Your guide to healing with spices
Spices have strong pungent flavours compared with the more subtle flavours of herbs. In some cases, the herb and the spice are found in the same plant. A classic example is coriander, in which the leaf is classified as herbal and the seeds are known as spice; similarly with poppy and fennel.
The early traders of spices made vast fortunes from their wares essentially because they offered an exciting new option in flavouring food. It was not until much later that people began to appreciate the medicinal virtues of spices with their use being extended into foods that also served as medicine. Today there’s a vast array of foods on supermarket shelves that rely on spices as the key flavouring. One of the most important and simplest medicinal virtues of spices is they add flavour without fat or calories. Many spices also contain powerful antioxidants, which are of great value in fighting cancer and heart disease. Spices’ ability to combat micro-organisms such as E.coli, staphylococcus, streptococcus and listeria ensure their place in many medicine cabinets. Spices also play an important role in combating fungal diseases such as Candida albicans.
One of the most common of spices is pepper (Piper nigrum). This pungent spice, known as ‘the king of spices’, is available as whole peppercorns or ground. The medicinal virtue of peppercorn is dependent on a property known as piperine and a resin contained within the berry known as chavicin. Green, black and white peppercorns are the same berries in various stages of ripeness. Black pepper has the effect of stimulating tastebuds, thereby producing a reflex increase in gastric secretion or juices, thus aiding digestion. If taken in sufficient quantity, pepper can promote sweating, leading to a perception of coolness. A mild infusion of freshly ground pepper will bring about a warming feeling and will alleviate nausea; it’s also said to help flatulence. Black pepper can promote urine flow, so it should not be taken to excess if one has a urinary complaint. Traditional medicinal use of pepper includes warm infusions as a gargle to deaden toothache and as a tea to reduce fevers. Pepper can be added to your shampoo to alleviate problems associated with dandruff and head lice. In the past, pepper has been prescribed in the treatment of paralysis of the tongue, vertigo, cholera and venereal disease. Pepper is available as whole peppercorns, cracked or ground. As with many of the aromatic spice seeds, it’s best to buy whole peppercorns and grind them yourself.
Few spices can match the worldwide popularity of Ginger (Zingiber officinale). In modern China, ginger features in almost half of all medicines. Much of the medicinal virtue of ginger is found in its essential oil, which contains many potent properties. Ginger has the ability to relax intestinal muscles, which in turn eases stomach cramps and spasms. It is also considered an excellent aid to digestion. Ginger tea will stimulate liver action, which then assists in removing harmful toxins from the bloodstream. Studies have shown that ginger has useful anti-inflammatory properties and assists some people suffering from the symptoms of arthritis. Other studies have indicated that ginger may be useful in inhibiting gastric ulceration. Ginger can in some cases help reduce the effects of pregnancy-related nausea, however the general recommendation is that a pregnant woman should not take more than 1000mg a day. Conversely, hot ginger tea has been recommended in the case of delayed periods. Ginger should be avoided if gall bladder disease is present.
From ancient times ginger has been considered an excellent remedy for motion sickness, in particular seasickness and airsickness. Indeed, some airlines have been known to offer ginger tablets to passengers troubled by airsickness. An old remedy for a nagging period pain was to apply freshly cut ginger to the umbilicus [belly button]; for this kind of use the ginger should be fresh enough to have its own natural moisture. The method of application is best achieved by using an ordinary band-aid. Hot water infused with a little grated ginger and sweetened with honey is an excellent pick-me-up in cases of flu or colds. Ginger tea as a gargle can also bring relief to a sore and irritable throat. Modern research has indicated that in some cases ginger can exert migraine-relieving and preventative activity. Ginger has proven effective anti-microbial and antioxidant properties which assist its food preserving qualities. Clinical studies have confirmed that ginger did not affect blood lipid or blood sugar levels when administered at a 4g daily dose for three months.
Ginger is available in many forms either encapsulated, as a ground powder, crystallised in sugar, cooked in syrup, in ready-made sauces and, of course, fresh, then known as a ‘hand’. A word of caution, however, when consuming crystallised ginger: be aware it is very high in carbohydrates.
Delicious overtones of clove, nutmeg and cinnamon give allspice (Pimenta officinalis) its well-deserved common name. However, the more correct name for allspice is pimento or Jamaica pepper. Allspice is the small unripe fruit of a tree native to the West Indies and Central America. An infusion of a few berries is good for relieving flatulent colic and as an aid in treating dyspepsia. Allspice has an anaesthetic effect when used in ointments. To make a simple rub, simmer a tablespoon of allspice berries in 200ml of olive oil, remove from heat after 20 minutes and allow to cool, strain through a flannel cloth and bottle. Use the allspice oil for relieving arthritic pains and sore joints.
An infusion of allspice can be applied to wounds and sores to aid in the healing process as it has good antiseptic properties. A little of the infused crushed allspice taken as a tea will sweeten bad breath and aid digestion and griping stomach pains. Allspice tea has also been used to stimulate appetite and the gastrointestinal tract. You can enjoy to a lesser degree the same warming and stimulating effect with fresh allspice leaves in a tea. Allspice is harmless in small doses, but it should be treated with discretion and caution as large doses can be toxic due to the large proportion of eugenol oil present in the berry. It should certainly be avoided during pregnancy and in cases of inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Allspice is available as small dried berries or finely ground powder.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) was once used in witch’s spells and in the embalming process. However, it’s far more practical in modern times to use cinnamon for its exotic flavour and medicinal virtues. Cinnamon has long been valued for its ability to relieve nausea and vomiting, particularly in cases of excessive alcohol intake. A small pinch of cinnamon powder taken with black tea will aid digestion and help settle a ‘windy tummy’. Powdered cinnamon simmered in warm milk with a little honey is a soothing drink against the effects of diarrhoea and excessive flatulence. Cinnamon also had the reputation of being an aphrodisiac and sexual stimulant for females.
Chinese cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia) has similar properties to Ceylon cinnamon. Both cinnamon and cassia are the dried outer bark of the tree and are available in dried powder form or as sticks, commercially known as quills. Chinese cinnamon is sold commercially as cassia.
Few people could fail to recognise the heady pungent aroma of clove (Eugenia caryophyllus). Clove is actually the dried unopened flower bud of a tree in the myrtle family. Rich in a powerful oil known as eugenol, the antiseptic and pain-relieving properties of clove have long ensured its use in medicine. A tincture of clove applied morning and night has long been valued in the treatment of fungal infections such as ringworm and athlete’s foot. The powerful germicidal properties of clove ensure its value in treating open wounds and decayed teeth. By chewing on a clove bud one can anaesthetise the area of an aching tooth until proper help from the dentist is at hand. Cloves can also be a very effective antidote to bad breath. However, excessive use of clove breath fresheners should be avoided as it can cause gum irritation, possibly leading to long-term damage.
Clove oil is useful in easing rheumatism and neuralgic pains. A little rubbed on the temples will sometimes help in easing a headache as it helps promote circulation. You can use either the pure essential oil or make a less powerful solution yourself by simply gently heating cloves in olive oil and applying when cool. A weak clove tea is an excellent remedy against nausea, bloated tummy feeling, indigestion and pregnancy-related vomiting. Cloves are available as either ground powder or whole clove buds. When choosing your cloves it’s preferable to choose whole buds rather than powder. The buds should be plump and deep brown in colour as this is a good indication that they’re still rich in volatile oils.
Mace is the outer husk of the seed or fruit we know as nutmeg. A somewhat unorthodox remedy for itching of the anus or piles was to take a small tub of plain yogurt and liberally grate nutmeg through it; this was then applied to the affected part. Nutmeg is considered to have nerve-relaxant properties and is often used in drinks to aid in the treatment of nervous tension, exhaustion and in particular insomnia. Since both nutmeg and mace are rich in the property myristicin, which has the effect of causing drowsiness, one should avoid driving after over-indulgence in them. Nutmeg is an excellent remedy against excessive flatulence. Mace has similar properties and actions to those of nutmeg with particular emphasis on increased body heat and promoting circulation. A nutmeg placed in one’s underpants was once reputed to be a remedy for cramps and rheumatics. Nutmegs are available in small packets of whole seeds; powdered is another option but not necessarily the best one, as many of the volatile properties are lost in the grinding process. Mace is also available in powder form. When buying nutmegs from the supermarket, try to pick those that are small and heavy for their size as they’re often the most saturated in the all-important essential oil. Nutmeg is narcotic so should not be taken to excess, as large doses will dramatically excite the motor cortex of the brain, bringing on convulsions, seizures and disorientation. Naturally, pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid nutmeg.
The sweet and spicy fruit of anise Pimpinella anisum, more popularly known as aniseed, is often classed as a herb and yet by its very nature falls more easily into the spice category. As far back as 1551, aniseed was promoted as a breath freshener. Today that claim is still valid, with aniseed being used in lozenges to sweeten breath and ease the pain of indigestion. Anise is said to be particularly useful as a remedy for insomnia when taken with warm milk. Anise tea has long been a popular remedy for easing dry coughs and respiratory ailments, in particular bronchial complaints. Folk legend has it that regular consumption of aniseed will aid a failing memory. It has also been used as a deodorant. Nursing mothers of past times were great users of aniseed in the belief that aniseed tea promoted the flow of milk. Anise is not available from all supermarkets. Where it is commercially available it comes in small packets of seeds.
There are a number of different mustards used as a condiment, including black, yellow, brown and white, all of which come from different plants, but they are all of the same family. By far the most pungent of the mustards is the black mustard (Brassica nigra), the least being yellow mustard. Mustard has the action of increasing the flow of saliva and gastric juices, thereby benefiting digestion. Black mustard seeds are especially rich in the irritating properties that assist in the healing process. A liniment plaster of crushed mustard seeds can be an effective promoter of circulation as well as a short-term remedy for aches and pains. For quick relief the seeds can be warmed before application. Mustard plasters should not be left in place too long as they can cause excessive irritation and, in some cases, blisters. A weak infusion of mustard seed will aid in constipation complaints, acid indigestion and chronic bronchitis. It has long been considered that such a beverage is also an excellent remedy against repetitive hiccough. A mustard bath consisting of hot water and crushed seeds makes an invigorating footbath to allay the discomfort of colds and flu; a mustard foot bath can also help relieve a headache by its action of promoting blood flow. Mustard is available as seeds, dried powder or as a preparation in which the seeds are held in suspension by other ingredients.
The great 16th century herbalist John Gerard proclaimed that cayenne (Capsicum frutescens) could ‘kill dogs’. No doubt this statement is true if sufficient quantities of this hot spice are fed to unfortunate dogs. Despite the fact that cayenne is native to South America it is also known as African pepper, Guinea pepper or Bird Pepper. However, its other name, chilli, is in far more common use than others.
Red pepper (Capsicum annuum) has very similar properties to those of cayenne. Chillies are rich in compounds known as phytochemicals, especially in the property capsaicin. It is this property that makes chilli an effective mask of pain. Chilli is extremely irritating both internally and externally. The perceived heat generated by consumption of chilli creates perspiration, which in turn creates a sense of coolness. A simple ointment made by mixing ground chilli peppers in a standard vitamin E cream can be used to stimulate blood flow to an area affected by arthritic pain, lumbago, rheumatism or neuralgia, but again it should be stressed that it is a mask for pain and not always a cure.
There has long been the belief that a mild infusion of chilli can assist with addiction to alcohol. Similarly, a chilli infusion with its bacteria-destroying properties, is considered a general tonic that helps to keep colds and general ailments at bay. Mild chilli tea has been recommended as a stimulating remedy for loss of appetite and weak digestion. Tincture of chilli has been prescribed in the treatment of chilblains. It has often been erroneously suggested that peptic ulcers are a result of heavy consumption of spices, in particular, chilli, but modern research confirms it is not irritation by spices that causes ulcer but rather a bacterium in most cases. Chilli is generally available as either a ground powder or dried fruit. It is also available in preparations such as chilli sauces and paste.
A mild infusion of fennel fruits/seed (Foeniculum vulgare), sodium bicarbonate and syrup has long been a traditional remedy for flatulent colic in infants. Chewing fennel seeds can also help to increase appetite, ease nausea and aid digestion. A healthy snack to achieve these results can be made by lightly roasting a few fennel seeds in a wok and serving warm. A gargle of fennel tea has been usefully used in cases of pharyngitis and to allay the discomfort of mouth and throat infections.
Fennel has long held the reputation as a dieters’ spice; indeed, in 1650 the herbalist William Cole stated, “Both the seeds, leaves and root of our garden fennel are much used in drinks and broths for those that are grown fat, to abate their unwieldiness.” The ancient Greek word for fennel, ‘marathron’, derived from the word ‘maraino’ meaning to ‘grow thin’, quite likely gave rise to the 16th century opinion. There is no evidence that fennel leads to a weight loss, but we should not discount the value of adding flavour to a broth without additional calories. Self-medicating with pure essential oil of fennel should be avoided at all costs as in some cases the reaction can be very severe to the point of inducing madness and extreme hallucinations. The oil is particularly toxic to young children.
One of the most colourful of spices, turmeric (Curcuma longa) lends a brilliant yellow to all it touches. The bitter and pungent flavour of turmeric is especially valued in Indian and Asian cuisine. Turmeric is considered a powerful anti-inflammatory aid and thus of some assistance in easing the inflammation of joints, particularly in cases of arthritis. In some countries, turmeric is used as a poultice to reduce swelling from sprains. There are some recorded studies from The American Health Foundation of New York confirming that turmeric extract has been of assistance in cases of oral cancer and colon cancer. A study recorded in the European Journal of Pharmacology, 1992 vol 221, further enhances turmeric’s reputation as a heart tonic in describing how when subjects took 500mg of turmeric extract daily over a period of seven days there was a significant lowering of blood cholesterol coupled with lowered blood lipid peroxide levels, thus neutralising free radical activity linked to cardiovascular disease problems.
Turmeric has been found to inhibit the growth of internal parasites and fungi and offers general protection against harmful bacteria. While it is still early days, some trials are taking place in America with turmeric extracts that indicate patients with low immune activity may receive benefits from turmeric treatment. Such a trial may have long-term benefits for those suffering from HIV-related disorders such as AIDS. A preliminary report presented at the 1994 International Conference on AIDS in San Francisco has indicated an improved immune response with some patients receiving turmeric treatments while suffering from HIV infections. Turmeric is available as a ground powder or as whole rhizomes. The lateral secondary rhizomes, known as ‘fingers’, are said to be higher in medicinal properties than the powder. It has been suggested that to receive the maximum medicinal benefit from turmeric, one should consume up to 500mg three times daily.
Caraway (Carum carvi) was an important ingredient in love potions in the belief that lovers would not stray from each other. Most fans of caraway are not so concerned about such trivial matters, choosing instead to simply enjoy this extraordinary spice for its many culinary and medicinal virtues. Caraway has tiny fruits/seeds that have lovely overtones of anise flavours with a sharp aroma. These seeds have been used over many centuries as a remedy for various complaints, in particular bronchitis, dyspepsia and flatulence. An infusion of caraway seeds sweetened with honey was once a popular remedy for infant colic and flatulence. A side dish of caraway seeds served with a rich meal will aid digestion. Caraway is an excellent accompaniment to those foods likely to cause ‘wind in the belly’ such as cabbage and some beans. It was once considered a women’s spice on account of its use in relieving menstrual pain and stimulating milk flow in nursing mothers. When buying caraway be sure to look for plump, light brown seeds. Those seeds that are dark brown, lack aroma and have a shriveled appearance have more often than not had their volatile oils extracted.
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) is considered more medicinally virtuous than its counterparts, fennel and caraway, yet it is not as popular because many people consider it an acquired taste. Nevertheless it is valued as one of the classic digestive spices and has long been used in the treatment of colic and flatulence. An infusion of the seeds with a little honey was considered an agreeable appetite stimulant. Vets have also prescribed it as a carminative. Cumin is available in seed form.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) owes its name in part to the word ‘koros’, meaning bug or insect, alluding to the strong smell of the leaves. The fruit/seeds of coriander have a much more agreeable fragrance with tasty overtones of caraway and lemon. A warm infusion of seeds will aid digestion and allay the symptoms of stomach cramp. Similarly, an infusion of coriander seeds has been prescribed in complaints of the urinary tract and cystitis. It is best to use the dried seeds as fresh as possible and prepare them as needed as they rapidly lose their volatile properties when ground.
Thousands of years ago, someone came across a plant in the wild forests of southern India and figured out that if you crushed the fruits/seeds, much pleasure was to be had. Thus a love for cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) began that continues to flourish worldwide. The sweet, almost floral flavour of cardamom has ensured its use as a popular addition to bitter drinks, in particular coffee. Cardamom’s medicinal virtue lies in the fact that it has carminative properties and is an excellent mask to other medicinals of a purgative nature. Crushed cardamom seeds made into a warm tea are a traditional remedy against flatulence and indigestion. Similarly, cardamom tea is an excellent remedy in coughs, colds and bronchitis. Smokers used to chew cardamom seeds to sweeten their breath; cardamom seeds can also mask the smell of alcohol on the breath. Cardamom can be bought as whole dried seeds, pods or ground powder. It has long been considered that whole pods are better for their medicinal virtues as the loose seeds or ground powder have already lost some of their important volatile properties. When buying whole pods be sure to remove the papery husk or pod before grinding the seeds.
Galangal (Alpinia officinarum) is a member of the gingerroot family which, although less pungent than ginger, nevertheless has ginger-type flavours with peppery overtones. As with ginger, galangal is often recommended as a remedy for sea-sickness. The fresh rhizome grated into a tea is considered a wonderful tonic and stimulant for those ‘feeling down days’. Galangal is available as dried powder or some gourmet sections of supermarkets stock it as a fresh or dried whole rhizome. Finally, one should always consult a professional naturopath, medical herbalist or doctor when in any doubt as to a spice’s effect, or if suffering from any disease, injury or illness. All spices, whether used for culinary or medicinal purposes, should be viewed with caution, and care should be exercised in ensuring they are not used to excess, even if they’re considered safe. Hopefully, when you’re next in a supermarket you will look with a little more interest at the spices section, knowing they are much more than mere flavourings.