Spice up your health

JULY 10 — The use of spices and herbs in cooking dates back more than 5,000 years. Records from China, India and Egypt have testified to their continued use to improve taste of food. The search for precious spices by the Europeans led to colonisation of nations around Asia since almost all spices are grown in the Tropics.

Anti-pathogenic properties

The Quarterly Review of Biology (1998) published a Cornell University study of 43 spices used on more than 4,500 recipes for traditional, meat-based cuisines from 36 countries confirms a strong microbe-spice connection for popular herbs: 

Spice action                                                          Spices

Killing 100 per cent of bacteria:                       Garlic, onions, oregano

Killing 75 – 90 per cent of bacteria:                 Lemongrass, cloves, cinnamon, rosemary, capsicum/chilli, bay leaf, mustard, tarragon/artemisia, cumin, thyme.

Killing 50 – 72 per cent of bacteria:                 Chinese parsley, nutmeg, mint, coriander, dill, basil, sage, fennel, caraway seeds.

Spices are added to foods to enhance their palatability and to cleanse foods of pathogens (bacteria, fungi, parasites).

Health/medical benefits

Whereas a tablespoon of table sugar could suppress our immune defence against infections, a similar quantity of fresh spices offers a host of attractive health-promoting benefits. For those suffering from diabetes, cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaves have insulin-like actions. Garlic and onions contain sulfur compounds which have detoxification properties. Bitter gourd contains the protein charantin which is a sugar-lowering agent. Besides, it improves levels of glycogen (stored sugar), LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. Studies found phytochemicals such as curcumin and quercetin to reduce both the size and number of pre-cancerous lesions in our intestinal tract. Even the number of colon polyps could drop. Many spices are also known to relieve intestinal cramps.


Most spices are rich in antioxidants, which are widely recognised as a principal weapon against accelerated aging due to oxidative stress. The oxidation of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol correlates independently with the extent of our atherosclerosis. 

Common spices and herbs used in cooking include:


This spice contains curcumin, which is able to positively affect our gene expression and also induce cancer/tumorapoptosis (programmed cell death).Curry dishes are rich in this COX2-inhibitor nutrient that fights chronic health problems linked to inflammation.


High garlic consumption may lower incidence of cancer since it inhibits nitrosamine (a carcinogen) formation from processed food consumed. Studies suggest that garlic could help prevent several types of cancer, particularly colon cancer. True, it lowers ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol oxidation, blood pressure, and homocysteine.  In addition, chopped garlic active ingredient, allicin, protects against H Pylori bacterium.


This Asian herb has 4,400-yearhealth-promoting history. Its flavonoid,gingerol-6, may induce apoptosis in tumor/cancer cells while inhibiting growth of H pylori bacterium responsible for stomach ulcers/tumor. It is traditionally used for reducing symptoms of motion sickness. Daily intake of crushed ginger may be effective for nausea and vomiting in pregnant women. It reduces blood clotting and blood platelet aggregation, besides anti-inflammatory properties that help fight progression of many chronic health disorders. There is some evidence that ginger may help reduce pain from osteoarthritis too.

Hot chilli

Its active ingredient, capsaicin, can reduce levels of nerve pain. It can reduce hunger after meals while reducing caloric intake during subsequent meals. However, calorie burning by the body seems to increase when 10 grams or more of chilli is added to a meal. Generally, chilli enhances food digestion since it raises blood circulation in our digestive tract. However, those with colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, or inflamed digestive tract are ill-advised to add this to their food. This spice can trigger disturbing hiccups to some individuals, especially when the very hot varieties are consumed.


Besides destroying 100 per cent of bacteria tested at the Cornell University study, its flavonoid quercetin fights lung tumor and lowers blood pressure. It relieves allergic (nasal) rhinitis through its antihistamine effect and stabilisation of antibodies that release histamine, which triggers the allergy. Its flavonoids may also lower risk of prostate cancer in some men by inhibiting expression of androgen receptors, besides its anti-inflammatory functions.


It can help relieve various menstrual disorders, including heavy menstruation. It can lower blood glucose levels for diabetics. Like peppermint, cinnamon is anti-bloating or gas-relieving as used in traditional medicine for intestinal spasms.


Its dried herb contains several active constituents, including 3 per cent volatile oil responsible for its anti-microbial and antifungal effects. Laboratory tests have shown oregano oil to be potent against candidiasis (yeast infection), which is widespread in tropical countries like Malaysia. Many local skin disorders, allergies, and even tumours have been linked to fungal overgrowth.


It contains vitamins A, B2, C and minerals such as manganese, copper, iron, potassium and calcium. Peppermint is the common mint for flavouring dishes and desserts. It can inhibit inflammatory activity and growth of some parasites.  Traditionally, it is used for relieving indigestive problems, stomach cramps, menstrual cramps, flatulence, upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, and colic in children. Like tea and coffee, it reduces hunger temporarily.


Its essential oil, thymol, is anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, mucus-expelling, and has antibacterial actions. It may reduce frequency of recurrent infections in people with chronic bronchitis. Its traditional uses are numerous include relieving colic, diarrhoea, flatulence, gastritis, indigestion, stomach ache, sore throat, bronchitis, and laryngitis. Thyme has a long European history for treating dry, spasmodic coughs.

*The writer of this article is the Dean of the School of Complementary/Traditional Medicine & Allied Health, Genovasi University College.

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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