Chefs and even amateur cooks love to use fresh herbs and spices in their cooking because they add a ton of flavor with little to no calories or sodium. But when it comes to these culinary staples, flavor is the just tip of the iceberg. A growing body of research has shown that numerous herbs and spices actually have health-promoting properties, including all-important anti-inflammatory activity.
Chronic inflammation is so problematic because it contributes to serious conditions like heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. But by simply spicing up your food, you can reduce harmful inflammation, as well as your risk of these and other dangerous health conditions.
Just a few of the herbs and spices that not only add flavor and flair to your food, but also have anti-inflammatory capabilities, include chili peppers, black pepper, bay leaf, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, thyme and sage.
The primary active compounds in chili peppers are capsaicinoids, which make this hot spice one of the most powerful natural anti-inflammatories. Chili pepper reduces the activity of pro-inflammatory cytokines (molecules involved in intracellular communication) and enhances the activity of anti-inflammatory cytokines.
Chili pepper reduces obesity due to its thermoregulating properties, and improves insulin sensitivity. And an added bonus is the healing effect chili peppers have on metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that are strongly linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke. (See How Much Heat Can You Handle for Your Heart’s Sake?)
Similarly, black pepper has a positive effect on obesity and metabolic syndrome. It suppresses pro-inflammatory cytokines, but unlike chili pepper, it does not enhance the activity of anti-inflammatory cytokines. For this reason, black pepper is not as potent of an anti-inflammatory as chili pepper.
However, its active component, piperine, actually works better when heated, which makes black pepper an ideal spice to add to all your dishes while they’re being cooked.
Bay leaf is a popular spice that can naturally treat inflammatory conditions like earaches, indigestion and rheumatism, and even migraines and diabetes.
And marjoram, oregano, rosemary, thyme and sage have been used in folk medicine to treat inflammation and diseases associated with digestive upset. More recently, sage and thyme have been found to be effective in treating acute inflammation, as well as metabolic syndrome.
The compound in these five spices believed to produce the anti-inflammatory activity is rosmarinic acid.
Probably the most well-known natural anti-inflammatory spice is turmeric, which gets its health-promoting properties from the compound curcumin. In a complex series of events, curcumin inhibits the production of COX-2, an enzyme responsible for pain and inflammation, and pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Turmeric (or supplemental curcumin) has been used for the treatment of colitis, sepsis, and obesity, as well as many other conditions in which inflammation is a big factor, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Spice Up Your Menu
Researchers concluded that culinary herbs and spices have positive effects on insulin sensitivity and weight gain, and they counteract the effects of chronic inflammation caused by obesity, which in turn slows or halts the progression of diseases associated with inflammation.
They also state that combining several herbs and spices multiplies the benefits, and that cooking can further improve the liberation of the bioactive compounds, allowing them to work more successfully in the body.
Getting these wonderful anti-inflammatory benefits could not be easier. Simply add as many spices to your dishes as you can without overwhelming your taste buds.
Turmeric is excellent to use with chicken, as are marjoram, oregano, rosemary, thyme and sage. And chili pepper can give your beef or turkey chili a kick. Use your imagination, or go online and search for recipes by herb or spice to see what options are available.
 Jungbauer A and Medjakovic S. Anti-inflammatory properties of culinary herbs and spices that ameliorate the effects of metabolic syndrome. Maturitas. 2012 Mar;71(3):227–39.