A healthy measure of spice
We are now fairly familiar with the idea that spices are good for us – they have long been used in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine for their healing properties. However, how much is enough to provide the therapeutic effect?
Type “turmeric” into Pubmed (a scientific literature database) and you come up with more than 6000 peer reviewed studies that have investigated its usefulness for joints, heart, brain, gut health and the circulatory system.
Time and again, it has trumped many of the more common medications or helped enhance the effects of pharmaceutical therapies without the same side effects that some of the mediations can have.
It is thought that the key to turmeric’s benefits come from its ability to stem inflammation from multiple different pathways in the body, therefore affect the progression of chronic disease. Studies that use higher doses are generally to study its efficacy as a curative aid rather than as a preventive aid.
For general health and as a preventive measure, up to 3g of raw turmeric root (much more widely available now) or up to 3g (1-2 tsp) of dried turmeric is recommended.
This is easily met when including turmeric in smoothies (either from the root, or as a powder), hot drinks, into scrambled eggs or in meals – grating the root into a salad dressing, incorporating into a curry or mince-based dish etc.
From a therapeutic dosage (for example, in studies testing its effects on osteoarthritis), it is easier to take a supplement as we are talking in the realm of 8-10g. When looking for a supplement, opt for one that has the curcumin in a more bioavailable form, along with piperine (black pepper extract) or in a liposomal form (such as the Meriva technology) which enhances its bioavailability.
Be mindful though, if you are taking certain medications, as turmeric may interfere with anti-coagulants like Aspirin and Warfarin. It also can affect medications such as non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs.
Some refer to pepper as the ‘king of spices’ but it probably hasn’t had its share of the limelight compared with other spices. Not only does it enhance the bioavailability of turmeric, it also makes resveratrol, B-complex vitamins, selenium and beta carotene more bioavailable and is widely studied in the scientific field for its effects on enhancing the effects of other drugs.
It also holds its own and can reduce lipid oxidation (a major source of inflammation in the body), can increase gastric secretions and enhance our digestive enzymes, both helping our digestion, and has anti-diarrhoeal effects. White pepper is the same plant, but with the black hull removed. And it goes with everything.
I’ve hunted around for some reputable advice on quantities to use and it appears that about 20mg of piperine extract is necessary for its abilities to enhance bioavailability, and pepper contains about 5-9 per cent piperine, which equates to about a good Tbsp of pepper – which can be easily added to any meal or snack you have.
Ginger (zingiber officinale) is used as a spice, food, medicine, condiment and even ornament worldwide and contains paradols, gingerols and shogaols, bioactive phenolics which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antifungal properties.
Research shows it is effective for treating nausea (at a dose of just 1g), can increase HDL cholesterol and benefits male fertility by positively influencing sperm quality, amount and motility when taken for 3 months by men with infertility (dosage not disclosed, so not very helpful!).
It’s even been found to improve cognitive functioning in middle-aged women when consumed daily for 8 weeks. We can use ginger in a number of different ways and it takes just a tsp of raw ginger root to benefit from its therapeutic properties.
Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of trees called cinnamomum. The compound in cinnamon responsible for a lot of its health benefits is cinnamaldehyde. It is a flavonoid found in the oily part of cinnamon bark and is responsible for the smell and flavour of cinnamon.
Cinnamon has long been used in traditional medicine for its antimicrobial, antibacterial and antifungal properties - and research has shown that cinnamon is useful for this.
Cinnamon is well known for its effects to improve insulin sensitivity (thus help us metabolise carbohydrate more effectively) and a recent analysis of clinical trials found that amounts as low as 120mg per day for 4-12 weeks were effective at lowering fasting blood glucose response and blood triglyceride levels of people with type 2 diabetes, along with raising HDL cholesterol (which protects against heart disease).
Studies using dosages of 6g per day (2 tsp) yielded a better response and it was reported that blood glucose levels started to rise again once the cinnamon was discontinued.
Animal and laboratory-based trials indicate that cinnamon may have anti-carcinogenic properties and it appears to be neurologically protective too, reducing the build-up of tau protein in the brain (seen in Alzheimer’s disease) and protecting neurons, neurotransmitter pathways and improving motor neuron function.
There are two types of cinnamon available, and are not created equally. The first (and most common) is cassia cinnamon and is what you find in the herbs and spices section of your local supermarket. Ceylon cinnamon, referred to as “true” cinnamon, is harder to get a hold of and is also more expensive.
While there are health benefits from consuming both types of cinnamon, cassia cinnamon contains a larger amount of coumarin - a compound that has been found to be moderately toxic for our kidneys and liver.
It’s likely not a problem at a lower dose, but it’s advisable not to consume this in large amounts, with the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Germany (which advises the Government on issues related to food safety) suggesting a teaspoon of cassia cinnamon (containing up to 12.1mg of coumarin) could be above the tolerable upper limit for “smaller individuals”.
Ceylon cinnamon contains only trace amounts of the compound. The take home message here is to search out ceylon cinnamon if you enjoy plenty of cinnamon, are of a smaller build or you may have sub-optimal liver or kidney function.
Through her subscription service of meal plans and nutritional support, nutritionist Mikki Williden helps people manage their diets in an interesting way, at a low cost. Find out more at mikkiwilliden.com