As we enter the holiday season, we say goodbye to summer’s fresh berries, watermelons, and heirloom tomatoes only to say hello to pumpkins, sweet potatoes, pomegranates, and a handful of herbs and spices. By allowing our diet to change with the seasons, we create a natural diversity in our nutrition that supports us for the time of year. A 2001 study done in Japan found a three-fold difference in the vitamin C content of spinach harvested in the summer versus the winter.
Climate changes the resources given to the plant and in turn affects the nutrient content of food. In our modern times, we have access to just about any kind of food at any time of the year. Unfortunately, this access is a disadvantage to the health of our bodies — and to the environment.
Spices and herbs like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, peppermint, and more not only evoke nostalgia via our senses, but also can be used to support our health during one of the busiest times of the year. The incredible thing about herbs over pharmaceutical medications is they approach health issues holistically by having a wide range of physiologic effects.
Cinnamon not only makes pumpkin pie hit the spot, but it is also a powerhouse spice that exerts its benefits with as little as one-half teaspoon per day. This spice is best known for its ability to balance blood sugar to combat diabetes, but is also helpful for the immune, cardiovascular, and digestive system. It contains antioxidant compounds that rival exotic superfood berries, wine, and dark chocolate to remove toxins from our bodies.
These antioxidants reduce inflammation and swelling to support pain management in muscle soreness, PMS pain, severity of allergic reactions, and other age-related pains. Higher doses that can be taken via supplementation have an even larger impact on age-related pains, memory loss, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Cloves are a versatile spice that can be used in sweet and savory dishes. The dried flower buds from a tropical tree, cloves originate from Indonesia, and are used often in Ayurvedic medicine. They are helpful as a home remedy to fight both fungal and bacterial infections and to reduce pain.
Clove oil on a cotton ball can help to reduce pain in a toothache or inflammation of the gums. It simultaneously can draw out an infection that could be causing the toothache.
A tea of loosened cloves can be helpful when affected by a respiratory infection. It not only has antimicrobial properties, but can also loosen chest mucus and reduce sore throat pain.
A little bit of nutmeg and a dusting of this spice goes a long way with mood, memory, appetite and digestion, and skin health. Nutmeg can reduce anxiety and improve sleep. The essential oil can be safely used on the temples to support mood and sleep.
Two compounds in nutmeg, myristicin andmacelignan, have been shown in research to improve memory and protect against age-related neurodegeneration.
As mentioned, a small amount really goes a long way. Unlike cinnamon, excess amounts of nutmeg can have deleterious effects like heart palpitations, sweating, hallucinations, and other side effects, so exercise caution when using this spice.
Peppermint is best known for its ability to support healthy digestion. Research has continued to support this age-old remedy to improve the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Peppermint helps to relax the muscles of the digestive system to relieve indigestion and gas.
In addition to digestive support via tea or oil, topical peppermint essential oil can help muscle pain and headaches.
As with many of the herbs and spices of fall and winter, ginger is sure to warm you from the inside out. This spice is readily accessible in many different forms, including raw, powdered, tea, and essential oil. Ginger is best known for its ability to sooth nausea, but it casts a wide net of beneficence from heart disease to infections.
Like garlic and onions, ginger helps to prevent our blood from easily clotting to impact heart disease and stroke. For a more day-to-day use, ginger also helps relax the smooth muscles of the intestines to reduce bloating and improve your body’s ability to utilize food nutrients. With its warming properties, it is able to stoke the metabolism and is a great addition to a green smoothie or soup during the colder seasons.
In many countries around the world, spices and herbs are not only used to add dynamic flavors but also to heal common conditions. This holiday season, use your herbs and spices to get into the spirit of the season knowing that their benefits go far beyond delighting your senses.
Thalia Hale is a naturopathic doctor at Medical Options for Wellness. Her background includes both conventional and alternative modalities; her practice is primarily focuses on hormone imbalances, gastrointestinal conditions, and chronic complex diseases. She can be reached at drthalia.com.