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When the holidays come around each year, we tend to gravitate back to the classic warming spices of winter. Those holiday spices like cinnamon and nutmeg not only make our food taste good, but they’re also so good for us! Spices are full of phytonutrients and are concentrated sources of antioxidants. They play central roles in our drinks this time of year, too! While enjoying your pumpkin spice latte, chai tea, or eggnog, you’re also (perhaps unknowingly) spicing up your health. Just be sure you’re getting the real deal with the spices to get the incredible health advantages of authentic flavorings used throughout history. That artificial cinnamon flavor might give you warm fuzzies, but it’s not giving you the health benefits.

Health Benefits of Spices

What kind of benefits? There are over 100 spices used around the world, and many of them have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. However, the ones your grandma cooked with or that you can find locally are just as full of perks as the rare ones only available on the other side of the world. The antioxidants and micronutrients are great immune supporters and help with a variety of ailments. While we won’t list all potential advantages, let’s start with a few for 8 of our favorite holiday spices, sharing a few recipes to go with them.

1 – Allspice

Allspice (Pimenta dioica) acquired its curious name from its flavor, which resembles a blend of up to four different spices. It’s like a carefully prepared spice blend that occurs naturally in one tropical plant. Research has shown that allspice berries have definite health benefits, including supporting balanced hormones, antimicrobial effects, and cancer care. [1][2] The eugenol compound in allspice may be useful for reducing aches and pains, managing blood sugar, and improving digestion. [1][3][4]

Allspice is commonly used in Thanksgiving and Christmas baking (pumpkin pie, bread pudding, and gingerbread), but it’s also excellent for seasoning meats. Try this recipe for Sirloin Tip Roast to make a healthy yet classy entree for Christmas or New Year’s Eve! Prefer chicken? Try this AMAZING Chicken Marinade for oven-roasted chicken breasts and serve with a beautiful green salad topped with nuts (if tolerated) and pomegranate arils. 

2 – Cardamom

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) is referred to as the “queen of spices” for a reason! It’s full of phytonutrients, including the trace mineral manganese, which is important for a healthy cardiovascular system, balanced blood sugar, strong bones, and more. [5] In a study of prediabetic women, cardamom reduced inflammation and oxidative stress, risk factors for developing diabetes and heart disease. [6]

Cardamom can help you battle bad breath as scientists have found it’s a natural killer of bacteria and yeast. That’s nothing new… cardamom has been used as a breath freshener in India for generations. [7] The antimicrobial properties and antioxidants in cardamom also help support a healthy immune response. For that reason, it’s an excellent addition to cancer care. [8] Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines have long used cardamom to support a healthy digestive system. Research shows cardamom extracts combined with other spices may protect the mucosal lining of the stomach [9]

Cardamom may also slow the breakdown of acetylcholine, protecting the brain against oxidative stress, improving brain function, and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. [10]

You can chew on the whole seeds or use this info as an excuse to make this tasty Chai-Spiced Donut Recipe.  

3 – Cinnamon

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicumand Cinnamon cassia) is a popular spice for any time of year. It adds a kick of flavor to everything from apple pie to chewing gum, and its invigorating zing comes with perks. Why is it in so many gum brands? Because cinnamon is excellent for killing the bacteria that cause bad breath. It’s also been found to lower inflammation, balance blood sugar, and support healthy cholesterol levels, making it excellent for heart health. It also activates the antioxidant response in the large intestine, protecting against damage there. [11]

Cinnamon’s most studied benefit is balancing blood sugar levels by reducing insulin resistance. [12] By increasing insulin sensitivity, cinnamon may help blood glucose more efficiently enter the cells, which helps to lower blood sugar levels. In those ways, and through a few other mechanisms, it may help keep blood glucose more stable, reducing the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other blood sugar-related conditions. To get the benefits, it usually takes at least 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon a day. [13]

To enjoy the benefits of cinnamon this season, sip on this tummy-warming apple cider recipe that includes cinnamon sticks. As a side note, apples are also an excellent source of a flavonoid called quercetin, which has anti-allergenic properties.

4 – Clove

Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) are commonly associated with the holiday season, especially Christmas. They’re used in a variety of ways to evoke the festive spirit, including foods, beverages, fragrances, and decor. Whole cloves are nail-shaped dried evergreen buds that are full of nutrients and antioxidants. The eugenol in clove is responsible for many of its antimicrobial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties. Including clove spice in your diet is great for the cold and flu season, as it serves as an expectorant, soothes sore throats, and supports the immune system. [14]

Cloves go wonderfully well in winter recipes, as they provide a warm and spicy scent and flavor. You’ll find cloves in mulled wine or cider, fruitcakes, gingerbread, spiced cakes, and even potpourri. Try Christy’s Pumpkin Pie recipe or make clove water!

5 – Ginger

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is the key ingredient in a classic Christmas favorite, gingerbread. But ginger does more than add a spicy flavor to Christmas cookies. Research has shown ginger has anti-inflammatory properties that may protect our DNA from free radicals and reduce our risk of many chronic diseases. [15] Feeling like food sits like a rock in your stomach? Consider some ginger tea, as ginger is also a known prokinetic, meaning it helps move food through the digestive system. [16] If you’re feeling nauseated, ginger is also your go-to natural remedy. [17]

Try these Gluten-Free Gingerbread Muffins for a make-ahead holiday breakfast. Ginger is also excellent in warming soups and stews, like this Creamy Carrot Ginger Soup. Make it ahead for an easy meal during all the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations.

6 – Peppermint

Technically an herb, not a spice, peppermint (Mentha x piperita) can be a great addition to your healthy hot cocoa recipe or holiday treats. It’s well known for helping clear the airways and soothing sore throats during a cold. Due to its cooling menthol, peppermint is often used as an active ingredient in creams used for muscle pain and osteoarthritis. Peppermint is also good for nausea, digestion, and other stomach concerns like flatulence. Researchers are finding it is beneficial for those with IBS, bringing relief to many sufferers. [18]

Peppermint may even help you keep from overindulging over the holidays. A study published in the journal Appetite found that peppermint essential oil reduced participants’ appetites so much that they consumed thousands of calories less than usual over a 5-day period. [19] Over time, surrounding yourself with the aroma of peppermint could support your weight loss efforts.

You can use peppermint essential oil on your temples to alleviate tension or enjoy it in this beautiful peppermint bark recipe. You can also steep a bag of peppermint tea to soothe digestion after meals.

7 – Nutmeg 

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) shows up in many holiday recipes. A little of this spice may improve your mood and help put you to sleep after all the holiday excitement. [20] It’s also been found to support the production of specific neurotransmitters in the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain. [21] Ultimately, nutmeg’s antioxidant properties may promote brain health and protect against neurodegenerative diseases.

This mashed sweet potato recipe includes nutmeg and is the perfect holiday side dish. Don’t forget it in your favorite healthy eggnog recipe! (Just substitute a non-dairy milk, sugar substitute, and duck eggs into a traditional recipe, and you’re good to go!)

8 – Star Anise

Star anise (Illicium verum) is that beautiful 8-sided spice with a licoricey flavor. It’s used in holiday cooking and baking to impart a unique flavor to various dishes and beverages. Like cloves and cinnamon, star anise is a key ingredient in mulled wines, ciders, and punches during the holiday season. It adds a warm, sweet, and slightly licorice-like flavor, enhancing the richness of the beverage.

Common in Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, and Malaysian cuisines, many chai tea blends will have anise as one of the included spices. However, you’ll also find it in some Italian sausages. In American cuisine, outside the holiday season, it’s probably most common in licorice candy and black jellybeans!

However, it should get more credit. An interesting fact is that up until 2012, Roche Pharmaceuticals used up to 90% of the world’s star anise each year to make shikimic acid, a component of Tamiflu (oseltamivir), an antiviral medication used for influenza viruses. [22] It’s also highly antimicrobial, showing activity against 67 strains of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. [23]

Other studies showed promise for star anise in supporting the cardiovascular system, as it may normalize high blood pressure, fight inflammation, and reduce plaque buildup in the blood vessels. [24] Star anise may just be a star in the making. Try it in your mulled apple cider!

Spice Up Your Holidays and Enhance Your Health

Spices greatly contribute to the sensory experience of Christmas. They infuse warmth, nostalgia, and a sense of tradition into culinary delights and decorative elements associated with the holiday season. But did you know your spice rack was so full of health benefits? There’s a reason these foods make so much sense around the holidays. With all the digestive issues, stress, insomnia, and exposure to colds and flu, your body needs all the support it can get this time of year. Spices can bring a nutritious punch to healthy eating while enriching time-honored dishes we’ve enjoyed for generations. Relate to any of the conditions listed? Contact a Wellness Way clinic to find out what’s causing inflammation and imbalance. We’d love to support you on your journey to better health.

References

  1. Isolation and identification of three new chromones from the leaves of Pimenta dioica with cytotoxic, oestrogenic and anti-oestrogenic effects – PMC (nih.gov)
  2. Medicinal Properties of the Jamaican Pepper Plant Pimenta dioica and Allspice – PMC (nih.gov)
  3. Pharmacological and Toxicological Properties of Eugenol – PMC (nih.gov)
  4. Eugenol Improves Insulin Secretion and Content of Pancreatic Islets from Male Mouse – PubMed (nih.gov)
  5. FoodData Central (usda.gov)
  6. Cardamom supplementation improves inflammatory and oxidative stress biomarkers in hyperlipidemic, overweight, and obese pre-diabetic women: a randomized double-blind clinical trial – PubMed (nih.gov)
  7. Cardamom comfort – PMC (nih.gov)
  8. Chemopreventive effects of cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum L.) on chemically induced skin carcinogenesis in Swiss albino mice – PubMed (nih.gov)
  9. Gastroprotective effects of combination of hot water extracts of turmeric (Curcuma domestica L.), cardamom pods (Ammomum compactum S.) and sembung leaf (Blumea balsamifera DC.) against aspirin-induced gastric ulcer model in rats – PubMed (nih.gov)
  10. Frontiers | Neuroprotective Effect of Cardamom Oil Against Aluminum Induced Neurotoxicity in Rats (frontiersin.org)
  11. Cinnamon: A Multifaceted Medicinal Plant – PMC (nih.gov)
  12. Efficacy of cinnamon in patients with type II diabetes mellitus: A randomized controlled clinical trial – PubMed (nih.gov)
  13. To what extent does cinnamon administration improve the glycemic and lipid profiles? – PubMed (nih.gov)
  14. Culinary Spices in Food and Medicine: An Overview of Syzygium aromaticum (L.) Merr. and L. M. Perry [Myrtaceae] – PMC (nih.gov)
  15. Effect of Ginger on Inflammatory Diseases – PMC (nih.gov)
  16. Species differences in the prokinetic effects of ginger – PubMed (nih.gov)
  17. Is ginger beneficial for nausea and vomiting? An update of the literature – PubMed (nih.gov)
  18. Peppermint Oil | NCCIH (nih.gov)
  19. Effects of peppermint scent on appetite control and caloric intake – ScienceDirect
  20. Identification of Compounds in the Essential Oil of Nutmeg Seeds (Myristica fragrans Houtt.) That Inhibit Locomotor Activity in Mice – PMC (nih.gov)
  21. Kaempferia parviflora rhizome extract and Myristica fragrans volatile oil increase the levels of monoamine neurotransmitters and impact the proteomic profiles in the rat hippocampus: Mechanistic insights into their neuroprotective effects – PMC (nih.gov)
  22. Dried Stars | | UZH
  23. Chemical composition and antibacterial activities of Illicium verum against antibiotic-resistant pathogens – PubMed (nih.gov)
  24. Protective activity ethanol extract of the fruits of Illicium verum against atherogenesis in apolipoprotein E knockout mice | BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)

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Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes only. It’s not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your Wellness Way clinic or personal physician, especially if currently taking prescription or over-the-counter medications. Pregnant women, in particular, should seek the advice of a physician before trying any herb or supplement listed on this website. Always speak with your individual clinic before adding any medication, herb, or nutritional supplement to your health protocol. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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