The use of herbs and spices has been incredibly important throughout history. Many were celebrated for their medicinal properties, well before culinary use. Modern science has now shown that many of them do indeed carry remarkable health benefits.
Here are 10 of the world’s healthiest herbs and spices, supported by research.
1. Cinnamon Lowers Blood Sugar Levels and Has a Powerful Anti-Diabetic Effect
Cinnamon is a popular spice, found in all sorts of recipes and baked goods.
It contains a compound called cinnamaldehyde, which is responsible for cinnamon’s medicinal properties (1).
But where cinnamon really shines is in its effects on blood sugar levels.
Cinnamon can lower blood sugar by several mechanisms, including by slowing the breakdown of carbs in the digestive tract and improving insulin sensitivity (5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
The effective dose is typically 0.5-2 teaspoons of cinnamon per day, or 1-6 grams.
You can read more about the impressive health benefits of cinnamon in this article.
Bottom Line: Cinnamon has numerous health benefits, and is particularly effective at lowering blood sugar levels.
2. Sage Can Improve Brain Function and Memory
Sage gets its name from the Latin word Salvere, which means “to save.”
It had a strong reputation for its healing properties during the middle ages, and was even used to help prevent the plague.
Current research indicates that sage may be able to improve brain function and memory, especially in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is accompanied by a drop in the level of acetylcholine, a chemical messenger in the brain. Sage inhibits the breakdown of acetylcholine (12Trusted Source).
In a 4-month study of 42 individuals with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, sage extract was shown to produce significant improvements in brain function (13).
Bottom Line: There is promising evidence that sage extract can improve brain and memory function, especially in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
3. Peppermint Relieves IBS Pain and May Reduce Nausea
Peppermint has a long history of use in folk medicine and aromatherapy.
As is the case with many herbs, it is the oily component that contains the agents responsible for the health effects.
It appears to work by relaxing the smooth muscles in the colon, which relieves pain experienced during bowel movements. It also helps to reduce abdominal bloating, which is a common digestive symptom (19Trusted Source, 20).
There are also some studies showing that peppermint in aromatherapy can help fight nausea.
In a study of over 1,100 women in labor, peppermint aromatherapy caused significant reductions in nausea. It has also been shown to reduce nausea after surgery and C-section births (21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source).
Bottom Line: The natural oil in peppermint provides pain relief for those with IBS. It also has potent anti-nausea effects when used in aromatherapy.
4. Turmeric Contains Curcumin, a Substance With Powerful Anti-Inflammatory Effects
Turmeric is the spice that gives curry its yellow color.
It contains several compounds with medicinal properties, the most important of which is curcumin (25Trusted Source).
This is important, because oxidative damage is believed to be one of the key mechanisms behind ageing and many diseases.
Curcumin is also strongly anti-inflammatory, to the point where it matches the effectiveness of some anti-inflammatory drugs (31Trusted Source).
Given that long-term, low-level inflammation plays a major role in almost every chronic Western disease, it is not suprising to see that curcumin is linked to a variety of health benefits.
Studies suggest that it can improve brain function, fight Alzheimer’s, reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, and relieve arthritis, to name a few (32, 33Trusted Source, 34Trusted Source, 35Trusted Source, 36Trusted Source).
Here is an article about the many incredible health benefits of turmeric/curcumin.
Bottom Line: Studies have shown that curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric, has major benefits for many aspects of health.
5. Holy Basil Helps Fight Infections and Boosts Immunity
Not to be confused with regular basil or thai basil, holy basil is considered a sacred herb in India.
One small study also found that it can boost function of the immune system by increasing certain immune cells in the blood (39Trusted Source).
However, these studies were quite small, and more research is needed before any recommendations can be made.
Bottom Line: Holy basil appears to improve immune function and inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeasts and molds.
6. Cayenne Pepper Contains Capsaicin, Which Helps Reduce Appetite and May Have Anti-Cancer Properties
Cayenne pepper is a type of chili pepper used to prepare spicy dishes.
The active ingredient in it is called capsaicin, which has been shown to reduce appetite and increase fat burning in many studies (42Trusted Source, 43Trusted Source, 44Trusted Source, 45Trusted Source, 46Trusted Source, 47Trusted Source).
For this reason, it is a common ingredient in many commercial weight loss supplements.
One study found that adding 1 gram of red pepper to meals reduced appetite and increased fat burning in people who did not regularly eat peppers (48Trusted Source).
However, there was no effect in people who were accustomed to eating spicy food, indicating that a tolerance to the effects can build up.
Of course, these observed anti-cancer effects are far from being proven in humans, so take all of this with a big grain of salt.
Bottom Line: Cayenne pepper is very rich in a substance called capsaicin, which reduces appetite and boosts fat burning. It has also shown anti-cancer potential in animal studies.
7. Ginger Can Treat Nausea and Has Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Ginger is a popular spice used in several forms of alternative medicine.
Studies have consistently shown that 1 gram or more of ginger can successfully treat nausea.
Ginger also appears to have strong anti-inflammatory properties, and can help with pain management (59Trusted Source).
One study in subjects at risk for colon cancer found that 2 grams of ginger extract per day decreased markers for colon inflammation in the same way as aspirin (60Trusted Source).
Other research found that a mixture of ginger, cinnamon, mastic, and sesame oil decreased pain and stiffness experienced by those with osteoarthritis. It had a similar effectiveness as treatment with aspirin or ibuprofen (61Trusted Source).
Bottom Line: 1 gram of ginger appears to be an effective treatment for many types of nausea. It is also anti-inflammatory, and can help reduce pain.
8. Fenugreek Improves Blood Sugar Control
Fenugreek was commonly used in Ayurveda, particularly to enhance libido and masculinity.
While its effects on testosterone levels are inconclusive, fenugreek does seem to have beneficial effects on blood sugar.
It contains the plant protein 4-hydroxyisoleucine, which can improve the function of the hormone insulin (62Trusted Source).
Many human studies have shown that at least 1 gram of fenugreek extract per day can lower blood sugar levels, particularly in diabetics (63Trusted Source, 64Trusted Source, 65Trusted Source, 66Trusted Source, 67Trusted Source).
Bottom Line: Fenugreek has been shown to improve the function of insulin, leading to significant reductions in blood sugar levels.
9. Rosemary Can Help Prevent Allergies and Nasal Congestion
The active ingredient in rosemary is called rosmarinic acid.
This substance has been shown to suppress allergic responses and nasal congestion.
In a study with 29 individuals, both 50 and 200 mg doses of Rosmarinic acid were shown to suppress allergy symptoms (68Trusted Source).
The number of immune cells in nasal mucus also decreased, with reduced congestion.
Bottom Line: Rosmarinic acid has anti-inflammatory effects that appear to suppress allergy symptoms and reduce nasal congestion.
10. Garlic Can Combat Sickness and Improve Heart Health
Throughout ancient history, the main use of garlic was for its medicinal properties (69).
We now know that most of these health effects are due to a compound called allicin, which is also responsible for garlic’s distinct smell.
If you often get colds, then adding more garlic to your diet could be incredibly helpful.
There is also convincing evidence for beneficial effects on heart health.
In one study, it was just as effective as a blood pressure lowering drug (78Trusted Source).
Covering all the incredible health benefits of garlic is beyond the scope of this article, but you can read about them here.
Written by Joe Leech, MS — Updated on June 3, 2017