The other day I was eating a banana and decided to dip it in some fresh pumpkin butter that I had bought. At no other time of year would this “pumpkin” thoughtseed ever float through my head, but ’tis the season, right?
We use fall spices at this time of year to enhance our dishes, but for some of you it might come as a surprise that spices, especially holiday spices, have tremendous health benefits. With the holiday season upon us, and pumpkin spice everything, everywhere, I thought I’d share what I know about these medicinal and delicious spices. You’ll never look at pumpkin pie the same way again. Take a look at the healing potential of these holiday spices:
Cinnamon – Cinnamon is a blend of various compounds that’s sprinkled in both sweet and savory dishes. Cinnamon is thought to aid in regulating blood sugar in people with hyperglycemia, pre-diabetes and diabetes. It works by blocking digestive enzymes such as alpha-glucosidase, sucrose and pancreatic amylase which blunts the amount of sugar released into your bloodstream. Cinnamon also contains MHCP (methylhydroxychalcone polymer) which acts similar to your own insulin, shuttling sugar out of your bloodstream and into your cells (that’s what you want). Insulin will do that within 10 minutes, whereas cinnamon might take up to an hour.
Clinical trials in humans have also shown that cinnamon has a lot of promise in reducing blood glucose levels and it also increases insulin sensitivity. Cinnamon extracts have also been used to improve biomarkers of fat metabolism such as total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides.
Clove – We call it “clove” because none of us want to call it by its botanical name, syzygium aromaticum! If you love Chai Tea, or Masala Chai, you must like the taste of cloves because this is an integral part of chai recipes. Cloves are native to Indonesia and have fantastic health benefits. If you have dental pain, you can put a drop of clove essential oil in water and have sips. You can also put some clove essential oil onto a Q-tip and dab your achy tooth. Aside from toothaches and gum problems, clove can help with many respiratory diseases, Candida, headaches and throat infections. Some men report that it improves their libido which makes sense: clove is known to enhance testosterone, at least in animal studies.
Nutmeg – Feeling blue around the holidays? Nutmeg is your antidepressant spice and can be sprinkled on top of coffee, hot chocolate, pumpkin pie and sweet potato dishes. The recipes are endless. Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) supports nervous system health and mood, plus this one is good for your digestion. Like clove, nutmeg possesses some aphrodisiac qualities.
In an animal study, nutmeg extract was given to mice for three days and it reduced signs of depression. This was measured by a forced swim and tail suspension test. The researchers concluded that the efficacy of nutmeg extract was so profound it was virtually comparable to shots of antidepressant drugs, namely imipramine (Tofranil) and fluoxetine (Prozac). Another interesting little-known fact is that nutmeg can help mice with lung inflammation and asthma symptoms due to its high content of another compound called macelignan.
You know how you have been trained to breathe in relaxing aromas of lavender in order to sleep at night? Well, inhaling nutmeg scent is actually better! According to a study in The International Journal of Molecular Science, “Nutmeg oil afforded a greater inhibitory effect than did lavender oil.” The reason it works is because nutmeg is a CNS (central nervous system) tonic that contains a potent anxiolytic called 4-terpineol. This same compound, incidentally, is in Tea Tree Oil (which you cannot take internally). Anyway, nutmeg essential oil contains 4-terpineol and it potentiates the GABA receptor rather remarkably. It increases activity of GABA in your body, and simultaneously dampens down the excitatory compound called glutamate. GABA and Glutamate live on a see-saw. When GABA is high, you’re relaxed, if not asleep! When glutamate is high, you might be in pain, experiencing migraines or insomnia, or having a panic attack or bout of terror. By the way, eating a lot of tofu or seitan or other manufactured foods high in glutamate and MSG will trigger elevated glutamate. Remember the G in “MSG” is glutamate so you don’t need to be a benzo sufferer to encounter the same painful symptoms they do, you just need to have damaged the GABA to Glutamate ratio in your brain. So, turkey is definitely better than Tofurkey in that regard, especially if you’re prone to the above glutamate-driven symptoms.
Think of nutmeg like you would a natural benzodiazepine! Those are Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan and others. Like a benzo, compounds in nutmeg increase GABA activity, which is your relaxation hormone. It’s wonderful for regular people but I need to caution those of you in the benzo community who are still recovering or struggling. If you are in PAWS (Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome) then you should avoid sprinkling nutmeg on your eggnog until your receptors start to upregulate and heal. They will do that if you hold on… and please hold on! The topic of benzo and PAWS is covered in some of my other articles on my website.
Nutmeg has been associated with inducing hallucinations and a state of euphoria when abused or misused and taken in large, harmful quantities such as supplements. A friend of a friend of mine loves eggnog but last year, she started hallucinating (no joke!) because of the amount of nutmeg she put in it! Granted, I think she also had too much wine, so maybe the combination assaulted her GABA receptors and caused this.
Anise – This is what makes licorice taste good! Known botanically as Pimpinella anisum, anise is an aromatic plant and has been utilized in Indian and Iranian cultures as a form of traditional medicine for centuries. A scientific review of the research work from 1970 to 2011 done on Anise seeds included many studies that have shown various effects on different parts of your body.
I found 15 studies in total proving anise extract has an anti-everything effect on your body! Think of this spice as an antibiotic. The extract has potent antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties!
Anise oil (as opposed to licorice candy) has shown benefits to your stomach and entire gastrointestinal system, even helping with ulcers, nausea, indigestion, bloating and constipation. There are at least eight studies to confirm that anise seeds contain a compound that plays a role in controlling epilepsy, and the number of seizures one might suffer. Obviously, you want to ask your doctor if this is something that you can try because I don’t know if everyone will get benefit, or experience unwanted side effects. The point is that something natural like anise might be good as an adjunct if you suffer with a seizure disorder. Aside from that, some studies suggest it reduces pain, even menstrual pain and can help with hot flashes too.
Cardamom– Another delicious flavor in Chai Tea recipes, this is a very potent antioxidant. This is commonly used in cuisine for flavor and helps with digestion and metabolism.
In a research study, 80 overweight (or obese) pre-diabetic women were randomly assigned to two groups. The intervention group received 3 grams of green cardamom while the placebo group got a placebo. The study went on for 8 weeks. Various biomarkers including lipid profile, fasting blood sugar, insulin levels, BMI (body mass index), blood pressure, physical activity level, diet, insulin resistance and insulin sensitivity were recorded before and after the trial. The results showed that total cholesterol, and LDL (“bad” cholesterol) decreased significantly, while insulin sensitivity increased. This is really great so if you can cook with cardamom, please do so.
I also want to take a moment to tell you that fresh spices are so much healthier than bottled, commercial ones that have been sitting on retail shelves for God knows how long. If you ever have the time to ground your own cardamom seeds, you’ll notice the difference immediately between that and a bottled version. So for the most aromatic flavor, buy cardamom pods, shell them yourself, and then grind the black seeds in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder.
The difference between grinding them yourself and buying commercial brands is dramatic… it’s almost night and day. Same goes for nutmeg – in fact, I have a tiny nutmeg grinder that looks just like a mini cheese grater – it’s both adorable and functional.
If you can’t take the time to grind your own spices, no worries, just choose organic spices that are high-quality from a store that specializes in spices and herbs. And for a twist on pumpkin pie this year, add a bit of cardamom (about 1/8 of a teaspoon). It will make your homemade pie taste slightly more mysterious, adding a sophisticated note that is hard to identify but delicious just the same.
Now that you know about all these health benefits to holiday spices, your pie (and eggnog) will never be the same.
Suzy Cohen, has been a licensed pharmacist for over 30 years and believes the best approach to chronic illness is a combination of natural medicine and conventional. She founded her own dietary supplement company specializing in custom-formulas, some of which have patents. With a special focus on functional medicine, thyroid health and drug nutrient depletion, Suzy is the author of several related books including Thyroid Healthy, Drug Muggers, Diabetes Without Drugs, and a nationally syndicated column.