Used in traditional
medicine by herbalists, spices have been a part of healing remedies
for centuries. Modern medicine, too, has recently begun to study the
powers of common herbs and spices and validated several useful
properties. Some of the spices found to be useful in heart health
include coriander seeds, turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon, fenugreek
seeds, black cumin seeds, ginger and garlic.
Coriander seeds: Coriander seeds are rich in two main compounds linaloon and decanoic acid. It has a long history as a traditional medicine with cholesterol lowering and blood sugar lowering effects. Several animal studies have demonstrated a reduction in total cholesterol, bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase in good cholesterol (HDL). Coriander seed powder is an essential ingredient in Indian cuisine but for therapeutic benefits, a teaspoon or two of coriander seeds soaked overnight and consumed the next morning seems to be useful in heart disease and diabetes.
Turmeric: Turmeric or haldi, often referred as Indian gold, is well known as a spice and medicine in Siddha and Ayurveda. The benefits for heart health arise from curcumin, an active principle which has several properties including anti-oxidant, anti-clotting, anti-inflammatory and anti-proliferative. Several studies have documented the effect of curcumin in decreasing blood cholesterol levels. Anti-oxidant properties of curcumin may also help prevent cardiovascular complications among diabetics.
Black pepper: Piperine, a major active component in both black and white pepper (de-husked pepper) has numerous reported physiological and drug-like actions. Several scientific studies provide evidence that black pepper has cholesterol-lowering properties and may help in cardiac function recovery after heart attacks.
A word of caution; piperine can strengthen or modify the effects of numerous other medicines, particularly blood thinning agents. Therefore, it is important to seek advice from a qualified professional before using it in therapeutic doses- but make sure you are generous with it, the next time you cook!
Cinnamon: Circulatory stimulant effects of cinnamon have been reported in several books on medicinal plants and Ayurveda. It helps in reduction of total and bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase in good cholesterol (HDL).
It also helps improve insulin resistance, thereby making it useful in diabetes management. While cinnamon is integral to the spice box, added benefit can be obtained by making a decoction and consuming it like tea.
Fenugreek seeds: Fenugreek seeds or 'methe', have been used extensively to prepare extracts and powders for medicinal uses since ancient times and have been described in Greek, Latin and Ayurvedic literature. Fenugreek seed powder has been known to lower levels of serum lipids such as total cholesterol and triglycerides.
Phytochemical (saponins) in fenugreek have been claimed to aid in glucose, cholesterol metabolism and cancer protection. Anti-diabetic and cholesterol-lowering properties are also attributed to their dietary fiber constituent. These seeds can be had mixed into chapattis, rice, daal, vegetable, curd, pickle, chutneys, or as sprouts in salad.
Black cumin seeds: Black cumin seeds, also known as kalonji or black caraway, should not be confused with the herb cumin. A recent study (2009) revealed that black cumin seeds have a diversified effect on lipid profile and can in lower total and bad cholesterol (LDL). Presence of phytosterols further strengthens its benefits.
Ginger: Ginger has been traditionally used in Chinese, Ayurvedic and Yunani medicines since ancient times. It is well-known for its use in ailments like sore throats, cramps, pains, arthritis, indigestion, vomiting, high blood pressure etc. The bioactive compounds in ginger include gingerol and several other phenolic compounds.
Gingerol is believed to relax blood vessels, stimulate blood flow and relieve pain. Ginger is also a powerful anti-inflammatory agent which makes it useful in heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It also has exhibited cholesterol lowering and anti-clotting activities.
Garlic: Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine and the first Indian physician Charak, the father of Ayurvedic medicine in 3000 B.C. claimed that garlic acts as a heart tonic by maintaining the fluidity of blood and strengthening the heart.
Over centuries, Garlic has acquired a unique position in therapeutic medicine and is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Over the last 20 years, modern scientific research continues to confirm these findings around the world. Allcin, a sulfur-containing compound, is one of the key components of garlic.
Allicin is known for its cholesterol lowering, anti-clotting and blood pressure lowering properties. Eating half to one clove of garlic a day may lower blood cholesterol by 9%, provided taken regularly. "Ajoene", one of the breakdown products of allicin, may reduce the risk of heart attacks by preventing formation of blood clots.
To summarise, spices not only provide aromatic taste components to food but also have diverse health benefits. Evidence based modern medicine is substantiating health claims related to foods for a healthy heart and identify bioactive components in spices and herbs.
With time, we should expect to see greater body of scientific evidence supporting these benefits with exact doses and recommendations. Meanwhile, they are certainly a valuable addition in a heart healthy diet, if taken prudently.
— The writer is a Clinical Nutritionist & Founder, theweightmonitor.com, Founder, WholeFoodsIndia and Founder President Celiac Society for Delhi