Fight Chronic Inflammation with Herbs and Spices

History tells us that herbs and spices have been prized for use in healing, cosmetics, and flavoring food since 3500 BC. Ancient Egyptians considered them treasures, and those who controlled the spice trade were very wealthy. Empires have been won and lost in the historic battle to flavor our food and heal our bodies with peppercorns, turmeric, and mace. Today, herbs and spices are inexpensive, plentiful, and available at your local grocer, farmers market, or fresh from your own garden.

What is the difference between herbs and spices?

Herbs are obtained from herbaceous non-woody plants. Herbs often are used in larger amounts than spices in cooking and some, such as peppermint, have medicinal value. They originated from temperate climates, such as Italy, France and England. Examples of common herbs are basil, oregano, parsley, sage, oregano, chives and mint.

In contrast, spices are obtained form roots, flowers, fruits, seeds or bark. They are native to warm tropical climates and can be woody or herbaceous plants. Spices often are more potent and stronger flavored than herbs; as a result they typically are used in smaller amounts.1 Common spices include cinnamon (bark), ginger (root), nutmeg (seed), vanilla (undeveloped fruit of an orchid), turmeric (root) and cumin (seed).

Some plants are both herbs and spices. The herb cilantro is from the leaf of Coriandrum satvum, while the spice coriander is from the plant’s seeds. Luckily for us, herbs and spices not only enliven our taste buds but they have incredible powers to fight disease. In an age where two out of three Americans live with some form of chronic disease (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, obesity, and irritable bowel syndrome), many herbs and spices contain anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic and antioxidant compounds, and healing properties. Antioxidants are substances and nutrients in our food that attract unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals that can otherwise damage cells and cause diseases such as cancer. The Food Philosopher 2009 menu features at least nine disease-fighting herbs and spices, including basil (appetizer), turmeric (in curried fish), cumin and mint (in Raita), and oregano (in the grilled vegetables).


This popular culinary flavoring, a relative of peppermint and a heart-healthy herb, helps promote cardiovascular health because it contains the flavonoids orientin and vicenin. These plant compounds help prevent free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol in the blood stream, which in turn inhibits cholesterol build up in the blood vessels (preventing atherosclerosis whose end result can be a heart attack or stroke). Basil is also a very good source of the anti-oxidant vitamin A (through its concentration of carotenoids such as beta-carotene) and the mineral magnesium. The beta-carotene found in basil also lessens the progression of chronic disease by preventing free radical damage in the cells of the body. Magnesium helps to maintain healthy blood pressure by preventing abnormal blood clotting. In addition, the oil in fresh basil leaves has immune boosting antibacterial properties that help to combat viral infections.


Turmeric is a bright, deep yellow rhizome, similar in size and shape to its relative, ginger. It is mostly sold as a spice powder and the major ingredient in most commercial curries, contributing flavor as well as the yellow color. Both an anti-inflammatory and an antibacterial, turmeric has long been revered by many Asian cultures as a symbol of fertility. It also is used to aid digestion by fighting bacteria commonly responsible for infectious diarrhea. In India, turmeric is promoted as an anti-inflammatory herbal remedy and is said to produce fewer side effects than commonly used pain relievers. Some practitioners prescribe turmeric to relieve inflammation caused by arthritis, muscle sprains, swelling, and pain caused by injuries or surgical incisions. It is also promoted as a treatment for rheumatism and as an antiseptic for cleaning wounds. In addition, turmeric contains the antioxidant curcumin, which has been found to hinder the growth of mutated cells associated with cancer of the breast, skin, and colon, as well as lymphoma. Curcumin can kill cancer cells in laboratory tests and also has been found to shrink animal cancer tumors.2


Cumin is a small annual plant of the parsley family with a strong spicy, sweet aroma and a slightly nutty bitter taste. This spice, in powder or seed form, was used by the Egyptians 5,000 years ago and is popular today in highly spiced cuisines, such as Mexican, Indian and Middle Eastern. Cumin is widely used to ease stomach and gastrointestinal disorders because it stimulates the secretion of pancreatic enzymes that help with digestion and nutrient assimilation.3 Cumin is rich in iron, which is excellent for energy and keeping the immune system healthy. It is also a good source of manganese, a detoxifying antioxidant mineral in our body necessary for normal brain and nerve function.


There are over 18 species of this aromatic perennial and most contain menthol, a compound known for its cooling analgesic and anesthetic (pain relieving) qualities. Essential mint oils and mint teas are used to treat indigestion, respiratory problems, headache, nausea, fever, stomach and bowel spasms and pain. Fresh mint leaves contain the nonnutritive dietary component perillyl alcohol. In animal studies it has been shown to regress pancreatic, mammary, and liver tumors, to exhibit possible cancer prevention applications (chemopreventative) for colon, skin, and lung cancer, and as a chemotherapeutic agent for neuroblastoma (cancer of the nerve tissue), and prostate and colon cancer. Perillyl alcohol is active in killing tumor cells without affecting normal cells and can revert tumor cells back to a differentiated state.4 Fresh mint is rich in Vitamin A, C, B12, thiamine, folic and riboflavin. The leaves also contain manganese, copper, potassium, iron and calcium.


This bushy spicy perennial not only makes a beautiful edible ground cover but, a recent Department of Agriculture study shows oregano offers more antioxidant activity than other cooking herbs. On a per gram fresh weight basis, oregano leaves have 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 30 times more than potatoes, 12 times more than oranges and 4 times more than blueberries. It also contains the flavonoid quercetin, which may protect against breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers.5 The volatile oils in this spice include thymol and carvacrol, both of which have been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus. Two teaspoons of oregano provide us with a very good dietary source of iron, manganese and fiber, as well as a good source of calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids.

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  1. 1. Spicer, F. (2003). Herbs versus spices. Horticulture and Home Pest News. Iowa State University Extension Service IC-489(21). Accessed August 28, 2009 from
  2. American Cancer Society (2008). Turmeric. Accessed August 31, 2009 from
  3. Clevely, A., Richmond, K., Morris, S., & Mackley, L. (1997). The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices. Hermes House: NYC, NY.
  4. Belanger, J.T. (1998). Perillyl alcohol: applications in oncology. Alternative Medical Review 3(6): 448-57. Accessed August 31, 2009 from
  5. Capecka, E., Mareczek, A., & Leja, M. (2005). Antioxidant activity of fresh and dry herbs of some Lamiaceae species. Food Chemistry 93(2): 223-226.

How Long Did It Take For You To Be Diagnosed With Celiac Disease? Your Body Needs Healing Foods: Gluten-Free Junk Food is Still Junk Food

Are you one of many on a gluten-free diet but still experiencing pain and discomfort due to arthritis, headaches, numbness or diabetes? Are you frustrated, rightfully so, because your doctor wants to prescribe medications that mask the symptoms but don’t cure the problem? The average length of time it takes for a symptomatic person to be diagnosed with celiac disease in the U.S. is four years. Imagine if you are asymptomatic- the time could be double, even triple. In Dr. Fasano’s landmark prevalence study on celiac disease (1), 60% of children and 41% of adults diagnosed during the study were without symptoms. A lot is happening in the body during those undiagnosed years and it takes more than replacing wheat bread with gluten-free bread to heal the damage and achieve good health.

For years your body was a war zone- literally. If you have an autoimmune disease like celiac, your immune system launches an attack on the lining of the small intestine. The small intestine is lined with tiny fingerlike projections called villi, which secrete digestive enzymes and absorb nutrients. With celiac disease, the villi are damaged or destroyed, resulting in the poor absorption of nutrients such as magnesium and zinc, which can lead to collateral damage in other systems because everything in the body is interconnected. Think of a spider’s web- if there is a kink in one area, there is tension and stress somewhere else- and then that area affects another part until the whole web is contorted and out of balance. This phenomenon explains why people who are gluten intolerant experience over 200 symptoms such as headaches, skin rashes, thyroid problems, fatigue, and fertility issues.

All this destruction takes place in the form of inflammation because the immune system battles invaders by releasing toxic chemical molecules. In the gastrointestinal tract, the release of these chemicals causes inflammation of the gut lining, and as the gut lining becomes inflamed large foreign particles, such as proteins, bacteria, viruses and yeast, are allowed to slip through the damaged intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. The body then recognizes these substances as foreign and releases further antibodies in an attempt to expel the intruders from the body, causing more inflammation, further increasing the permeability of the intestinal wall, and resulting in a leaky gut.

A growing body of evidence suggests that virtually the same trio of factors underpins most, and perhaps all, autoimmune diseases: an environmental substance that is presented to the body (in the case of celiac disease the trigger is gluten), a genetically based tendency of the immune system to overreact to the substance, and an unusually permeable gut. Going gluten-free will repair you intestinal villi, but what about the rest of your battered war torn body?  Once diagnosed it is important to eat not only gluten-free, but an anti-inflammatory diet of healing foods so your body can repair, rebuild, and rejuvenate. Restoration could take years depending on the damage done due to years of misdiagnosis.

How can you eat a healthy healing diet? Eat more plants! Focus on fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, lean protein, whole grains such as quinoa and buckwheat, and good fats such as coconut oil- not a diet filled with gluten-free processed foods made from oxidized oils. Junk food is junk food, whether made with refined gluten-free flours or wheat. Yes it takes planning, time and a little extra effort but the reward is fewer sick days and doctor visits. Once you feel better, you will have the time and energy to continue to eat healthy. The tension and stress on the spider web will begin to release and you will experience a high quality of life. Feeling good is happiness.  And luckily, there are more and more gluten-free, vegan and raw food options available to help make us happy. For more information go to and

(1) A. Fasano, I. Berti, T. Gerarduzzi, T. Not, R.B. Colletti, S. Drago, Y. Elitsur, P.H.R. Green, S. Guandalini, I. Hill, M. Pietzak, A. Ventura, M. Thorpe, D. Kryszak, F. Fornaroli, S.S. Wasserman, J.A. Murray, K. Horvath. Prevalence of celiac disease in at-risk and not-at-risk groups in the United States: a large multicenter study. Arch Int Med 2003;163:286-292.