Saffron is a functional spice indispensable to many exotic dishes. It also has an illustrious history: in ancient Egypt Cleopatra is thought to have used saffron as an aromatic and seductive essence. Today, while saffron is prized for flavoring, we’ve learned that it has major medicinal powers. While traveling in Turkey, we just had to stop in the spice market to pick some up! Research shows that saffron extract works as well as antidepressant medication in treating people with major depression. Saffron also contains carotenoid compounds that boost immune function and ward off cancer. And because it may enhance learning, saffron could be useful for the treatment of memory impairment. Just try adding about 1/2 teaspoon of saffron while cooking two cups of quinoa for a mood-boosting side dish.
But saffron isn’t the only spice with powerful effects on the brain. Other brain healthy spices include turmeric, thyme, oregano and rosemary. In my house, I am always working to include spices like these into the dishes I cook.
On a recent trip abroad, Daniel and I learned that villagers in India who still eat the traditional way—lots of curry—have the world’s lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease! The ingredient responsible is turmeric, a spice that has a component shown to decrease the plaques in the brain thought to be responsible for Alzheimer’s.
But they’re not the only flavorful spices that are good for your body and your brain. Here are some others you should get to know better:
- Cinnamon: Just a whiff of cinnamon tea can bolster your working memory and attention span (you can get the same effect from chewing cinnamon gum sweetened with xylitol or natural flavoring). In addition, cinnamon helps regulate blood-sugar levels, which improves impulse control so you’re less likely to cave to cravings for cookies, cakes and candy. And get this: cinnamon also works as an aphrodisiac in men!
- Cloves: This heady spice is best known for flavoring holiday treats, but its main compound eugenol is sometimes used in dentistry because of its pain-killing effects. It’s also acts an anti-inflammatory, has anti-bacterial effects and may offer some protection from cardiovascular disease.
- Ginger: This powerful food has been used as medicine for thousands of years. Ginger is an anti-inflammatory agent that may protect against neurodegenerative diseases and reduce the oxidative stress that causes brain cells to age and die. It’s also a potent natural treatment and prevention of nausea and vomiting and is believed to help lower cholesterol. Ginger’s antifungal/antibacterial powers make it a natural treatment for wounds. I love to make a tea with ginger. Just use hot water, a few slices of ginger, some lemon, and a tiny bit of honey. It’s delicious, great for your digestion, and it makes your throat feel wonderful (if you’re getting a cold)! (Note: Ginger has natural anti-coagulant properties, so if you are taking an anticoagulant medication, check with your health-care providers before using ginger supplements.)
- Chili Powder: Made with ground chili peppers, chili powder contains capsaicin, a natural compound, which inhibits inflammation and damage from oxidation. It also may reduce cholesterol and triglycerides, prevent blood clots, lower heart attack risk, boost immunity, lower the risk of prostate cancer, help regulate insulin and blood sugar, reduce nasal congestion and prevent certain types of cancer.
- Cayenne Pepper: This also contains capsaicin and is loaded with vitamin A carotenoids. It can help fight inflammation, boost immunity, and promote weight loss. (Do not overindulge if you have high blood pressure.)
- Nutmeg: Like cloves, this aromatic spice contains pain-killing eugenol as well as myristicin, which helps prevent formation of plaques in the brain that are believed to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease. Chinese medicine uses nutmeg as treatment for liver disease and herbal medicine practitioners often use nutmeg to treat depression and anxiety.
There are no rules to follow when you cook with herbs and spices. I encourage you to make it an exciting journey and to just follow your taste buds. Be adventurous! Your food will taste great and also boost your brain. You can find some great recipes in my books “Healing ADD through Food Cookbook”, “The Omni Diet”, and “The Brain Warrior’s Way Cookbook”.