What are Herbs & Spices?
Any part of plant like leaves, root, bud, flower, stigma when incorporated in cooking is labeled as herbs or, spices at large. They have a long history of culinary heritage. Traditionally employed as flavor enhancing agents while cooking meat, gravy, vegetable or, desserts; medicinal role of these herbs & spices has attracted attention of medical researchers due to natural healing their healing properties.
Health benefits of Herbs & Spices?
Before going into details of Mechanisms and the resultant health benefits of herbs & spices, it is helpful to understand how the particular health benefits are achieved. What are the biologically active components which elicit a medicinal response within human body.
The most active component of Herbs & Spices is a group of Phytochemicals known as Polyphenols. Five major classes of dietary polyphenols are,
- Phenolic Acids
- Coumarins and,
Common polyphenol rich foods ( aka. Super-foods) are dark chocolate, blue & red berries, ginger, broccoli and grape but what differentiates herbs from these foods is the concentration of active ingredient in that particular food item. Herbs & Spices have been assessed in both dried and natural formulations for the concentration of bioactive component and it is established to be well higher than present in super-foods mentioned earlier.
Health benefits of commonly used Herbs & Spices can be attributed to following inherent properties,
1) Anti-inflammatory action
- Cloves, Cinnamon and nutmeg are shown to act as an anti-inflammatory agent by suppressing release of pro-inflammatory substances like hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and Tumour Necrosis Factor-α which further inhibits Interleukin-8 (IL-8) release from peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBLs).
- Another mechanism which imparts anti-inflammatory properties to herbs is inhibition of enzyme cyclo-oxegenase-2 (COX-2) and activation of enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD). COX-2 is the same enzyme which is blocked by medicines like Aspirin and Ibuprofen, to relieve active inflammation and chronic inflammatory diseases are associated with free radical superoxide, which is dismutated by the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD).
2) Antioxidant Action
An optimum balance of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) and Reactive Nitrogen Species (RNS) is essential for cell membrane integrity and protein and nucleic acids functioning. Disruption of this balance can trigger a wide range of diseases due to cell death and early ageing.
National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has laid down several levels of evidence for analyzing association of a particular effect with a bioactive component. There is level III-3 evidence for direct reduction of cholesterol up to 9% with consumption of half to one clove of garlic. This is particularly significant because low-density lipoprotein cholesterol play a major role in etiology of Atherosclerosis.
Moreover, there is level III-1 evidence establishing efficacy of garlic as an anti-clotting and blood pressure reducing ( up to 5.5% reduction in systolic blood pressure) agent.
These effects of herbs & spices are due to their capacity to reduce oxidative stress.
3) Anti-Cancer Action
Culinary Herbs & Spices alter gut micro-flora, which is essential for prevention of gut inflammation and prevention of pre-cancerous lesions. Polyphenols have shown to be a promising agent in prevention and treatment of colorectal cancer. Further studies have concluded into association of active ingredients of these herbs with suppression of carcinogen bioactivation, which directly modifies tumor behavior and ensures better prognosis.
4) Antibiotic Action
Comprehensive research into parallel studies, comparing cloves and garlic extracts with common antibiotics against gram-negative bacteria has yielded surprising results. These herbs are shown to possess bactericidal properties against common bacteria causing diarrhea (E.Coli), Typhoid fever (S.Typhi) and Cholera (V.Cholerae)
5) Other Benefits of dietary Herbs & Spices
- There is level I and II evidence establishing association of dietary spices with enhancement of psychological and cognitive function in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
- Ginseng has significant effects on curing hyperglycemia associated with type-II diabetes mellitus.
- Turmeric (Coumarin derivates) is used by medical practitioners across globe to aid treatment of Hypothyroidism and Graves’ disease.
- Herbs offer a better alternative to taste altering agents like salt, sugar and saturated fats. Spices make food more appetizing and digestible.
Current challenges in establishing role of Herbs & Spices in health enhancement?
Almost all methods aimed at determining medicinal properties of Herbs & spices rely on methods developed to study pharmacological agents. These agents are small molecular weight and they are administered in most concentrated formulations. This differs them from spices which are consumed in combination with food, which is itself a culturally and socially diverse entity.
Future research is to be aimed at tackling this particular limitation of study practices.