Can eating certain spices really make you feel better? Here, the pros and caveats of this centuries-old approach.
Humans have been consuming spices for thousands of years—both for the flavor and the natural medicinal benefits. It makes sense, as research now confirms what has long been suspected: that spices, in general, are a great source of antioxidants, and many are anti-inflammatory as well.
But when it comes to the modern-day approach of using spices specifically for medicinal purposes, there’s a lot of nuance and important distinction between the helpful and harmful. Here, the pros, cons and everything else you need to know.
Popular spices with potential medicinal benefits
While there are many spices with potential and purported medicinal benefits, here are a few mainstream ones that you can likely find at your local grocery store.
This bright yellow spice contains curcumin, an anti-inflammatory agent that has shown promise in fighting inflammatory disorders like arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, says Dr. Melina Jampolis, a California-based board certified physician nutrition specialist and author of Spice Up, Slim Down. Additional studies demonstrate its potential to help with even more severe conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, brain disease, heart disease and cancer.
But don’t expect to get these benefits by simply sprinkling a dash of turmeric into whatever you’re cooking. The spice contains just 3 percent of curcumin on average, and since a recent meta-analysis found 1,000 milligrams of curcumin (equivalent to more than 7 tablespoons of turmeric) to be the most effective daily dose, you’ll likely need to take a daily curcumin supplement to reap the full benefits. And because curcumin is poorly absorbed into the bloodstream—whether it’s in turmeric or as a standalone supplement—it’s a good idea to consume it alongside a fat (like coconut oil) and black pepper, both of which can increase its absorption, recommends Jampolis.
A cousin of turmeric, ginger is another anti-inflammatory with an array of potential health benefits. It’s best known as an anti-nausea aid, but may also help with menstrual pain and arthritis as well as blood sugar control by helping your body respond better to insulin, says Jampolis.
For nausea-related issues, recommended daily doses are around 1,000 milligrams, which you can get from drinking several cups of ginger tea, eating dried ginger, or adding 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger to your meals several times a day. Studies involving ginger and blood sugar control were conducted with larger doses of ginger (2-3 grams), which would be more challenging to get from food and tea alone, caveats Jampolis.
Derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, saffron is one of the world’s most expensive spices—and also one of the most medicinally potent. Research shows that consuming 30 milligrams of saffron a day can help alleviate mild to moderate depression, with benefits comparable to Prozac and other antidepressants as saffron boosts the same brain chemicals targeted by those drugs, explains Jampolis.
Other potential benefits include relieving PMS symptoms and menstrual cramps as well as supporting brain and eye health. Most of this research has been done with supplements, caveats Jampolis, but “you can get the same dosage by consuming 13 threads of saffron daily for a therapeutic dose, or by incorporating it into your cooking regularly for disease prevention.”
This moderately hot spice is a known weight loss aid, thanks to capsaicin, an active ingredient in cayenne that has been shown to boost metabolism, reduce appetite and increase fat burning, especially when consumed before a meal or workout, explains Jampolis. Research suggests that capsaicin may also help treat GI disorders like irritable bowel syndrome due to its prebiotic properties that support the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut. While most of the research has been done with supplements, which provide a more concentrated dose of capsaicin than what you’d typically consume through regular foods, you can reap certain benefits, like the appetite suppression, by including it in your diet on a regular basis.
This aromatic spice commonly used in baking and beverages has been shown to lower blood glucose levels, and new research suggests it may also hold promise in boosting metabolism as well. Studies so far have typically involved daily consumption of about 1 gram of cinnamon, and but even smaller quantities may have benefits, too.
Health scenarios where you may want to consider spices
If you have mild to moderate symptoms or are concerned about the side effects of prescription medications and prefer to start with a more natural approach, spices may be worth a try, says Jampolis.
Take, for example, cayenne and weight loss. “It’s not a magic bullet by any means, but it could help boost your efforts,” says Jampolis.
Or ginger and nausea. “There aren’t great OTC options [for nausea] so it’s a really good option,” Jampolis adds.
In general, using a variety of spices in your cooking can boost nutrition, add antioxidants and lower inflammation, says Christy Brissette, a Toronto-based registered dietitian and president of 80 Twenty Nutrition.
How to safely incorporate medicinal spices into your diet
If you are considering managing a disease or condition with spices, you should first consult a medical professional (e.g. a nutritionist or physician) as certain spices may interact with and/or contradict other medications you may be taking, says Johane M. Filemon, a registered dietitian.
“Everything with medicinal properties will not work with everyone and can be counterproductive,” she says. “One must be very careful when managing disease using nutrition therapy.”
It’s also important to note that much of the therapeutic research conducted with spices has involved spice extracts, which provide higher doses of the active ingredients than the regular powders you’d pull from your spice rack, says Jampolis. This means that simply sprinkling a few dashes of spice onto your food will probably not provide the same strength of medicinal benefits you may read about.
If you’ve been treating an issue with spices and your symptoms don’t get better in a reasonable period of time, get worse, or you develop other symptoms that may be related to the issue, you should see a doc ASAP, says Jampolis.
Determining the right amount of spice
With spice supplements, it’s very important not to overdo it since these are so concentrated and may have side effects and even drug interactions at higher doses, warns Jampolis.
Too much curcumin, for example, can thin the blood, decrease iron absorption, and may lead to kidney stones. It may also interfere with certain types of breast cancer chemotherapy despite having a potential cancer preventing role, says Jampolis. Excess ginger extract can also thin the blood and may have GI side effects, and high doses of capsaicin can wreak havoc on your gut as well.
Another example: cinnamon. “It can help lower blood sugar, so if you have diabetes or are on blood sugar medication, taking lots of cinnamon could cause your blood sugar to go too low,” says Brissette.
Overall, “you are much less likely to have side effects with the culinary spice versus the extract due to lower concentrations of active ingredients, so in general it is probably a much safer place to start,” says Jampolis.
When it comes to cooking and flavoring your foods, this means “there’s generally no harm in doubling up on the spices you like,” says Rosanne Rust, Pennsylvania-based registered dietitian. “Go ahead and add 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon to your oatmeal or sprinkle it into your coffee.”
But if you’re suffering from a serious condition like diabetes or heart disease, you should continue taking medication as prescribed by your doctor and seek medical nutrition therapy from a registered dietitian. “Spices don’t replace medical care,” says Rust. You should also loop in your doc before ingesting spices via pills, teas, tonics or spoonfuls, regardless of your current health and medication list, says Brissette.