Don’t you love the smell of mulled wine that drifts out into the streets from farmers markets across the countryside in late December? The spicy, scented aroma of gingerbread and the crisp, chill days of winter fast approaching evoke memories of Christmases past. Days of roast goose, walnuts, striped sugar cane candy and oranges stuck with cloves, tied with brightly coloured ribbons. Crackling fires, roasting chestnuts and mistletoe kissed rosy cheeks, all imbued with the delicate, wafting smell of spices from romantic far flung lands.
The Spice Back Story
Christmas was, and is, the holiest day in the Christian calendar and just as the three Wise Men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the crib to honour the baby Jesus, so costly imported spices were considered equally rare in days of old, remarkable gifts for special occasions and celebrations.
Back in the days before refrigeration, deep freezes and the art of the tin can, food was frequently both dull and bland. Anything that would enliven the palate and add cachet to your kitchen was hugely prized. The vast cost of spices added to their aura of mystique and when their health giving properties were also identified, at a time when medicinal help in any form was highly valued, demand soared further.
Spices were a status symbol. They were first traded to Europe from Arabia by the Greeks and Romans, and by the nineteenth century were being sought high and low, far and wide: fought over by nations and traders across the globe. Diplomatic deals were forged with potentates of far off lands; men made their fortunes and lost their lives in search of the precious substances and the quest for control of the spice trade opened up sailing routes across the world.
Today, our options are wider and spices have fallen from the lofty ‘must-have’ pinnacles of yesteryear. But still at Christmas time they come into their own. Our palates may have changed but not our noses, and the evocative smells of spices, alongside their medicinal qualities, remain the same. So Winter, Spring, Summer or Autumn, if you are looking for a natural way to boost your health, think spices.
Each of these Christmas spices seems to have an unusual compound peculiar to it that accounts for the unique medicinal properties they carry within them. Who needs pharmaceutical options if the science shows these natural options work as efficiently? And without side effects of any kind.
Christmas gingerbread biscuits, a glass of sparkling ginger beer, a cup of hot, warming ginger tea? The twisted roots of the ginger plant are a fast favourite today. Arthritis, heartburn, stomach pain or difficulties with breathing? Add ginger into your daily diet and the science suggests that your symptoms may lessen or even simply disappear.
Ginger’s ‘magic ingredient’ is shogaol, a ginger root compound that has been shown in studies to protect bone and cartilage wear and tear and to reduce knee and hip joint pain associated with osteoporosis-arthritis. Take a sprinkling of ginger extract (1.6-3 grams daily after meals for two months) and analysis indicates that you can also painlessly lower your blood glucose readings.
If you regularly struggle with migraines, your solution may we’ll be a single dose of ginger powder. A 2013 trial found it was equally as effective at relieving migraine pain as standard conventional medication - but without any of the pharmaceutical side effects. If period pains are a problem, a similar amount brings on rapid relief. Exercise mad? A single teaspoon will ease your muscle aches.
Chew a small slice of ginger root half an hour or so before you eat and you will get your digestive juices flowing. Ginger ‘raises the digestive fire’ according to Ayurvedic Medicine and helps your stomach to work more efficiently, easing bloating, digestive difficulties and sickness.
Think Tulip bulbs and bubbles, and you have an inkling of an idea of the value of a single nutmeg back in the day. And why? Nutmeg is full of health boosting nutrients- including manganese, thiamin, B6, folate, copper, magnesium, but it’s its less well known ingredients, macelignan and myristicin, that are the superpower compounds you want to search it out for.
Brain fog? Memory problems? Myristicin and macelignan work together to keep your brain healthy and happy. They slow the destruction of the neural pathways associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s and boost brain function.
Nutmeg is also the spice that boosts your kidneys. It eliminates any environmental toxins built up in your liver or kidneys, cleaning up the residues of poor diet, alcohol, drugs or pollution. Nutmeg is a diuretic and studies have shown that just a pinch added to your food daily can effectively dissolve kidney stones, painlessly and efficiently.
Great for regulating blood pressure, a teaspoon of nutmeg in a glass of warm milk at night works for insomnia. Nutmeg contains magnesium, which releases serotonin to relax you and reduce stress, and also converts into melatonin which helps the body and mind to sink into a deeper restful sleep. Nutmeg also contains small amounts of a natural narcotic which stimulates neurotransmitters to relax you yet further. Nutmeg contains potassium, which relaxes the blood vessels and allows your blood to circulate efficiently. It is a natural pain controller, and helps reduce the discomfort of arthritis and rheumatism. High in fibre, it can also help to stimulate peristalsis, the contraction of the muscles of the intestines that helps with sluggish bowel movements, and so is a useful tool if you suffer from constipation.
Apart from an essential ingredient in those winter hot toddies and mulled wines, cinnamon packs a powerful ‘pick me up’ punch too. Make sure you opt for the more powerful Ceylon cinnamon, rather than the less expensive, less potent cassia variety found in supermarkets. Its key ‘secret’ ingredient is cinnamaldehyde, a powerful compound that destroys funguses, bacteria and parasites. For all round natural protection what more could we ask for? Move over pharmaceutical contenders! Cinnamon has also been tested and found to be effective against Candida Albicans (responsible for vaginal yeast infections and thrush) and Heliobacter Pylori, the bacteria that causes stomach ulcers.
The antioxidants in cinnamon have powerful anti-inflammatory effects. An Iranian study of 36 women with rheumatoid arthritis found that two 500 mg capsules of cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum burmannii) taken after breakfast and supper (2 grams total daily dose of cinnamon powder) for two months significantly decreased self-reported pain by an average of 25 points (out of 100). Inflammation markers reduced and the number of swollen joints went down by seven, tender joints by eight, and the disease activity score went from 6.04 to 3.92. (Kawatra, Pharmacognosy Res 2015)
Worrying about your heart? Add in regular doses of cinnamon - 120 mg a day - to your diet and the science shows that you can watch your triglyceride numbers and LDL cholesterol levels sink and your ‘good’ HDL cholesterol levels rise.
On the diabetes type 2 watch list? 2 teaspoons of cinnamon a day has been shown to reduce insulin resistance by between 10 and 29%, as well as lower blood sugar levels.
Memory problems and brain fog? Cinnamon seems to prevent the build-up of the tau proteins in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s. In animal studies too, it seems to be lethal for cancer cells, causing apoptosis, or cell death, and it does the same in tests for HIV-infected cells. Of sixty-nine medicinal plants examined in one study on apoptosis, cinnamon was found to be the most potent.
In huge demand in the plague ridden Middle Ages, oranges stuck with cloves were thought to ward off both the dreadful smells of hygiene-less cities full of open sewers and the microbes of the various epidemics that decimated entire populations.
The cloves may have made little difference to the survival rates of those threatened by the plague, but today the humble clove has been found to put up a good fight against that modern day plague, cancer. Cloves contain eugenol, which is a powerful anti-oxidant that has been shown to boost cell death in cancer cells, as well as slow down and stop tumour growth. One study showed that 80% of oesophageal cancer cells were destroyed by concentrated amounts of clove oil. Another that eugenol triggered cell death in cervical cancer cells.
Eugenol seems to be the ‘magic’ ingredient in cloves. Not only has it been shown (in animal rather than human tests) to reboot the liver, reducing inflammation and decreasing oxidative stress but it also seems to improve insulin levels, lowering and controlling blood sugar in the process. Eugenol has been found to improve osteoporosis markers and also to increase bone density and strength. A single teaspoon of crushed cloves every day also provides you with a healthy dose of manganese, a mineral that improves both bone mineral density and bone growth.
Tooth and gum problems? Clove oil works wonders in your mouth too, destroying the bacteria that are responsible for gum disease. One small study showed that using a mouthwash made of a combination of cloves, basil and tea tree oil improved the health of participant’s gums at the same time as reducing the amount of plaque and numbers of bacteria in their mouth. Another study showed that clove essential oil killed off three common types of bacteria, including E. coli, and it is also said to be effective in treating peptic ulcers.
Spice up your life
Spices are not just for Christmas. Use them year round, season by season. Experiment. Add them to your daily household staples and watch your good health blossom.
Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health.
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