Most people use herbs and spices on a daily basis. Whether it’s cracked pepper in an omelet, basil on a pasta dish or a dash of cinnamon in your favorite dessert, herbs and spices play a big part in our culinary lives. While they certainly add a delightful burst of flavor to whatever you’re cooking, the health benefits are often overlooked. Many health benefits of herbs and spices can be gained from using them in aromatherapy.
What Is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils to help promote physical, spiritual, and psychological well being. It is a holistic form of treatment, meaning that it views the body as a whole instead of focusing on each separate part. Holistic forms of treatment try to get to the underlying problem behind a particular symptom, instead of attempting to simply mask the pain with medication. Aromatherapy works as both a preventative method as well as a natural treatment for illness or discomfort.
The word ‘aromatherapy’ was originally coined in 1937 by a French perfumer and chemist named Rene-Maurice Gattefosse. He published a book titled “Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy” which contained a collection of clinical findings for using essential oils for a wide variety of symptoms. 1
Although the term ‘aromatherapy’ wasn’t coined until the 1900s, the use of aromatic plant parts for both medicinal and religious purposes dates back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used oils of cedarwood, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and myrrh in the embalming process. Infused oils were also used by the Egyptians for cosmetic, fragrance and medicinal purposes. The actual distillation of essential oils dates back approximately one thousand years and is usually attributed to the Persians in the 10th century. 2
Essential oils are highly concentrated natural plant extracts. Each has its own unique chemical composition and offers a variety of therapeutic properties, from antiviral to expectorant to antispasmodic.
When used for therapeutic purposes, essential oils can be applied topically, aromatically, or internally to produce a wide variety of health benefits. They can also be added to natural cleaning products, beauty products, candles, and massage oils.
How Does Aromatherapy Work?
Inhaling the relaxing scent of lavender essential oil can almost instantly ease feelings of stress and anxiety, but how does this work exactly? There’s actually a lot of science behind this seemingly simple reaction. The limbic system of your brain is primarily responsible for your emotions, but also controls the flow of adrenaline, heart rate, behavior, blood pressure, breathing, hormone balance, long-term memory, motivation and olfaction (sense of smell). Simply inhaling the scent of essential oils can instantly have a positive effect on your wellbeing. 3
Essential oils work in subtle ways on the systems of the body over time. If added to your daily routine, they can help ease nausea, muscle pain, anxiety, stress, fatigue, insomnia, headaches, circulatory problems and more. Essential oils aren’t like over-the-counter medications that simply mask one particular symptom. Aromatherapy helps ease your symptoms but also supports all the systems of your body to enhance the body’s innate healing processes.
Different Types of Aromatherapy
There are four main types of aromatherapy: cosmetic, massage, olfactory, and psycho-aromatherapy. Each of these works under the same basic principles, although differ in their execution.
- Cosmetic aromatherapy uses essential oils in skin, body, face and hair care products. These products can be cleansers, moisturizers, lotions, shampoos, facial oils, toners and more. Healthy hair and skin can be obtained by using a blend of essential oils combined for your own needs.
- Massage aromatherapy combines essential oils with a carrier oil to use in massage, whether hand, foot or full body.
- Olfactory aromatherapy is what people generally think when they hear the word ‘aromatherapy’. Simply inhaling the essential oil, whether diffused throughout a room or sniffed directly from the bottle, can help improve emotional, physical and spiritual health.
- Psycho-aromatherapy is used when particular moods or emotions need to be promoted through the use of different essential oils. Using essential oils in psychotherapy can promote feelings of relaxation and happiness or trigger good memories. 4
What Is Ayurvedic Medicine?
Ayurvedic medicine (also referred to as Ayurveda) is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems. It originated in India over 3,000 years ago and to this day is one of India’s most-used health care systems. Ayurvedic medicine is based on the belief that overall health and wellness depend on the balance between mind, body and spirit. Ayurveda focuses more on promoting general good health than fighting off diseases, but treatments may be geared toward fighting particular symptoms. Ayurvedic medicine is widely known in Eastern cultures but isn’t as well known in Western cultures.
The term ‘Ayurveda’ originates from the Sanskrit words for life (Ayur) and science or knowledge (Veda). Many Ayurveda practices are so old that they were not written down, merely passed through word of mouth. 5
The Basic Beliefs of Ayurveda Include:
- All things in the universe are connected, whether living or nonliving. All things are made from five elements: fire, water, earth, air, and space.
- The self and the environment have a deep connection.
- Good health requires good balance.
- Balance is often disrupted by lifestyle choices, including diet, exercise, stress, and relationships. Each of these things can create physical, emotional or spiritual imbalances.
- Humans are all responsible for their own health. The choices we make can help us attain and maintain good health as long as we maintain a proper balance. 6
Ayurvedic medicine can be both preventative and curative, and diet plays a large part. Introducing healing herbs and spices into your diet and daily routine can help you reattain the natural balance needed to promote overall wellness.
Common Herbs and Spices Used in Natural Remedies and Preventative Medicine
Herbs and spices play a large part in natural, holistic medicine. Many of them may already be in your pantry! If you’ve ever sipped on a warm mug of echinacea tea to ward off seasonal illnesses or sucked on a ginger candy to ease nausea, you’ve already experienced simple forms of holistic medicine.
Ginger is a member of the Zingiberaceae family and is closely related to galangal and turmeric. Ginger has a long history of being used in various forms of alternative medicine, especially throughout China and India. It has been used to ease nausea, support digestion, and help fight off both the flu and common cold. Although less common, ginger has also been known to be used to ease muscle pain, decrease joint stiffness related to arthritis, reduce blood sugar levels and protect against infections. 7
A 2014 study conducted a meta-analysis of the efficacy of ginger in the treatment of pregnancy-associated nausea and vomiting. Over the course of 12 different studies, ginger was shown to significantly decrease nausea symptoms, but only had a slight effect against the frequency of vomiting. 8
Gingerol is the main bioactive compound in ginger and is responsible for many of ginger’s medicinal properties. Gingerol has been known to have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and even anti-cancer properties. 9 In a 2016 study published in Phytotherapy Research, the effects of 6-gingerol on human oral and cervical cancer cells was tested. The results showed that 6-gingerol was a safe and effective way to kill off cancer cells and inhibit their ability to replicate. 10
To use ginger to reduce feelings of nausea, try drinking a warm ginger tea mixed with a spoonful of honey. If you’re attempting to ward off the cold or flu, try mixing freshly minced ginger with a spoonful of honey and eating it straight!
Cinnamon is another spice that has been used in alternative medicine for hundreds of years and is a well-known spice in Ayurvedic medicine. In Ayurveda, cinnamon bark is often used to help enhance the bioavailability of other herbs - meaning that it helps the body absorb and circulate other herbs. Cinnamon is commonly used to soothe digestion and ease nausea. It can also be combined with other warming herbs such as ginger and black pepper in a tea to help ease symptoms of a cold. 11
Researchers have found that cinnamon actually ranks #1 out of 26 of the most popular herbs and spices in terms of antioxidant levels! 12 Aside from antioxidants, cinnamon is known for having anti-inflammatory, expectorant, antibacterial, antifungal, and carminative properties.
In terms of digestion, cinnamon can help relieve flatulence, stimulate gastric acid to promote the breakdown of food, relieve nausea and cramps, reduce acidity and increase appetite. Cinnamon is also known for having anthelmintic properties, which can help get rid of parasites in the intestines.
Cinnamon can be especially beneficial to the respiratory system due to its antibacterial, expectorant, antitussive and anti-inflammatory properties. Cinnamon can help relieve symptoms of the common cold, ease a cough, and reduce symptoms of bronchitis by easing inflammation and helping expel mucus.
Other medicinal uses of cinnamon include increasing blood circulation, regulating menstruation, stimulating the nervous system, treating fungal infections and reducing bad breath by eliminating harmful bacteria.
When using cinnamon medicinally, it is recommended to use cinnamon sticks rather than the ground spice. If the ground spice is your only option, be sure you are purchasing high-quality cinnamon and you replace the spice every 12 months. When cinnamon is ground, the essential oils become volatilized and lose some of their efficacy. 13 Try adding a dash of cinnamon to a bowl of oatmeal, or use it in a warming tea with a handful of your other favorite herbs and spices.
Adding a pinch of black pepper to a dish is almost second nature to many people. However, many people don’t know that this seemingly simple little spice actually packs a whole lot of health benefits! Black pepper can help improve digestion, promote weight loss, relieve symptoms of the common cold, alleviate a cough and boost metabolism. Black pepper is also high in antioxidants, which can help prevent and repair the damage caused by free radicals. Antioxidants can help prevent and reduce various signs of aging such as wrinkles, fine lines, age spots, and memory loss.
Eating black pepper can help increase the secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which can in turn help aid in digestion. When the body produces an insufficient amount of hydrochloric acid, food takes longer to digest and can lead to indigestion, heartburn, gas, intestinal irritation, diarrhea or constipation. Black pepper also has carminative properties, which can help alleviate flatulence. Adding black pepper to a meal can promote both sweating and urination, which help aid the body in the release of toxins. 14
In a 2011 study published in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, the outer layer of black peppercorns was shown to stimulate the breakdown of fat cells, which can aid in weight loss while giving you extra energy! Ayurvedic tea made with black pepper is a common tea recommended for weight loss and is a combination of cloves, cinnamon, licorice, ginger, cardamom, and black pepper. 15
You may already be familiar with a few of garlic’s healing benefits, as it is a common folk remedy for the cold and flu. Did your grandmother ever try to get you to eat a raw clove of garlic to ease your discomfort? There’s actually a bit of truth behind that common remedy, as the allicin released when garlic is crushed has powerful antimicrobial properties. Allicin is only briefly present in fresh garlic after it has been chopped or pressed, so it’s important to use raw garlic for medicinal purposes.
Although garlic is a popular ingredient in many dishes, throughout history the most prevalent use of garlic has been for medicinal purposes. One of the most common uses of garlic is to help ward off illnesses. In a 2001 study, the efficacy of garlic against the common cold was tested on 146 volunteers. The results of the study showed that the group who took an allicin-containing garlic supplement had significantly fewer colds and a significantly shorter duration of symptoms than those in the placebo group. 16
Garlic also helps to flush toxins from the body, purify the blood, lower cholesterol levels, reduce blood sugar levels, treat skin infections and prevent various forms of cancer. You can introduce garlic into your daily routine by making a fire cider out of garlic, horseradish, onion, ginger, hot pepper, lemon, orange, and apple cider vinegar. Take a shot of this every morning or mix it into a glass of hot water to make a tea. You can also crush up fresh garlic and spread it onto a piece of toast.
Turmeric is most well-recognized by its bright yellow color that gives curry its distinct hue. While it is usually found in powdered form, turmeric is actually a root closely related to ginger. The main active compound in turmeric is known as curcumin, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Although curcumin has a lot of health benefits, it is not easily absorbed into the bloodstream. To reap the full health benefits, it is recommended to consume black pepper along with turmeric. Black pepper contains a natural substance called piperine, which can increase the absorption of curcumin by 2000%! 17
Turmeric has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine as a treatment for inflammatory conditions. In a study published in 2016, the anti-inflammatory role of curcumin against osteoarthritis was tested. The results showed that patients who took a curcumin supplement experienced less pain, improvement in physical function and general improvement in the quality of life. Patients also reported fewer side effects and a reduced need for analgesic medications during treatment. 18 Studies such as this one show that turmeric and curcumin supplements can be a healthy alternative to common anti-inflammatory treatments.
Turmeric is also known to have powerful antioxidant properties, which can protect the body against damage from free radicals and reduce signs of aging. Although more studies need to be conducted to prove the efficacy of curcumin against a variety of health conditions, it is thought to also help lower the risk of brain disease, improve heart health, prevent various types of cancer, prevent Alzheimer’s disease, improve conditions for those suffering from arthritis, and ease negative emotions. 19
Rosemary is a member of the Lamiaceae (mint) family along with oregano, thyme, basil, lavender, and other common culinary herbs. While it adds a delightful flavor to many dishes, it is also a good source of iron, calcium, and vitamin B6. Along with many other common herbs and spices, rosemary has been used since ancient times as a treatment for a variety of conditions. It has traditionally been used to help alleviate muscle pain, boost the immune system, improve cognitive function, enhance the circulatory system and promote hair growth.
Rosemary has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which help to increase blood circulation, improve immune function and fight off free radicals. Rosemary is also used to treat indigestion, protect against Alzheimer’s, slow the spread of leukemia cells and protect against macular degeneration. 20
In a 2012 study published in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, the aroma of rosemary was shown to help improve performance on cognitive tasks! Twenty healthy volunteers exhibited improved concentration, performance, speed, and accuracy. 21
Rosemary is an easy herb to grow in your home and can be added fresh to a variety of dishes. It can also be found in powdered or supplement form.
Ginseng is very popular in traditional Chinese medicine and has been used for centuries to reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, increase energy levels and more. While ginseng isn’t as popular in Western cultures, it is slowly becoming more common as a form of alternative medicine.
Although they belong to different botanical families, ginseng looks similar to ginger and turmeric and can sometimes be mistaken for one of the two. One of the main health benefits of ginseng is its ability to increase energy and vitality and reduce feelings of fatigue. A 2013 research study showed that ginseng helped to lower levels of oxidative stress, fight feelings of fatigue, enhance physical activity and increase energy levels! 22
Ginseng has also been used to improve cognitive ability, reduce alcohol toxicity by increasing enzymes that assist in alcohol breakdown, relieve stress, reduce inflammation, treat erectile dysfunction, alleviate menstrual discomfort, ease symptoms of menopause, improve lung function, lower cholesterol, improve heart health, lower blood sugar levels, detox the body and aid in weight loss! While many of these claims come from a limited number of studies, ginseng can be a healthy alternative to many common medications for these conditions.
Side effects of ginseng can include headaches, dizziness, nausea, rapid heartbeat, or insomnia, so it’s important to consult with a medical professional before attempting to treat any chronic condition with ginseng. Ginseng may also negatively interact with certain medications. 23
Tulsi is a common name for holy basil and is a very important herb in Ayurvedic medicine. Tulsi is considered an adaptogen, which is a natural substance that can help the body adapt to stress. Holy basil is often associated with the Hindu god Vishnu and has been used throughout history to provide both mental and physical benefits. Its health benefits are so varied that it has even been referred to as the ‘elixir of life’.
Tulsi can help improve digestion, promote cardiovascular health and boost the immune system. In India, it is often used as an aid to meditation to help promote a relaxed state of mind. It is thought to improve memory, enhance circulation and has even been used as a natural treatment for ADD, ADHD, and depression. Tulsi has also been used to balance hormones, maintain healthy levels of cortisol and regulate blood sugar levels. It can help promote healthy liver function, eliminate harmful toxins from the body and strengthen the kidneys. Tulsi is also a powerful antioxidant, protecting against damage from free radicals!
Because of its wide variety of health benefits, Tulsi is a wonderful herb to add to your daily routine, whether taking it in supplement form, drinking it as a tea or simply adding a few fresh leaves of it to your dinner. While tulsi does not have a long list of side effects, it has been known to thin the blood slightly and shouldn’t be used by people who are taking blood-thinning medications. Because it has the ability to lower blood sugar, it should not be used by anyone with hypoglycemia. 24
Fennel is known for its licorice-like flavor, which is wonderful in both teas and culinary dishes alike. It also boasts a wide range of health benefits, from relieving flatulence to preventing anemia from treating indigestion!
Particularly in India, it is common practice to chew fennel seeds after meals. While this helps eliminate bad breath, it is also done to help facilitate digestion. Chewing fennel seeds can stimulate the secretion of gastric juices and reduce inflammation in the stomach and intestines. Fennel can also help relieve constipation by maintaining proper peristaltic motion of the intestines, reduce acidity and facilitate proper absorption of nutrients from food.
Fennel is thought to help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, reduce cholesterol levels, improve immune response, reduce inflammation, boost metabolism, aid in weight loss, increase iron absorption and regulate menstruation. Fennel is also useful in treating respiratory disorders such as bronchitis, congestion, and cough due to its expectorant properties. 25
A great way of adding fennel into your daily routine is to take one teaspoon of dried fennel seeds and add to hot water to make a tea. You can also use fresh fennel in soups, stews, and roasts!
While there are many varieties of mint, spearmint and peppermint are generally the most common. In Ayurveda, spearmint is a cooling herb that is often used to treat digestive issues, promote respiratory health, reducing fevers, and easing the pain of headaches. While spearmint and peppermint have similar health benefits, spearmint is often thought of as a more milder mint that is good for use with children.
Spearmint can be used to relieve nausea, alleviate symptoms of a cough and cold, reduce a headache and sinus pain, ease feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, and provide relief from the pain of menstrual cramps. Fresh spearmint leaves can be used in a tea to benefit from all of these therapeutic properties. Fresh leaves can also be added to desserts, smoothies, salads or simply a glass of water!
Coriander, also referred to as cilantro, is often used as a garnish on many dishes around the world. In America, ‘coriander’ commonly means the seeds of the cilantro plant, while other parts of the world simply refer to the whole plant as coriander! Many people write off this herb as a simple decoration and it often gets tossed in the trash at the end of a meal. However, this simple herb offers a wide variety of health benefits. In Ayurvedic medicine, coriander is often used as a digestive aid. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used to treat nausea, hernias, toothache, measles, and hemorrhoids.
Coriander is commonly used in the form of a tea to treat digestive disorders. In a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, coriander was proven to help with indigestion, relieve flatulence, lower blood pressure and release toxins from the body due to its diuretic properties. Coriander also has anti-inflammatory properties, which can help alleviate symptoms of arthritis. 26
Cardamom seeds are commonly used for flavoring in coffee, desserts, bread, and other dishes. Traditionally, cardamom has been used in India and other Asian countries to treat diarrhea, depression, heart disorders, dysentery, and nausea. The seed has powerful antimicrobial and antioxidant properties and is often used to ease feelings of stress and anxiety. A daily dose of cardamom can help maintain general health, ease insomnia and improve eyesight. 27
A study published in the Indian Journal of Biochemistry and Biophysics in 2009 studied the effects of cardamom on blood pressure in 20 people diagnosed with hypertension. The participants were given 3g of cardamom powder for 12 weeks, with blood pressure being monitored throughout the study. The results showed that the daily dose of cardamom significantly lowered blood pressure and significantly increased fibrinolytic activity. 28 The results of this study are thought to be linked to both the high antioxidant and diuretic properties of cardamom.
Cardamom is also thought to help fight off cancer cells, reduce the risk of developing a chronic illness, heal ulcers and treat bacterial infections. Cardamom can easily be added to your favorite dessert, mixed into a warm mug of hot chocolate, or taken as a supplement.
Many of us are familiar with cloves, but where