By: Abhishek Shastry
Herbs and spices are staples of diverse cuisines around the world. Herbs are generally derived from the leaves of plants; spices can be extracted from the bark, buds, seeds, berries, and flower stigma. Historically, various cultures have incorporated herbs and spices into their foods, medicines, traditions, and religions; however, their medicinal and therapeutic properties are of particular importance. The earliest reports of herb use, dating back to 5000 BCE by the Sumerian people, have shown that the cultivation and extraction of herbs have been instrumental to advancing culture. Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Mediterranean, Chinese, and Indian cultures have also used herbs and spices, depending on a range of factors like geographic proximity, trade, colonization, and other means of cultural exchange. For example, the Ayurvedic tradition – which is largely retained in South Asia – used herbs and spices to treat common illnesses: ginger was used to treat nausea and indigestion, turmeric to treat jaundice, and cinnamon to maintain blood circulation. However, whether the basis is valid for herbs and spices to exist as pro-immunological compounds and to treat common illnesses depends on their performance in randomized controlled trials and scientific validation. Interestingly, the therapeutic use of herbs and spices has been documented in a variety of controlled trials. Examples of well-studied spices and herbs are curcumin (a primary compound in turmeric) and ginger root.
Curcumin has antimicrobial, antimutagenic, and antigrowth properties, reported in culture, animal, and human trials. Although human trials generally have low sample sizes, randomized controlled trials display significant changes between groups. In models of viral infection, turmeric is shown to decrease the overproduction of cytokines and downregulate the NF‐κB signalling pathway. Cytokines recruit other immune cells and trigger inflammation, causing a collection of symptoms we call a “cold”. Therefore, curcumin’s therapeutic use to treat the common cold is important. It is also known for its antioxidant properties, aiding in free radical neutralization, reduction in radical-mediated DNA damage, and free radical-mediated lipid peroxidation. Reducing the production of superoxides and free radicals in the body is important to reducing the risks of cancers, immune disorders, and other conditions. In conditions of disease, using curcumin has shown positive effects: in Lupus Nephritis and other inflammatory diseases, curcumin administration decreases proteinuria (protein in urine), hematuria (blood in urine), and systolic blood pressure; in Irritable Bowel Syndrome, it is shown to improve symptoms, reduce prevalence, and increase bowel motility; in pre-cancer stages, curcumin acts as a chemoprevention and anti-inflammatory compound, and increases cell apoptosis (programmed cell death) in precancerous lesions.
Ginger, used in traditional Chinese medicine, has been shown to decrease general, pregnancy-related, and chemotherapy-induced forms of nausea. In a study of women with breast cancer, oral ginger consumption along with standard anti-emetic (anti-nausea) drugs showed that the number and severity of nausea episodes were significantly lower compared to consuming anti-emetic drugs alone. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that ginger largely contributed to these anti-emetic effects. Ginger is also known for its anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects. It has been shown to inhibit the production of prostaglandin and leukotriene biosynthesis as well as the production of cytokines during infection. In patients with allergic rhinitis, compared to Claritin, a common medication used to treat allergy symptoms, ginger consumption revealed the same results and produced fewer side effects (drowsiness, fatigue, dizziness, and constipation). Evidence for its role in diabetes is mixed, but ginger has been shown to decrease HbA1c (glycated hemoglobin) levels, which may indicate that ginger can help control glucose levels over the long term.
Although synthetic treatments for disease and sickness are highly consumed in our society, considering the use of herbs and spices that show pharmacological and therapeutic benefits is important. In this article, turmeric and ginger were considered, but there are many herbs and spices that are used globally to flavour foods, treat illness, and for many other purposes. Exploring the ways we can keep ourselves healthy, and looking at herbs and spices as a tool to prevent illness, can open our eyes to more avenues for positive health.
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