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Herbs and Spices: The Secret Weapons of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Medically reviewed by 
 
Herbs and Spices: The Secret Weapons of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Your diet, lifestyle, and the environmental factors you are exposed to can trigger the inflammatory response. If this normal response becomes chronic or excessive, it can take a toll on your body and contribute to the development of many chronic diseases. 

The foods you eat can significantly contribute to the levels of inflammation in your body. An anti-inflammatory diet is a powerful way to help balance the body and reduce chronic inflammation. Eating foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and herbs and spices can help to control excess inflammation as part of an anti-inflammatory diet. This way of eating also avoids foods that can provoke inflammation like trans fats, conventionally-raised red meats, commercial baked goods, processed sugars, chemical additives, and deep-fried foods.

Herbs and spices add flavor and interest to your food while also acting as allies in health. This article will explore how herbs and spices are integral, yet often overlooked, components of an anti-inflammatory diet and how you can easily incorporate these potent foods into your diet for better health.  

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The Science Behind Inflammation and Diet

Your body mounts acute inflammatory responses to defend against infections and repair tissue injury. Various factors contribute to inflammation. These include exogenous triggers like a bug bite, injury, or toxin and endogenous triggers like cytokines released via your body’s stress response

All of these triggers can activate an inflammatory cascade as your immune system releases mediators to respond to the trigger. These mediators include interleukins, toll-like receptors, arachidonic acid, mast cells, complement proteins, and clotting factors that lead to the five cardinal signs of acute inflammation–redness, increased body temperature or heat, swelling, pain, and loss of function.

This response helps your body deal with the stressor, injury, or infection at hand in the acute period. But if this inflammation becomes chronic, excessive, systemic, and unchecked it can contribute to the development of many chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and autoimmune diseases.

In addition to lifestyle and environmental factors, the foods that you eat can be a major contributor to chronic inflammation. The standard Western diet adds an inflammatory burden to the body. Foods like trans fats, conventionally-raised red meats and dairy products, commercial baked goods, processed sugars, chemical additives, and deep-fried foods trigger inflammation in your body. 

On the other hand, plant-based dietary patterns like the Mediterranean diet that encourages the consumption of plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, herbs, and spices along with a moderate consumption of legumes and fish and a low consumption of red meat help to reduce inflammation

Distinguishing Between Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices like rosemary, basil, oregano, mint, cardamom, fennel seeds, black pepper, and coriander are powerful components of an anti-inflammatory diet. They add flavor to your food while also supporting balanced inflammatory responses. 

Herbs and spices have long been embraced for their culinary and medicinal properties. These plants contain a range of healthy antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins to help balance inflammation and avoid chronic disease.

Herbs typically are derived from the leaves of plants while spices are derived from other parts of plants, such as seeds, bark, roots, and fruits. These plant constituents are rich in medicinal substances like polyphenol antioxidants that help protect the plants from pathogens and ultraviolet radiation. In turn, consuming these plants provides antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. 

Examples of Anti-Inflammatory Herbs

Rosmarinus officinalis L. (rosemary) is a medicinal and culinary herb that is commonly incorporated into the Mediterranean diet. Phytonutrients in this plant provide anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, and antitumor activity while also supporting digestion. These include caffeic acid, carnosic acid, chlorogenic acid, oleanolic acid, rosmarinic acid, ursolic acid, alpha-pinene, camphor, carnosol, eucalyptol, rosmanol, luteolin, and eugenol. Studies show that the anti-inflammatory effects of rosemary help to attenuate asthma, atherosclerosis, cataracts, renal colic, liver toxicity, stomach ulcers, ischemic heart disease, and other inflammatory diseases. 

Ocimum basilicum L. (basil) is another common culinary herb with powerful health benefits. This plant provides antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and anti-inflammatory properties that make it beneficial for diseases involving inflammation, immune dysregulation, and oxidative stress. Due to its powerful anti-inflammatory effects, basil has a long history of use in traditional Indian and Asian medicine as a natural anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antibiotic, and diuretic.

Origanum vulgare (oregano) also has a long history of use for medicinal as well as culinary purposes. This herb is a member of the mint (Lamiaceae) family. Oregano oil contains carvacrol and thymol which have strong antibacterial and antifungal properties, making it useful as a folk remedy for upset stomach, respiratory complaints, and bacterial infections. In addition, the leaves of the oregano plant contain antioxidant anti-inflammatory compounds such as phenols, triterpenes, rosmarinic acid, ursolic acid, and oleanolic acid. Together, these components have a beneficial effect on the digestive tract, relaxing the muscles of the gastrointestinal tract and helping to balance the gut microbiome making it useful for conditions like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). 

Another member of the mint (Lamiaceae) family that has potent benefits on digestive health is mint. The most commonly used herbs in the Mentha genus include peppermint and spearmint. Peppermint helps to reduce inflammation by reducing oxidative stress and suppressing the production of pro-inflammatory mediators and nitric oxide while increasing the production of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. These anti-inflammatory herbs are commonly used in culinary dishes as well as being made into teas or tinctures. Mint is known for its ability to soothe digestive woes, with studies showing that peppermint oil can help relax gastrointestinal muscles and reduce irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms by up to 75%. 

Examples of Anti-Inflammatory Spices

Several spices are also powerful natural allies for improving digestive health and reducing inflammation. For example, cardamom, fennel seeds, ginger, cinnamon, and black pepper have a long history of use in many medical traditions including Ayurveda. 

Elettaria cardamomum (cardamom) is a member of the Zingiberaceae family like ginger. It contains various phytonutrients including terpinene, stigmasterol, geranyl acetate, geraniol, β-pinene, citronellol, borneol, bisabolene, eugenyl acetate, phytol, β-sitostenone, nerolidol, linalol, α-pinene, menthone, cineol, limonene, subinene, heptane, myrcene, and α-terpineol that give it anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. Studies have shown in addition to cardamom’s benefits on digestive health, this anti-inflammatory spice can benefit the health of the teeth and gums, reduce inflammation in the lungs, and support the liver and heart

Similarly, foeniculum vulgare (fennel seeds) is a flavorful culinary spice with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and digestive benefits. Fennel seeds contain the polyphenol antioxidants rosmarinic acid, chlorogenic acid, quercetin, and apigenin that help reduce the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, obesity, neurological diseases, and type 2 diabetes.

Coriandrum sativum (coriander) is a spice with anti-inflammatory effects, especially for helping to reduce symptoms of arthritis. This seed of the cilantro plant is antioxidant-rich, making it a powerful ally in preventing cellular damage caused by free radicals that can create inflammation. These actions help coriander lower blood sugar and reduce inflammation involved in arthritis

Black pepper is a common culinary spice with powerful anti-inflammatory benefits. This spice contains piperine which can enhance the absorption of other anti-inflammatory compounds, such as turmeric (curcumin), selenium, and beta-carotene

Strategies for Incorporating Herbs and Spices into an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Herbs have been used for centuries across cultures to enhance the flavor and health benefits of food. There are many simple but powerful ways to add these herbs and spices to your daily meals.

You can add dry or fresh herbs to all sorts of foods. For example, try adding basil atop pasta and pizzas, stirring oregano and rosemary into soups and stews, throwing fresh mint into salads and smoothies, and incorporating cardamom and ginger into baked goods. It is usually best to add herbs and spices towards the end of cooking, exposing them to low or no heat to help preserve as many health benefits as possible. 

Many herbs and spices can also be made into therapeutic teas. You can add fresh herbs to a stainless steel tea strainer and steep in hot water to make a flavorful and healthy tea.

Another tasty way to enjoy herbs is by making herb-infused oils. A simple technique to infuse oil with herbs uses the power of the sun. Place herbs like rosemary into a jar with olive or other oil and close with a tight lid. Allow to sit in the sun, shaking a few times a day. After a few weeks, strain out the herbs using cheesecloth. 

You can also make your custom spice rubs to use on tofu or other proteins.

The Impact of Herbs and Spices

These herbs and spices have powerful effects on health. Incorporating a variety of herbs and spices into your diet can provide a range of benefits. In addition to the powerful anti-inflammatory impacts of these plants, many herbs and spices support digestion, enhance detoxification, and support a healthy mood

Overall, research shows that people who frequently consume spicy foods have a lower risk of death from cancer, ischemic heart disease, and respiratory diseases.

Growing Your Own Anti-Inflammatory Garden

A fun and practical way to ensure a fresh supply of anti-inflammatory herbs is to grow your herb garden. Depending on the amount of space you have, you can set aside outdoor space in your garden, dedicate a corner of your patio to some potted herbs, or add some herb plants to your window sill. 

Growing herbs at home allows you to quickly and easily add fresh flavor and health benefits to your meals. Whenever you need some added flavor, just clip a few sprigs of fresh herbs to use in a recipe to add powerful anti-inflammatory benefits. 

Herbs like basil, chives, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, and thyme can thrive even in small indoor spaces as long as they have adequate water and sunlight. Be sure to choose a pot with enough space and drainage. If possible, place your herbs in a south-facing window where they can receive at least six hours of sunlight each day.

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Key Takeaways

Herbs and spices are powerful components of an anti-inflammatory diet. These plants support the body with benefits including reducing inflammation, promoting detoxification, and balancing blood sugar levels. 

You can grow herbs like rosemary, basil, oregano, and mint at home to incorporate into a variety of dishes within your anti-inflammatory diet. They boost the flavor of your cooking while supporting balanced inflammatory responses. Small dietary changes, like increasing your intake of herbs and spices, can have a significant impact on your health and well-being.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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