Our ancestors used herbs and spices to flavor foods and soon learned that some of them seemed to improve their health. Today, science is looking more closely at those claims. Read on to find out the latest research on these historically healthy spices and herbs. Shutterstock
One of the most commonly used spices in the world, cinnamon has been linked in various studies to improvement in cholesterol and blood sugar control, and it seems to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects.
Enjoy it on your food, but hold off on using capsule supplements, says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokeswoman Lauri Wright. There's not enough research on dosage and long-term impact, and if you have liver issues, it could be dangerous. shutterstock
Uniquely fragrant, rosemary has historically been known for its impact on memory. Shakespeare wrote about it in Hamlet, when Ophelia says to her brother Laertes, "There's rosemary; that's for remembrance."
Studies have shown that rosemary has strong anti-inflammatory properties and seems to improve memory in mice and humans, making it a promising target for Alzheimer's research. Its natural antioxidant abilities persuaded the European Union to approve rosemary extract as a food preservative.
As with any herb, be careful. There are compounds in rosemary oil that could worsen bleeding or seizures and be harmful if taken by mouth.
Turmeric, a common spice in curry powder and other Indian dishes, is another powerhouse spice often touted for its anti-inflammatory properties. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that claim isn't yet supported but points to studies that show it can control knee pain as well as ibuprofen, reduce the number of heart attacks after bypass surgery, and reduce skin irritation after breast cancer radiation treatment. Be aware that using turmeric in high doses or over a long period could cause stomach distress. Shutterstock Ancient records from Greece, Rome and Egypt mention the use of mint as a healing herb; today, we often see peppermint used for colds, headaches and digestive issues. Studies of peppermint oil show that it may improve irritable bowel symptoms when taken in capsules and when applied topically may lessen tension headaches, but there's no evidence that it can help the common cold or other conditions. Be warned: Excessive doses of peppermint oil can be toxic. Shutterstock Asian medicine has used dried ginger for centuries for stomachaches, nausea and diarrhea. Scientific studies show that ginger could help control nausea from cancer chemotherapy when used along with conventional medications, and it may reduce morning sickness among pregnant women, who should be sure to consult with an OB/GYN first.
When used as a spice, ginger is considered safe, but there is some concern that it could interact with blood thinners and increase the flow of bile, which might affect anyone with gallstone disease. Shutterstock
Garlic is the edible bulb of the lily family and is widely promoted as a health aid for high blood pressure, cancer, cholesterol and the common cold. But the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says the research into these claims is inconclusive. The center recommends adding garlic to foods but warns that it can increase the risk of bleeding in those on warfarin or needing surgery and can interfere with some drugs, including one that treats HIV. Shutterstock
It takes 75,000 saffron blossoms to produce one pound of saffron, making it one of the world's most expensive spices. Studies have shown that it may help with depression, menstrual discomfort, and possibly Alzheimer's, but research is inconclusive for a positive impact on erectile dysfunction, asthma, cancer and many other conditions.
Use in food is considered safe, but when taken medicinally, large doses may be toxic. Even smaller doses could cause miscarriage and heart and blood pressure issues. Shutterstock
Sage is a potent herb often used in stuffing and butters. Studies have shown that it may be helpful for memory, cholesterol and menopausal symptoms if taken by mouth. In one study, a mixture of sage and rhubarb on cold sores was nearly as effective as the antiviral medication acyclovir.
Evidence is sparse for the use of sage for cancer, asthma and stomach pain. Use in food is considered safe, but supplements are not advised during pregnancy or if you have seizures, high or low blood pressure or a hormone-sensitive cancer such as breast or ovarian cancer. Shutterstock
Holy basil, sometimes known as hot basil, is revered by Hindus and used in Ayurvedic medicine as a way to counter life's stresses. Studies have shown that chemicals in the herb may decrease blood sugar, reduce anxiety and depression, lessen stress and improve sleep, while its high antioxidant properties have researchers looking into the impact of holy basil oil on certain cancers.
Avoid the herb when pregnant, when breast-feeding or two weeks before any surgery: It has anti-blood-clotting effects, and its use during pregnancy has not been studied. Shutterstock
Look beyond the sweet taste of this powerful spice: Nutmeg, used unwisely, can poison you. It's been used over the centuries as a psychedelic, to stimulate menstruation and induce abortions, and to fight infections, including the Black Plague. Its popularity as a poor man's hallucinogen -- it takes only two tablespoons to have effects -- became legend when Malcolm X wrote about using it in prison.
Poison control centers see teenagers get into trouble trying it out; in addition to an uncomfortable high, they suffer abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, an unsteady heart rate and and severe confusion. Dr. Leon Gussow wrote in Emergency Medicine News that "Many individuals who take nutmeg once as an available, inexpensive high vow never to do it again." Shutterstock
Eating the flowers, leaves and oil of the herb thyme, either alone or in conjunction with other herbs, may have some benefit for symptoms of colds and bronchitis, especially coughs. But research into other uses, such as agitation, hair loss and movement disorders, is still inconclusive.
Use in food is considered safe, but the use of supplements is not advised before surgery or if you have a bleeding disorder or a hormone-sensitive cancer such as breast or ovarian cancer. Shutterstock
Oregano, a frequent player in Italian food, seems to contain chemicals that may reduce coughs, spasms and digestive issues, including killing some parasites in the intestines. There's insufficient evidence for other uses, such as for wound healing, asthma, arthritis and heart conditions.
Stay away from medicinal uses during pregnancy, as it has not been studied, and before surgery, as it might increase the risk of bleeding. Shutterstock