Herbal remedies are an enduring foundation of medicine. They continue to be used all over the world and are influenced by different cultures and regions, especially in parts of the world where prescription pharmaceutical medicines are unavailable or inaccessible. Recently, these old-time remedies have resurged in popularity in developed countries. This trend could be due to several reasons, but a common thread could be that people are feeling more empowered to manage their health.1
Notably, spices are a subset of herbs. Spices usually come from certain parts of a woody plant, such as its roots, rhizomes, stems, leaves, bark, flowers, fruits, or seeds, whereas herbs are the dried leaves of non-woody plants.2
Spices and herbs are versatile and can be used in more than food. The more familiarity we have with the practical uses of spices and herbs, the more appropriately we can use them to strengthen our health. Here are six common culinary spices and herbs with practical health-related uses.
The fleshy fruits borne by Capsicum annuum may comprise one of the staple spices in your kitchen—cayenne! More than 1,000 varieties of capsicum are grown worldwide, which vary considerably in size, color, shape, and the heat intensity.16 The heat comes from a plant chemical called capsaicin, which, in addition to giving your food some zest, has pain-relieving and circulation-improvement properties.17 The cayenne pepper is a smooth-stemmed fruit with shiny, oval-shaped leaves. It can grow up to six feet in height in tropical climates. The spice is derived from crushing the dried peppers into powdered form.
Consistent with its earliest uses, the capsaicin in cayenne has demonstrated effectiveness in treating arthritis, nerve pain, and other neuropathic pain disorders when used topically. The capsaicin found in cayenne can be absorbed through the skin where it binds to specific receptors that act to deplete a compound responsible for conveying pain sensations to the brain.16
Commercial creams containing 0.075 percent capsaicin for topical use are available, but require multiple daily applications for a prolonged period to achieve beneficial effects. Topical capsaicin cream may cause a rash or a burning sensation on the skin but usually dissipates with repeated use.16 This is why you should use always gloves to apply the cream, wash your hands after use, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
True cinnamon, also known as Cinnamomum verum, is native to Sri Lanka but it became a worldwide commodity by the 17th century.9 C. verum is a small evergreen tree that grows up to 35 feet tall and has highly aromatic bark, which is stripped away and then rolled and dried into cinnamon sticks or quills.10
Historically, cinnamon has been used for digestion, upper respiratory ailments, and increasing blood flow. More recently, it has been shown to have an insulin-like effect on blood and may help stabilize blood sugar levels.9 One study found that regardless of the way it is consumed (whether as whole cinnamon or as cinnamon extract) this spice results in a significant lowering of fasting blood glucose in people with Type 2 diabetes.11,12 You may use ground cinnamon to flavor teas or baked goods; it also comes in the form of capsules or powder. While cinnamon is well tolerated, its use should be closely monitored in people with diabetes to avoid unsafe lowering of blood sugar. Additionally, eating large quantities of cinnamon can be toxic, especially if you have liver problems.
Rosemary, or Rosemarinus officinalis, is an evergreen member of the mint family native to the Mediterranean shores. It’s genus name, Rosemarinus, means “dew of the sea,” in reference to its delicate pale blue flowers and native environment.18
Initially used to improve memory and ward off depression, it’s modern therapeutic uses have expanded beyond the brain. Other benefits include treatment for muscle and joint pain, bronchitis, and poor circulation. It also has antioxidant and antibacterial properties, making it useful in reducing inflammation.18-20 Research has suggested that rosemary can improve cognition and memory, including one study that investigated the relationship between ambient odor and memory. Researchers found that the scent of rosemary was effective as a memory cue in retrieval of information.20 This makes sense, as rosemary is very pungent!
In addition to sprinkling its leaves on food as a flavoring agent, this herb can be consumed in various forms including infusions (tea), capsule form, or as a topical essential oil or ointment.19 Certain medicinal uses of rosemary should always be monitored by a qualified healthcare professional. In some individuals, ingested rosemary can cause seizures and can be toxic to the liver and heart; its essential oil can cause a rash with sun exposure.18
Typically used as a seasoning for meats and savory dishes, this shrubby perennial is native to the northern Mediterranean coast. Its genus name, Salvia, comes from the Latin salvere, meaning “to be saved” or “to be healed.”3
Salvia officinalis grows up to 24 inches in height, with branched stems that have dense, entangled, woody hairs that give it its silvery gray appearance. Sage’s leaves and flowers have versatile and various uses, including alleviating depressive symptoms, potentially improving memory, and relieving night sweats associated with menopause.3,4
Sage has historically been used to sooth sore throats, coughs, and colds. In a study that compared an echinacea-sage spray to a chlorhexidine-lidocaine spray in the treatment of sore throats, respondents reported that the echinacea-sage solution was found slightly more effective.5
The healing properties of sage can be delivered via tea, tincture, pills, or capsules. While the amount of sage is safe when used as a culinary herb, you should avoid larger amounts because of the thujones present in its essential oil form.3 A tincture diluted in water is safe when used as a rinse or gargle.
Common thyme, also known as Thymus vulgaris, is usually coupled with parsley and bay leaf to form the French bouquet garni, a group of culinary herbs used to flavor soups and stews. This herb is commonly used on its own to flavor meat but can also be used to flavor roasted vegetables, in addition to soups, stews, and other savory dishes.6,7
Thyme, like sage, is native to Mediterranean region. It is a low-growing, small perennial evergreen shrub that can grow up to 12 inches and has small oval-shaped leaves.
Medicinally, thyme was historically used to treat fainting spells, digestive problems, and melancholy. Up until World War I, thyme oil served as a battlefield antiseptic.6 Today, it is more typically used to treat upper respiratory issues.
Thyme essential oils and extracts have shown diverse antiviral activity against certain flu strains, but the molecular mechanism of action is not well known.8 Methods for using medicinal thyme include tea, tincture, syrups, and pills or capsules. Thyme is considered safe, especially when used as an infusion in tea. Consumption of essential oil, as with any essential oils, should be avoided in high doses or for long periods of time.6
Known for its rich golden-orange hue, turmeric, or Curcuma longa, is a spice that gives many dishes their musky, spicy tang. This spice comes from the tuberous, fleshy roots of a large-leafed perennial that belongs to the same family as ginger.13
Medicinally, turmeric has been used in eastern Asia to treat digestive disorders, skin infections, and arthritis for more than 2,500 years. In Western medicine, it has recently gained attention as a potential anti-inflammatory treatment14 Curcumin is the highly active, yellow-colored compound in turmeric that lends the spice its medicinal benefits. Curcumin has been shown to reduce inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, suggesting its potential use in treating Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome.13,15
While turmeric’s claim to fame comes from its use in various curries, it is also used in mustards and salad dressings. It can be used medicinally via tea, capsule, extract, or topical skin treatment, such as a paste or ointment. Notably, turmeric does stain skin and clothing and will require a lot of scrubbing if spilled.
Overall, this spice is considered safe to consume. Research shows that taking curcumin at doses up to 12 grams per day was well tolerated, though there is little reason to consume that much, as high doses could cause indigestion or heartburn without offering additional health benefits.15
1. Johnson RL, Foster S, Dog TL, et al. Forward. Grogan BB, Koszouras MR, Hitchcock ST, et al (eds). National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2010:5-11.
2. U.S. Forest Service. Spices and Herbs. USFS website. https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/food/spices.shtml. Accessed 7 Jul 2021.
3. Grogan BB, Koszouras MR, Hitchcock ST, et al (eds). National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2010:91-93.
4. Johnson RL, Foster S, Dog TL, et al. Sage (salvia) to prevent and cure Illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, depression, dementia, lupus, autism, heart disease, and cancer. J Tradit Complement Med. 2014;4(2):82-88.
5. Schapowal A, Berger D, Klein P, Suter A. Echinacea/sage or chlorhexidine/lidocaine for treating acute sore throats: a randomized double-blind trial. Eur J Med Res. 2009;14(9):406-412.
6. Grogan BB, Koszouras MR, Hitchcock ST, et al (eds). National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2010:95-97.
7. Singletary, K. Thyme: history, applications, and overview of potential health benefits. Nutr Today. 2016;52(1):40-49.
8. Kowalczyk A, Przychodna M, Sopata S, et al. Thymol and thyme essential oil – new insights into selected therapeutic applications. Molecules. 2020; 25(18):4125.
9. Grogan BB, Koszouras MR, Hitchcock ST, et al (eds). National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2010:111-113.
10. Ranasinghe P, Pigera, S, Premakumara GS, et al. Medicinal properties of ‘true’ cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum): a systematic review. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2013;13:275
11. Davis PA, Yokoyama W. Cinnamon intake lowers fasting blood glucose: meta-analysis. J Med Food. 2011;14(9):884-889.
12. Aubrey A. Updated 30 Dec 2013. Cinnamon can help lower blood sugar, but one variety may be best. National Public Radio website. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/12/30/255778250/cinnamon-can-help-lower-blood-sugar-but-one-variety-may-be-best. Accessed 13 Jul 2021.
13. Grogan BB, Koszouras MR, Hitchcock ST, et al (eds). National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2010:183-185.
14. Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS. Curcumin: a review of its effects on human health. Foods. 2017;6(10):92.
15. Ng QX, Soh AYS, Loke W, et al. A meta-analysis of the clinical use of curcumin for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). J Clin Med. 2018;7(10):298.
16. Grogan BB, Koszouras MR, Hitchcock ST, et al (eds). National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2010:209-211.
17. Sarabon N, Löfler S, Cvecka J, et al. Acute effect of different concentrations of cayenne pepper cataplasm on sensory-motor functions and serum levels of inflammation-related biomarkers in healthy subjects. Eur J Transl Myol. 2018;28(1):7333.
18. Grogan BB, Koszouras MR, Hitchcock ST, et al (eds). National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2010:221-223.
19. Kumar V, Marković T, Emerald M, et al. Herbs: Composition and Dietary Importance. Encyclopedia of Food and Health. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press; 2016:332-337.
20. Singletary K. Rosemary: an overview of potential health benefits. Nutr Today. 2016;51(2):102-112.
21. Grogan BB, Koszouras MR, Hitchcock ST, et al (eds). National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic; 2010:245-247.