uses turmeric generously (usually ½ teaspoon per dish), however, the healing qualities of the spice are found in larger doses. It takes approximately ¼ cup of ground turmeric to confer health benefits. Topical and oral forms of turmeric exist. Making a simple paste out of turmeric powder and a little oil and water acts as a topical antimicrobial for small cuts and abrasions. This has been used for centuries in India. Taking curcumin as a supplement helps achieve the desired therapeutic dosage. Health benefits are achieved in doses of 500-1200 mg/day. Make sure that piperine or black pepper extract is present in any supplement you choose to take (see Black Pepper section for why). In addition, consuming turmeric with fats or oils improves absorption, whether you're eating your turmeric in food form or taking turmeric or curcumin as a supplement.
Black Pepper Next, let’s look at black pepper. This small berry-like pod from the pepper plant is ubiquitous and is found nearly everywhere around the globe. Piperine is the key chemical in black pepper. Black pepper helps make other herbs and nutrients more available (bioavailability) and accessible to our system. For example, the addition of black pepper to turmeric increases turmeric’s (curcumin’s) availability 20-fold. This is an amazing feature because it significantly enhances the otherwise very low bioavailability of curcumin. In Ayurvedic medicine, black pepper has been known for many centuries to aid in ailments of digestion as well as for its cancer-fighting properties. Black peppercorns can be used whole or in powdered form. Whole black peppercorn is roasted and ground with other ingredients to make powders like garam masala, sambhar powder, chaat masala and tea masala. In South India, peppercorn is widely used in the preparation of rasam, a thin soup eaten with rice and ghee. To maximize the benefit of black pepper, use powdered black pepper in soups, sauces, stocks and stews for that pungent zing. Fenugreek Fenugreek is an annual plant that is also known as methi in many parts of the world. It is native to the Middle and Near East, and is widely used on the Indian subcontinent. Fenugreek has been shown to help nursing mothers boost milk production when taken daily. Studies also show that fenugreek dosing at 2-5 grams/day (in capsule formulation) reduces blood glucose levels and LDL levels in cholesterol management. When cooking with fenugreek, it has a slightly bitter taste. The bitterness diminishes when it is mixed with other spices. Asafetida Asafetida, or hing, is also known as the “spice of the gods” thanks to its numerous therapeutic properties. It is a latex gum extracted from several species of the perennial herb Ferula. It is available as a solid root or in smaller pieces, as well as in tablet or powder form. This potent-smelling spice is commonly used in Persian and Indian cooking for flavoring, food preservation and fragrance. From a nutritional perspective, asafetida provides protein, fiber, carbohydrates, calcium, phosphorous, iron, niacin, carotene and riboflavin. The science shows this spice has strong GI benefits, particularly as an antispasmodic agent. It can be taken orally or used topically, in paste form, to relieve the bellies of young babies. To alleviate respiratory symptoms, mix together a half teaspoon each of asafetida powder and dry ginger powder and two tablespoons of honey. Take this mixture orally three times a day to get relief from a dry cough, whooping cough, bronchitis or asthma. This same paste is well known to relieve menstrual cramps and the low back pain associated with menses.
Getting Started Here are some practical tips for how to begin adding healing spices to your life:
Buy your spices from a well-reputed Indian store or other spice store and ask about freshness and origin to determine the quality and purity of the spice or herb. Alternatively, if you are traveling to India, purchasing directly from the mill where they grind the spices daily will guarantee you the freshest spices and pesticide-free herbs. You can also have the spice mills ship them directly to your home (Adani Market in Gujarat is one you might want to try: adanispices.com).
Organize your spices in bottles with clear labels that are easy to find in your kitchen.
You may already have cookbooks that include these spices. Pick a few new recipes to try.
Purchase a cookbook with Indian recipes that traditionally use a lot of these spices (see the resources section below for a few books and a how-to video that I particularly like).
Below are some recipe ideas to get you started. The first one is centuries old and uses turmeric for its anti-viral properties. It's become popular in the US recently, marketed as a “turmeric latte.”
Haldi ka doodh Ingredients
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric, or to taste
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pinch ground ginger
1 pinch ground clove
1 pinch ground allspice
1 cup milk
¾ teaspoon honey, or to taste
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whisk turmeric, cardamom, black pepper, ginger, cloves and allspice together in a small bowl.
Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until heated through, 3 to 4 minutes; stir honey and vanilla extract into milk until completely dissolved. Whisk 1 teaspoon turmeric mixture into milk mixture; reduce heat to medium-low and cook until flavors blend, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour mixture through a strainer.
Here's a link to one of my favorite Dal Makhani recipes (dal simply means lentils). For a twist on this recipe, visit Archana's Kitchen website for a simple, supremely delicious recipe for Creamy Dal Makhani. Both dals are full of protein, fiber and slow-cooked spices.
Enjoy adding a variety of healing spices to your cooking. Don't hesitate to contact me with any questions.Resources
Argawal, B. et al. "Identification of Novel Anti-inflammatory Agents from Ayurvedic Medicine for Prevention of Chronic Diseases: 'Reverse Pharmacology' and 'Bedside to Bench' Approach." Current Drug Targets, Volume 12, Number 11, October 2011, pp. 1595-1653(59). www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/ben/cdt/2011/00000012/00000011/art00008
Goozee, K.G., Shah, T.M., Sohrabi, H.R. et al. "Examining the potential clinical value of curcumin in the prevention and diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease." Br J Nutr, 115 (2016), pp. 449-465.
Madhur Jaffrey. From Curries to Kebabs, Recipes from the Spice Trail. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2003. Print.
Panjabi, Camellia. 50 Great Curries of India. Lanham, MD: National Book Network, 2015. Print.
Prasad, Sahdeo and Bharat B. Aggarwal. "Turmeric, the Golden Spice," Chapter 13. From Traditional Medicine to Modern Medicine. Herbal Medicine. Biomedical and Clinical Aspects, 2nd edition. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92752/
Small, GW et al. "Memory and Brain Amyloid and Tau Effects of a Bioavailable Form of Curcumin in Non-Demented Adults: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled 18-Month Trial." The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 26:3 (2018), 266-277. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29246725
Dr. Weil, Cooking with Spices: www.drweil.com/diet-nutrition/cooking-cookware/cooking-with-spices/
Dr. Weil, Turmeric: www.drweil.com/blog/health-tips/know-what-turmeric-can-do-for-you-find-out/
Manjula's Kitchen: Indian Vegetarian Recipes. Manjulaskitchen.com
"Nine Amazing Benefits of Black Pepper." Organic Facts. www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/herbs-and-spices/health-benefits-of-black-pepper.html
Prerana Sangani, MD, MPH
Dr. Sangani has been practicing internal medicine for the last 19 years. Formerly a concierge physician at The Village Doctor in Woodside, Calfornia, she now offers private consulting on clean cooking, wellness coaching, and she supervises local practices as a medical director.
In addition to her medical training at the University of Rochester Medical School and UC Berkeley for her Masters in Public Health, Prerana studied with an Ayurvedic practitioner in India.
Growing up in the US, her Indian culture influenced her greatly, especially when it came to food. Her vegetarian mother prepared delicious Gujarati food every day, and Prerana learned to cook her own combination of Indian and American dishes over the years. As she learned the principles of Ayurveda and homeopathy, the healing properties of many of the spices used in Indian cooking became clear. Prerana has enjoyed incorporating Eastern influences into her daily practice of internal medicine.
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