Healthy Herbs and Spices

Happy Halloween!

While herbs and spices are useful year round for making food tastier, apple cider and pumpkin pie aren’t complete without sweet, warming spices like cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and stuffing needs sage to taste right.

It’s no accident that herbs and spices are so prominent in the foods we enjoy during the cold season when we are more prone to illness. Herbs and spices contain potent oils and chemicals that make food taste better, kill bacteria, prevent spoilage, help us kick a cold, or calm our nerves. Herbs bridge the gap between food and medicine. This is especially true in Indian, Chinese and other traditional cuisines, which rely on many of the same herbs to season food and heal the body.

While I am not an herbalist, I often recommend certain culinary herbs and spices to my nutrition clients. Culinary herbs are usually safe to use, however they may be contraindicated for certain health conditions and medications, and it is possible to have an allergy to a particular herb or spice. Quality and form will also determine how powerful an herb tastes and affects your health. Buy dried herbs in stores that have quick turnover, since they lose potency with time. The most potent herbs are grown in soil with fairly little water. This ensures the oil in the leaves are fairly concentrated. Spices can be bought whole or pre-ground. Buy small amounts of ground spices immediately before you plan use them, and replace them with a new batch every year to ensure they are still potent.

Here are a few herbs and spices I frequently recommend with an explanation of how they affect health.

·      Dried or fresh peppermint leaves are enjoyed as a popular tea, and the concentrated oil is used to flavor confections and lip balm. Note that peppermint oil sold for culinary use is significantly different from peppermint essential oil, which is intended for topical use only.

Peppermint is a powerful anti-spasmotic. It is literally relaxing, which is why we love it. Rub a drop of peppermint essential oil on cramped muscles and you can feel them relax. Peppermint tea likewise relaxes the muscles in the digestive tract, a godsend for those who suffer from digestive cramps. Peppermint tea is not recommended for people who suffer from acid reflux, since it relaxes the muscle that joins the esophagus with the stomach, making symptoms worse.

·      Ginger is widely used in Chinese medicine. Ginger increases circulation in the digestive tract, boosts the immune system and can help with everything from arthritis to ulcers. Fresh ginger root is sold in the produce section of most grocery stores. Unfortunately there are reports that most ginger grown in China contains toxic pesticides, so look for organic or Hawaiian grown ginger. Powdered ginger is great for baked goods, and as a quick addition to drinks.

Boil a few slices of fresh ginger in 2 cups of water for 15 minutes to soothe a sore throat. If you suffer from nausea, make a simple ginger ale by mixing a teaspoon of powdered ginger, ¼ cup of lemon juice and a little honey and 2 cups of water. Chew a piece of candied ginger if you are prone to car or air-sickness. Studies show ginger is safe for use during pregnancy.

·      Garlic kills many strains of pathogenic yeast and bacteria. It is also a blood thinner and supports immune health. I mix crushed raw garlic with melted butter and enjoy it on toast when I feel a cold coming on. I will also add crushed raw garlic to a simple salad dressing of lemon juice and olive oil. I always add garlic to my homemade pickles and sauerkraut.

There are some contraindications for garlic, however. Garlic should be avoided or used in moderation if you take blood-thinning drugs such as warfarin (coumadin.) Garlic may irritate the stomach, can cause flatulence, and should be used with caution by nursing mothers, since it can contribute to colic in some babies.

·      Turmeric is a popular spice in Ayurvedic healing, and is a major ingredient in curry. This root is related to ginger and is usually sold powdered or fresh in specialty stores. Like ginger, turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory and helps with sore joints and digestive issues. Turmeric is deep yellow and may stain fingers, wooden utensils and fabric.

Turmeric is a delicious addition to savory lentil and meat dishes. Turmeric is not recommended for people who suffer from gallstones, liver disorders or congestive heart disease. Turmeric is not recommended for women who are trying to conceive, or are pregnant, since it may reduce fertility.

I sometimes recommend more concentrated forms of the above herbs for particular conditions, however even very small doses can be very effective. More is not always better, and less is always safer.

While herbs and spices are completely natural, and have been used for thousands of years, it’s best to stick to common culinary herbs, and seek help from a professional herbalist before venturing into herbs that are strictly medicinal. A true professional doesn’t depend on kinesthisiology or “muscle testing” to find the right formula. Such a professional has spent years of dedicated study and has an intimate understanding of the effects of each plant and how they interact with one another. While there are classic herbal formulas for certain conditions, an herbalist will be able to customize a formula specifically for your needs.

I recommend working with an herbalist when it is clear that nutrition and conventional medicine aren’t enough. Herbalists cannot legally claim to practice medicine, and must follow strict guidelines. I find this ironic considering that herbs were our first medicines, and many modern medications are derived from these same herbs, but there it is.

Herbal formulas cannot compensate for too much stress, poor diet, lack of exercise and lack of sleep. They aid the body to do what it wants to do naturally, which is to heal. We must take responsibility for our health and support our immune system every way we can to help it function properly.

While there are many excellent practicing herbalists in the San Francisco Bay Area, here are a few that I personally recommend.

Joel Harvey is a master of Chinese herbs and acupuncture. He is the author of “A Patient’s Guide to Chinese Medicine” and the founder of Shen Clinic in Albany.

Joshua Muscat founded the San Francisco Medicine Clinic, and specializes in Western Herbs. Joshua makes his own herbal tincture formulas, which he sells at the Berkeley Saturday Farmer’s market.

Cheryl Fromholzer is a Certified Clinical Herbalist and founder Gathering Thyme in San Anselmo. She also offers classes on herbal healing.

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