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[Editor’s note] This post was originally published in February 2017. It has been updated and republished in May 2019.
They’re perhaps most prized in modern times for their ability to add a flavorful punch to food. But what can herbs, spices, and botanical extracts offer us beyond just pleasurable tastes and aromas during mealtime? A whole lot, it turns out. The array of healthy herbs and spices that our plant world has to offer us expands our palates and perks up our dinner plates. But even more importantly, they can also perform important restorative functions throughout our bodies to help keep us healthy, vibrant, and disease-free.
While there are hundreds (if not thousands) of exceptional healthy herb and spice options out there to choose from that meet these qualifications, I’d like to introduce you to 11 specific ones that I see as especially noteworthy for two reasons:
#1 – Each of these healthy herbs and spices is distinctly potent for healing, and many of them can make excellent additions to your favorite meal dishes, depending on your personal taste preferences.
#2 – They’re all relatively easy to find and easy on the wallet.
So let’s dive in and see what each one has to offer…
No Indian meal would be complete without it. Turmeric, the dazzling curry ingredient that many refer to as the “golden spice.” Its exotic flavor and brilliant color profile are accentuated by its profound anti-inflammatory properties, which have been the subject of extensive scientific research over many years. Turmeric’s pain-relieving, immune-modulating, heavy metal-detoxifying, and cancer-preventing benefits are so pronounced that this flavorful relative of ginger is said to be among the world’s most therapeutic natural substances.
There are at least 580 different ways in which turmeric can help the body, not the least of which include its ability to prevent and fight cancer, mitigate radioactive exposure, protect against disease-causing inflammation, and bolster brain health. This would explain why turmeric has long held premier status in Indian Ayurvedic medicine for nearly 6,000 years.
#2: Chili Pepper
It doesn’t matter whether it’s added to Mexican, Chinese, Indian, or Thai food… chili pepper performs the same sensory function in each case: it gives food a spicy kick! Much of this kick comes from a special compound found in chili pepper known as capsaicin that stops the body from producing damaging inflammation. Capsaicin also helps relieve pain and promote nerve health, making it an excellent choice for people with arthritis looking for natural relief.
Capsaicin, which is also found in cayenne, jalapeños, and other several other nightshades, has been shown in peer-reviewed studies to fight cancer as well. One paper published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, for instance, found that capsaicin is powerfully chemo-protective, as well as a promoter of apoptosis − meaning it causes cancer cells to commit cell “suicide.”
#3: Rhodiola Rosea
An adaptogenic herb also known as “golden root,” rhodiola rosea has the generalized effect of helping the body to effectively navigate our volatile and oftentimes stressful world. On the one hand, it can directly combat the damaging effects of environmental pollution inside our bodies, while on the other it can help to keep our minds clear and our blood pressure levels in check during, say, a stressful bout of heavy traffic. This powerful healing herb also helps the body to burn fat while producing more energy, as well as lower cortisol levels, improve brain function, and fight depression.
Rhodiola is notably beneficial for athletes, as it aids red blood cells in delivering more oxygen to muscles. Studies have also shown that rhodiola can invoke an anti-inflammatory response in the body as well, helping to boost athletic performance and improve muscle recovery. The cortisol-lowering properties of rhodiola are further beneficial for athletes and non-athletes alike, helping to balance thyroid function and thus optimize hormone production.
There are 11 different varieties of this well-known, root-based herb, which is among the most popular native remedies in the world. Ginseng is widely used to treat headaches, promote fertility, improve digestion, and boost energy levels. It’s also used to strengthen the immune system so it can better fight off infections, as well as aid in sexual healing and rejuvenation.
Ginseng’s botanical name in Greek, “Panax,” has a literal translation of “all heal,” suggesting that this amazing herb is an all-encompassing healing agent of the highest order. Scientific research would suggest that this is most certainly true, one major facet of which is ginseng’s amazing ability to keep disease-causing inflammation at bay. Ginseng is also a powerful anti-cancer herb, helping to improve the function of natural killer cells while minimizing oxidative stress throughout the body.
#5: Ginkgo Biloba
This ancient Chinese herb has a solid track record of therapeutic use that extends thousands of years. This is hardly surprising when considering that ginkgo biloba exhibits powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-modulating effects that are well-documented in the scientific literature. Many people use ginkgo regularly to help improve memory, mood, and brain function, and science suggests that this herb can also help increase energy and improve focus. All good things if you’re a busy person who deals with constant stress.
Specifically in terms of its cerebral-enhancing effects, ginkgo really stands out from the rest for its incredible ability to prevent, and even reverse, cognitive decline and neurodegeneration, while also helping to lift one’s spirits and improve feelings of calm and contentment. Nervous system disorders like fibromyalgia also respond positively to ginkgo.
In the same vein, bacopa is another Ayurvedic herb that shows incredible healing benefits for brain health, specifically as it relates to concentration and memory. Like ginkgo, bacopa has an adaptogenic effect in helping to mitigate stress and stress-related health conditions. This is further emphasized by its ability to modulate the brain’s production of dopamine and other “feel-good” chemicals as needed. Bacopa also helps relieve anxiety and depression, and studies show that it can help to ward off degenerative brain conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
A member of both the Vinca and Catharanthus genus of flowering plants, periwinkle likewise has an extensive history of use in Ayurveda. It has been traditionally used to aid with a wide array of health conditions ranging from bee stings to diabetes to cancer. Periwinkle is loaded with vinca alkaloids that research shows are powerfully cytotoxic − meaning they kill cancer cells. In addition to helping lower blood pressure and fight off pathogens, vinca alkaloids are so effective in healing cancer that they are said to be the second-most-used class of cancer “drugs” in modern medicine.
Technically a legume, this immune-boosting powerhouse of an herb has been a staple in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. A powerful adaptogen like some of the previously mentioned herbs, astragalus contains an array of saponins, flavonoids, polysaccharides, and other unique compounds that boost immunity, protect against heart disease, ward off bacteria and viruses, and improve cellular communication. When it comes to cancer, astragalus has been shown to break down and eliminate tumors. It’s also known for its ability to target the inflammatory responses that, in many cases, cause healthy cells to go rogue and become cancerous in the first place.
#9: Holy Basil
Yet another adaptogenic herb with a rich history in the Ayurvedic tradition, holy basil is often brewed as a tea to help calm the nerves and balance blood sugar levels. But its abilities extend far beyond just a warming nightcap. It can help to restore proper functionality to both the thyroid and adrenal glands, which often take a big hit in our fast-paced and increasingly-polluted world. What makes holy basil special in this regard, along with rhodiola, ginseng, and some of the other adaptogenic herbs previously mentioned, is the fact that this herb isn’t a stimulant. And yet its stress-relieving properties help in a tremendous way to normalize adrenal function, which in turn helps boost energy levels, focus, and mental stability.
Holy basil also helps to fight cancer, exhibiting powerful anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties that protect nearly every system of the body from breakdown − including vital organs and the cellular system. Antioxidant phytonutrients in holy basil further help to promote healthy gene expression, as well as inhibit cancer metastasis and tumor growth. They’ve even exhibited a direct effect in destroying cancer cells.
#10: Lemon Balm
Not to be confused with the delectable citrus fruit of the same name, lemon balm is an herb that hails from the mint family. This healthy herb is one that many people use aromatherapeutically to promote calm, peace of mind, and as a natural progression of all this, restful sleep. Beyond tranquility, lemon balm also functions energetically, helping to sharpen memory, boost alertness, and improve overall mood.
Like many of the other herbs we’ve already covered, lemon balm is a powerful antioxidant that prevents cancer-causing free radical damage throughout the body − ultimately helping to prevent the formation of chronic disease. Lemon balm also serves as a potent liver tonic, helping to detoxify chemicals and other poisons that can overwhelm this important cleansing organ. One way that it does this is by aiding in the liver’s production of two of the most important antioxidants that our bodies need for health: glutathione and superoxide dismutase.
One of my favorite healthy herbs simply due to its intoxicating aroma, rosemary is a well-known woodsy herb with citrus overtones that is popular in many culinary and cultural traditions. Its various constituents have been shown to help improve cognitive performance and mood, and many people say that rosemary helps them to think better and perform daily tasks more efficiently and effectively.
Two key constituents of rosemary, caffeic acid and rosemarinic acid, are potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that studies have shown help protect the body against free radical damage. Rosemary also contains a substance known as carnosol that helps to rid the body of toxic substances that can lead to the formation of breast cancer. Additionally, a study out of Australia found that rosemary possesses generalized anti-tumoral properties that help to prevent cancers of the colon, liver, stomach, skin, and blood.
Healthy herbs and spices perform important restorative functions throughout our bodies to help keep us healthy, vibrant, and disease-free.
The herbs listed in this article were chosen because:
- Each of these healthy herbs and spices is distinctly potent for healing
- They’re all relatively easy to find and easy on the wallet
11 Herbs and spices to prevent disease:
- Chili pepper
- Rhodiola rosea
- Ginkgo biloba
- Holy basil
- Lemon balm