The Spice of Life
Leen R. Jaber
If you opened up your spice cabinet right now, what would you see? Salt? Pepper? Maybe some garlic powder? Some of you may see more complicated blends of spices specific to ethnic cooking. And all of you would probably guarantee that your spices are what make your food taste so good. And that’s likely true. But most of you probably had no idea that many of these common spices are not only tasty, but also may have a healing effect on pain, blood sugar, and inflammation. Some may even help aid in weight-loss, while others may even help you live longer!
According to data collected and studied by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Medical Science, where the spicy food consumption of almost half a million people was analyzed, those who ate spicy foods six or seven times a week had a 14 percent lower risk of premature death for all causes than those who only ate spicy foods less than once a week. The data was collected over a four-year span of time and included participants between the ages of 20 and 70 but excluded those with heart disease, cancer, and stroke. The source of the majority of spices came from chili peppers.
Although this study is relatively new, the health benefits of chili peppers or cayenne peppers, the most common variety of chili peppers, have been known for a long time. Capsaicin is the substance found in cayenne peppers, which gives the pepper its burning hot taste. But it also does more than that; capsaicin blocks a substance called “substance P,” a neuropeptide that is involved in inflammatory pain processes. Cayenne pepper has been found to therefore temporarily relieve pain caused by inflammation, especially in diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, shingles, and neuropathy. Clinical studies show that this is especially true when the capsaicin is applied topically as a cream. Orally, however, cayenne pepper has been shown to promote cardiovascular health and aid in weight-loss by suppressing appetite and burning body fat. This happens through a process known as thermogenesis. However, this does not mean you should add hot sauce to a fat-laden cheeseburger and expect to lose weight, explains Hannah El-Amin, dietitian and owner of Nutrition That Fits, a nutrition counseling company aimed at helping individuals manage and improve their health through optimizing their diets. Rather, supplementing a healthy diet with spices and herbs such as fresh or dried cayenne pepper can help enhance a healthy diet and aid in weight-loss in addition to healing chronic pain and other conditions. Cayenne has also been shown to soothe and more quickly heal a sore throat when mixed with lemon and honey.
Many of you probably use curry powder in an array of dishes you make. Did you know that curry powder often contains cayenne pepper along with cumin, cardamom, coriander, and other herbs? Therefore, curry powder includes many of the benefits of cayenne, plus others such as aiding in digestion, reducing intestinal inflammation, detoxifying the body, and reducing allergies.
Turmeric, another ingredient found in chili powder and often used in cooking to provide a yellowish or orange color to rice or potatoes, is another spice hailed for its health benefits. As El-Amin explains, “Turmeric falls in the category of superfoods for its exceptional qualities.”
Known best for its anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric has shown positive results when used to treat symptoms of carpal tunnel, joint inflammation, high cholesterol, and even Alzheimer’s. In India and other parts of the world, it has even been used as a topical paste to cure skin infections. Turmeric is also high in antioxidants, which may help prevent cancer when eaten regularly. Although it can be added to any meal for an extra boost of nutrition and color, one of the most popular ways to consume turmeric is by making a daily cup of turmeric tea, or what is now being called “golden milk.” Golden milk, a common drink in Okinawa, Japan, and other parts of Asia, combines the healing benefits of turmeric with the additional anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory power found in ginger and black pepper plus cinnamon simmered with coconut, soy, or almond milk. And when consumed regularly, golden milk can have amazing effects on the body.
“I found when I feel extra inflamed or swollen, the golden milk is a great help,” says Sawsan Abubaker, an accountant and real estate agent from the Chicago suburbs. Abubaker suffers from both carpal tunnel as well as arthritis in her knees, which is compounded by long hours at her desk typing on a computer. After incorporating golden milk into her diet for the last year, along with ginger tea and cinnamon tea, she has noticed a notable difference in her body. Before Abubaker began to incorporate these teas and clean eating in her life, she lived on the typical diet many Americans rely on: processed foods high in fats and carbohydrates. Since changing her lifestyle and adding these spices to her diet, Abubaker has described herself as feeling “lighter” as opposed to her old eating habits that led her to feel weighed down, lazy, and sleepy. “The effects [of incorporating spices] were positive for sure,” she added, “but the results are not quick, as we are always looking for quick results.” As Abubaker explains, it takes time to flush out the unhealthy elements that we’ve spent years filling our bodies with.
Majdel Musa, a United States native currently working as a legal consultant and instructor in Dubai, has also seen life-changing effects from cleaning up her diet and adding golden milk and spices to her daily regimen. “It was amazing. I had more energy, my aches and pains went away, my menstrual cycle was shorter and lighter, and to top it all off, I lost 40 pounds,” she says. Adding that golden milk helped her sleep well, it may be useful to consume shortly before bed. Much anecdotal evidence has also shown that consuming golden milk regularly or at the onset of a cold can shorten the duration as well as reduce the severity of the symptoms.
Cinnamon is another spice with noteworthy benefits, namely the role it plays in lowering blood sugar. El-Amin asserts that consuming 500mg of cinnamon a day for 40 days (in conjunction with your doctor-recommended blood sugar management plan) can make a significant difference in blood sugar levels for people with type 2 diabetes. More than 500mg for over 40 days is not recommended, however. Cinnamon also counteracts congestion, aids circulation, and eases nausea, explains El-Amin.
Although some research points to spicy foods aiding in weight loss, there is still no definitive scientific proof to support such a claim. However, some evidence has pointed to spicy foods causing a small spike in metabolism when taken right before a meal, perhaps in the form of a hot salsa or simply a few chili peppers. And, as mentioned earlier, fresh spices or spice supplements need to be combined with an overall healthy lifestyle. El-Amin describes the best way to transition to a healthy diet with a few steps. First, self-assess. It’s important to keep a food journal for a while to really be conscious of how and what you eat. Second, find a reliable guide for healthy, clean eating.
El-Amin suggests the University of Wisconsin Integrated Medicine Department of Family Medicine. Third, compare your food journal with the reliable guide and look for the areas you can start improving by integrating certain healthy foods and spices. “Pick the two easiest,” says El-Amin. “Don’t try to overhaul it all at once because it will limit your long-term success. Gradual change is associated with long-term results.”
Spicing up your meals may make a huge difference in your overall health and quality of life, but remember to look at your life as a whole. Start incorporating healthy habits all around and you will start to see the desired results.
Leen R. Jaber has been a published freelance journalist for over 10 years. She is currently working on publishing a volume of original poetry and short stories. Leen is also a singer, guitarist, and activist for Palestinian rights.