The Surprising Health Benefits of Holiday Spices
The aroma of gingerbread or pumpkin pie wafting from a warm oven evokes a sense of cozy wintertime wellbeing, and it turns out there is good reason why. These holiday spices have health benefits beyond their delicious taste.
Cinnamon comes from the bark of a tropical tree. Two powerful antioxidants are found in cinnamon, cinnamaldehyde and epicatechin. The antioxidant cinnamaldehyde is what gives cinnamon its distinctive scent and flavor. Antioxidants protect our cells against oxidative stress which can cause DNA damage and inflammation.
Cinnamon lowers blood sugar by improving insulin sensitivity, moving sugar out of the blood stream and into cells where it is used to make energy. Cinnamon may also help to lower cholesterol. There are 2 types, Cassia cinnamon, the most common type, and Ceylon cinnamon which has a stronger flavor. Cassia cinnamon contains the compound coumarin that can be toxic to the liver in very large amounts, so stick with the amount of cinnamon in recipes. The Food and Drug Administrations recommended daily limit of cinnamon is 6 g, or about 2.5 teaspoons.
Ginger is the root of the Zingiber officinale plant. Ginger contains a compound gingerol which helps digestion by encouraging the movement of food from the stomach into the intestines, which can relieve nausea due to pregnancy, motion sickness or chemotherapy. Ginger’s assist to moving food along your digestive tract is also why it helps reduce gas and bloating. Ginger contains salicylates which can act as a blood thinner in large amounts. The recommended daily limit of ginger is 4g which is about 1 Tablespoon of raw ginger root, or 2 teaspoons of powdered ginger.
Cloves are the flower buds of a tropical evergreen tree. Cloves are high in antioxidants, help decrease inflammation, and have antibacterial properties. Eugenol is a compound in cloves that has numbing properties and makes it useful in treating tooth pain and gingivitis. Nigericin is a compound in cloves that helps your pancreas secrete insulin to regulate blood sugar. Clove oil intake is safe up to 2.5mg per kg of body weight.
Nutmeg is the seed of an evergreen tree. Nutmeg is rich in antioxidants like cyanidins and anti-inflammatory molecules called monoterpenes. Nutmeg has antibacterial properties to help fight infections. Nutmeg has pain-relieving properties by blocking cyclooxygenase and substance-P, which are pain mediators. Large amounts of nutmeg can have harmful side effects like dizziness or hallucinations due to a compound called myristicin. Nutmeg should be used in small doses, less than 1 teaspoon.
Peppermint is a green herb that grows easily in a home garden. The menthol in peppermint can help thin mucus and therefore act as a decongestant, especially when brewed into a tea. Peppermint can also help decrease gas and nausea by relaxing the stomach muscles and improving the flow of bile. Peppermint can improve alertness, improve circulation, relax muscle tension, reduce headache, and repel insects.
In summary, spices are healthful addition to holiday recipes and teas in the amounts listed in the recipe. But too much of a good thing can be bad. Avoid taking these spices as encapsulated supplements unless under the guidance of your physician.
Happy Holidays from the Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine!
By Dr. Bren Boston