What are the health benefits of spices?

A tespoonful and scattering of different spices ground and whole

Discover some of the brilliant health benefits of common spices, including cancer protection and improving memory and blood sugar levels.

The medicinal properties of spices have been known about since ancient times. Now scientific studies are providing evidence to back up their potential benefits, from cancer protection to improving memory. Plus, they add flavour to food, helping us slash salt intake.

Inflammation reducers

Lab-based tests demonstrate that many spices act as anti-inflammatories, but curcumin (found in turmeric) and ginger top the list. Several studies show signs of inflammation are reduced when capsules containing these spices are taken. This is good news, as long-term inflammation can lead to health problems such as inflammatory bowel disease, some cancers and dementia.

Pain relief

Ginger’s anti-inflammatory action may help to relieve pain associated with conditions such as arthritis. A review of five studies found that taking ginger reduced pain by 22 per cent in those with osteoarthritis. Another study revealed ginger was as effective as an anti-inflammatory painkiller at reducing period pain.

Cancer enemies

Several spices, including ginger and black pepper, have been linked with protection against cancer. Lab-based studies show that curcumin seems to be able to kill cancer cells – particularly in the breast, bowel, stomach and skin – and prevent more from growing.

Brain boosters

Early lab-based studies on curcumin show it may prevent amyloid-beta plaques forming in the brain (one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease) and even help break them down. More studies are needed to see whether the same effects occur in real-life settings.

Antioxidant heroes

Spices are full of antioxidants, which mop up excess free radicals, which are thought to cause age-related diseases from cancer to dementia.

Blood sugar regulators

One review of studies found that cinnamon significantly improved fasting blood sugar levels in those with type 2 diabetes.

Kick the salt habit

Using spices in place of salt means dishes contain less sodium. This salt reduction in your diet offers major health benefits throughout the body:

Vascular dementia

A high-salt diet is a contributory factor in stroke, which is linked to vascular dementia, the second most common form of dementia

Kidney disease

Adding spices rather than salt to your food helps to keep your kidneys healthy. Too much salt puts a strain on them and may cause kidney disease

Cardiovascular disease

Salt is a major cause of high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease

Stomach cancer

Studies have shown a direct link between high salt intake and gastric cancer, so cutting out salt can decrease the risk

Meet the superstars

All spices contain antioxidants, but each has its own particular benefits. Bear in mind that the dried forms are a more concentrated source, while freezing helps preserve the antioxidants in fresh spices. Add them liberally to your meals every day for flavouring.

Black pepper is heart friendly as it cuts the need for salt. It also contains digestion-boosting piperine black pepper

Cinnamon may help lower blood sugar levels, so it’s useful for weight management and those with diabetes

Ginger contains anti-inflammatory gingerol, which helps ease osteoarthritis pain. Studies show that ginger fights nausea, stimulates bile production, relieves stomach discomfort and spreads transit through the digestive tract. It also helps to break up and dispel intestinal gas to counter bloating

Turmeric is packed with curcumin, which helps relieve long-term inflammation. The curcumin in turmeric is often singled out for its potential protection against dementia, but curry powder (turmeric, chilli, ginger, coriander, cumin and pepper) may offer even more brain-function benefits

Want more? Discover the health benefits of fish oil, leafy greens and onions.   

First published: Sep 2019
Last updated: October 6, 2020

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