Centuries old cures might actually work
The Best Home Remedies May Be Sitting in Your Spice Cabinet
Spicing up your life may lengthen it; so choose Indian restaurants more often? We trim this 2008 article posted on Alternet on March 14. The author is co-editor of "Signs of Hope: In Praise of Ordinary Heroes." She writes about people creating positive social change for Ode Magazine.
by Kim RidleyPeople around the world have been using spice cures for centuries, but now scientists are finding that spices can ease inflammation, activate the immune system, kill bacteria and viruses and even cause cancer cells to self-destruct. Spices might help fight everything from Alzheimer's disease and cancer to depression and diabetes.
This bright yellow-orange powder, common in Indian curries, may pack more healing power than any other spice. Turmeric is the aspirin of Asia, where it has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine to heal wounds and treat inflammatory illnesses like arthritis as well as at least a dozen other health problems. Made from the powdered root of a tropical plant closely related to ginger, turmeric contains curcumin, a compound that is both a powerful anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. It's also non-toxic.
Today, scientists are finding that curcumin might help prevent and treat Alzheimer's disease and cancer. In mice, the brains of animals fed curcumin had up to 80% fewer of the protein plaques associated with the disease than those of mice given a normal diet. The abnormal clumping of proteins in the plaques is thought to cause Alzheimer's. Curcumin might fight Alzheimer's in several ways. First, curcumin forms a powerful bond with the amyloid beta protein associated with Alzheimer's that prevents the protein from clumping into plaques in the brain. Second, this bonding capacity enables curcumin to dissolve these plaques. Third, curcumin reduces oxidative damage and brain inflammation that contribute to the disease process.
Curcumin doesn't readily dissolve in water. People in India have been getting their curcumin for centuries by cooking turmeric in ghee (clarified butter), which, like any fat, enables this compound to be absorbed. Indians also have some of the lowest rates of Alzheimer's disease ever reported.
Genes may well play a role, but research also points to a diet rich in turmeric. A Singapore study of 1,010 people over age 60 who had no dementia found that those who ate curry "occasionally" and "often or very often" scored higher on mental performance tests than those who rarely or never consumed it. The most typical curry in Singapore is the turmeric-laden yellow curry.
Curcumin may help fight many cancers by blocking most of the mechanisms by which prostate cancer cells survive and grow. Nearly 40 animal studies suggest curcumin may have a strong protective effect against common cancers, including those of the breast, colon, lung, prostate and skin.
Curcumin suppresses most of the biochemical pathways that lead to inflammation -- and up to 98% of all illnesses are due to the dysregulation of inflammation. Curcumin is likely to block a molecular "master switch" responsible for inflammation and many other processes, including the growth of tumor cells.
This yellow spice comes from the dried and powdered stigmas of Crocus sativus, a fall-blooming purple flower native to southwestern Asia and cultivated in countries including India, Spain, Greece and Iran. The world's most expensive spice, saffron has been used for millennia as everything from an aphrodisiac to a remedy for colds and stomach problems.
It was also used in traditional Persian medicine to treat depression. In a modern clinical trial of 40 subjects, mildly and moderately depressed adults who received a daily 30-milligram capsule of saffron for six weeks experienced a significant improvement over those who were given a placebo.
The ancients, who used saffron to treat about 90 illnesses, may have been onto something big. Recent studies in animals have found that saffron extracts blocked or slowed the development of colon, skin, and soft-tissue tumors.
This aromatic root has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic, Chinese and Tibb-Unani (traditional Islamic) medicine to treat health problems including digestive ailments, arthritis, infectious diseases, fever, high blood pressure, pain and muscle aches. Ginger has been used medicinally for centuries, underscoring its safety. Two key compounds in the spice are gingerols, which gives fresh ginger its pungency, and shogaols, which gives dried ginger its zip.
Some of the most convincing findings on ginger's health benefits in humans come from studies of morning sickness; 70 women who received one gram of ginger per day had significantly less nausea and vomiting than a control group given a placebo. Ginger can lower both blood sugar and cholesterol, contains pain-killing compounds that mimic nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with fewer side effects, eases inflammation from arthritis, and protects against ulcers.
Studies of rodents found that ginger has powerful antioxidant properties that protect against the toxic effects of radiation treatment and skin diseases caused by ultraviolet B radiation.
Is it possible to overdose on spices? Like anything else, spices should be taken with a healthy dose of common sense. Consult with a doctor when taking any herb as medicine.
Based on recent research, turmeric remains one of the most promising and safest condiments in treating a host of illnesses. Yet it will take further clinical studies to establish whether and how spices might prevent or even cure disease.
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