Can your kitchen keep you well? It might help. Studies show that some spices and herbs have benefits beyond the delicious tastes and aromas they lend to our food. These seven are found in nearly every kitchen, and the amount needed for benefits isn't huge. But if a cayenne toddy isn't your cup of tea, you can find them as supplements at health food stores.
A caution: These herbs and spices are generally considered safe. But some people may be sensitive, as is the case with any food. If you take supplements, let your doctor know. Garlic, for example, has some anticoagulant properties, so it could be a problem before surgery. If you're pregnant or nursing, check with your doctor.
¢ Claims: Strange as it sounds, the same ingredient that adds fire to food can relieve minor indigestion. Some evidence suggests it may protect against ulcers caused by anti-inflammatory drugs. It may ease cold symptoms.
Used externally, it can reduce pain from shingles and help with psoriasis and other skin conditions.
¢ How to use it: For indigestion or general well-being, use it in cooking, in warm water to make a "toddy" or on its own - try 1/8 teaspoon before each meal. At health food stores, you can find a "buffered" version to take as a supplement if the spice's heat is too much for your mouth. Or look for a capsaicin cream (capsaicin is a substance in hot peppers); use as directed.
¢ Claims: May improve blood sugar, triglyceride and cholesterol levels, and improve insulin functioning, particularly in Type 2 diabetics. Cinnamon oil and cinnamon extract seem to have antifungal and antibacterial properties.
¢ How to use it: Aim for 1/2 teaspoon a day, sprinkled on oatmeal or applesauce, for example. (Cinnamon in sugary baked goods might be yummy, but it's not really "healthy.") Boil cinnamon sticks in water for tea, or use 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon powdered cinnamon in a cup of water. Or try supplements.
¢ Claims: The most recent study showed that garlic didn't have the cholesterol-lowering abilities we thought it did. But the researcher said bigger doses or other variables might produce different results. Through the years, garlic has been used to fight heart disease, cancer, infections and even mosquito bites. It seems to help fight bacteria and fungus. Allicin, a sulfur-containing substance, is thought to be responsible.
¢ How to use it: A half to whole clove of raw or crushed garlic per day is recommended by some sources - but that can produce bad breath and body odor. Supplements use aged garlic to reduce the effects on breath; some brands add other ingredients, such as parsley, which is a natural breath freshener.
¢ Claims: Ginger is considered another "tonic" spice, meaning it's just good in general. It also may help with nausea, motion sickness or morning sickness, and with migraines and arthritis. It's high in antioxidants that fight disease. And it has anti-inflammatory properties.
¢ How to use it: In one study on morning sickness, women took 350 milligrams of ginger a day - a quarter-size piece of fresh ginger has about 1,000 milligrams. Shake some powdered ginger on fresh fruit. Make tea with freshly grated ginger, or try supplements.
¢ Claims: Oregano is gaining in popularity as a bacterial killer and an anti-fungal agent and is considered better than tea tree oil for toenail fungus. It also has general germ-busting properties. And it's high in antioxidants.
¢ How to use it: Sprinkle it on eggs or vegetables or tomato soup. Add it to any Italian recipe. Take it as a supplement internally, or use its oil externally. For toenail fungus, try three internal doses, in supplement or herb form, followed by daily external use of oregano oil on your toenails.
¢ Claims: Its smell is invigorating, and it may help protect blood vessels. As an essential oil, it's a great hair conditioner and can freshen breath. The scent may help with respiratory problems, and the leaves may help with digestion.
¢ How to use it: Use it in soups and stews or on meats. Use a few drops of oil on your scalp, to condition your hair and encourage hair growth. Or use a few drops of oil in your morning shower, to invigorate you.
¢ Claims: It seems to have antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties and may offer cardiovascular and liver protection. Its curcumin may offer protection against cancer cells.
¢ How to use it: Add it to rice, eggs or salad dressings. Try for about 1/8 teaspoon per day, or 500 to 800 milligrams.
¢ For a cold, peel and chop five garlic cloves. Add 1/2 cup honey and a little cayenne and ginger. Take 1 teaspoonful as needed.
¢ To warm up, make ginger tea: Grate a 1-inch piece of fresh ginger; pour a cup of boiling water over it and let steep for five minutes.
¢ For a sore throat: Add a pinch of cayenne to a tablespoon of honey and lemon juice.
Herb or spice?
Herbs are leaves of shrubs. Oregano and rosemary are herbs, for instance. Spices are dried bark, buds or fruits from tropical or subtropical plants and trees.
Sources: Matt Murray, Karen Berns and Jackie Miller of GreenAcres Natural Foods Market; Blum Patient and Family Learning Center, Massachusetts General Hospital; fitnessmagazine.com; ACE FitnessMatters; Health Hunter newsletter