How to spice things up (for audacious aging and overall wellness)

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Typically we think of herbs and spices merely as things to make our food taste better but the truth is that they are so much more than that! In addition to being bright and flavorful, they contain vitamins, antioxidants and all kinds of other health boosting benefits, making them an essential component of living and aging audaciously. Bonus: because spices can be thermogenic, they may also naturally (and slightly) increase your metabolism and even increase feelings of satiety. 

Here’s a short list of some of my favorite herbs and spices and how to use them.

Basil is a great source of antioxidants which help fight free radicals and protect white blood cells (free radicals attack healthy cells and cause their DNA to mutate into cancerous cells). Antioxidants neutralize free radicals and protect your system from all kinds of things from cancer to symptoms of premature aging like wrinkles, age spots, macular degeneration, and memory loss. Basil is also anti-inflammatory and can even help boost immunity. We all know about using basil with tomatoes and mozzarella, on pizza and in tomato sauce, but how about snipping fresh basil into salads, soups and stews? Try it on top of this Green Curry Chicken or in this super easy homemade pesto.

Black pepper does more than just punch up flavor in everyday dishes. It increases the hydrochloric acid secretion in the stomach, which helps digestion - and good digestion is the key to SO MUCH HEALTH, including better absorption of the nutrients in your food. In Ayurvedic healing, pepper is added to tonics for treating colds and coughs. It’s antibacterial, full of antioxidants, plus it helps make other herbs and spices more bioavailable. For instance, we really only absorb the key healing compound in turmeric when it’s consumed with black pepper. And if that’s to enough, piperine, one of the key compounds in black pepper, has been shown to reduce memory impairment and  help cognitive function. So next time you’re eating out, say “yes!” to a grind of fresh pepper. If you’re fighting a cold (or to help stay healthy in cold and flu season) add extra pepper to my homemade bone broth or this winter vegetable soup.

Cayenne pepper can do so many things it’s practically a miracle spice. It’s healing properties include boosting metabolism and immunity, acting as an anti-fungal, a detoxifier (by heating the body), and lots more. If you can stand the heat then jump into the fire! Try adding in a little extra cayenne in curries, stir fries or your favorite chili recipe. My favorite is Chocolate Chili from Mel Joulwan of Well Fed. It’s a crowd pleaser!

Cinnamon is a favorite spice of many people, maybe because it’s so easily found in baked goods or things like your mom’s famous cinnamon rolls.  But cinnamon is more than just a pretty face. It helps keeps blood sugar steady, preventing insulin spikes that lead to energy and mood crashes as well as sugar and carb cravings. It’s #7 of all foods, spices and herbs on the ORAC scale which stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity and is used to measure the concentration of antioxidants in different foods. Cinnamon (specifically Ceylon cinnamon vs. cassia cinnamon) is also good for heart health and is a natural anti-microbial, anti-biotic, anti-fungal and anti-viral. A couple of cinnamon-heavy recipes include this delicious granola and these pumpkin spice overnight oats. I also add Ceylon cinnamon to my morning matcha and every day and I love it!

Cumin is a good source of iron, zinc, potassium and manganese and even has some vitamin C. It’s a digestive booster, an immune booster and is good for brain health. Commonly found in Mexican and Indian cuisine, it goes great with beans, lentils, tomatoes, curries and barbecue sauces for a start. It’s really simple to toast cumin seeds in a dry skillet on your stovetop and then grind them in an old coffee grinder for the freshest and most potent cumin powder. Some yummy recipes using lots of cumin include these crispy pork carnitas, this Cauliflower Rice Kitchari, this Sweet Potato Hummus, and this simple Butter Chicken recipe (featuring homemade garam masala) that comes from Meghan Telpner, the director of the Academy of Culinary Nutrition where I took a fantastic course last year. (They only offer it once a year and the new one starts in September. You can check it out here if you’re interested!).

Ginger - how do I love thee! Let me count the ways… Ginger is one of my favorite spices. It’s sweet and spicy and good for the tummy, the brain and lots more. It it has anti-cancer properties, reduces inflammation, and, according to this study, can improve cognitive function of healthy middle-aged women (#signmeup). I keep fresh ginger in my fridge most of the time and I add it to smoothies or smoothie bowls in the morning, make tea with it when anyone in my family is coming down with a bug, and grate or mince it to add to stir fries, sauces and soups like this Gingery Butternut Squash soup

Parsley, like the other herbs or spices on this list, is also very anti-inflammatory, full of antioxidants, and helps with digestion. It’s detoxifying, full of iron and other vitamins and helps keep your breath smelling fresh. Growing up, I only knew it as the green thing on the Passover seder plate but now I use it for so may things that I keep it growing in my garden pretty much year round. I like the flat-leaf Italian parsley best and I use it in homemade pesto, chop tons of it up in this yummy quinoa salad, throw some in my smoothies and sprinkle it on grilled fish, soups and stews.

Turmeric is the current darling of the wellness world and with good reason: its main component, curcumin, is a potent anti-inflammatory and it has been used to treat everything from arthritis and depression to IBS and even cancer. It’s bioavailability (the way it is absorbed) is largely increased by the addition of black pepper so even a small grind from the pepper mill will make a difference. Some delicious recipes with turmeric include this Ayurvedic “moon milk” (a great bedtime tonic), this simple One Pan Turmeric Chicken Skillet, and these Crunchy Kale Chips.

These are only a few of the options out there in herb and spice land. Rest assured that your garden and your spice rack can be a virtual medicine cabinet full of things that are good for your health. Bottom line: opt for spicy (if you can tolerate it) and flavorful whenever possible and remember that these "little" ingredients add a very big punch.