A 54-year-old man came to see me several months ago because the osteoarthritis of both knees was getting worse. He tried acetaminophen without much relief. Because of the side effects of anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen (he had a history of stomach ulcers), the patient was unable to get adequate pain relief and his quality of life was impacted. I started him on three grams of fish oil and one gram of turmeric (also called curcumin in capsule form) and asked him to return in six weeks.
I was thrilled when he told me during the follow up appointment that he was back playing tennis and able to get on the ground and interact with his young grandson. His pain level went from a nine out of 10 down to a two. He could not have been more pleased - especially since he had no side effects from the medications.
I thought it would be useful to outline for all of you the anti-inflammatory benefits of many spices in our spice rack and how we can use them to lower inflammation in the body and help reverse or prevent chronic diseases. Using food as medicine will be critically important for all of us if we want to achieve the highest quality of life.
The first one to discuss - and one that I ask my patients to take or use daily - is turmeric. Used for thousands of years in Chinese and Indian medicine, turmeric has been helpful in treating arthritis, immune disorders, kidney and liver disease, and even Alzheimer's disease. Recent studies indicate that curcumin (a component of turmeric) has potent anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and even anti-cancer benefits. I have found it also helps patients with severe muscle cramping (a teaspoon of yellow mustard and within minutes the pain is all but gone).
I recommend patients take one to two grams per day of turmeric when taking it in capsule form. Otherwise, find some tasty recipes that incorporate turmeric and make it a part of your daily dietary intake.
Ginger has been used for thousands of years in Chinese and Indian medicine to treat inflammation and pain and reduce fatigue. Ginger can behave similar to medications like ibuprofen to relieve arthritis pain, without the side effects of those drugs. It can get moldy so please get fresh ginger and use it in your favorite recipes. If you are cooking with the powder form, please store it away from heat and moisture (to avoid mold contamination).
Sage and rosemary contain anti-inflammatory benefits that have proven useful in medicine for centuries. Sage contains carnosol - the part of sage that provides health benefits and contributes to its aroma. Sage has been studied for its potential benefits in neurologic conditions like Alzheimer's disease.
Carnosol also has potential in helping reduce anxiety as well having antioxidant and anticancer properties. Camphor, another component of sage, has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties to help protect us and our microbiome (the 100 trillion organisms that live among us and keep our systems running smoothly). Try to find some recipes that use sage in order to increase exposure to this wonderful spice.
Rosemary contains rosmarinic acid, which is being studied for its anticancer properties. Similar to sage, rosemary can act as an antioxidant, which prevents free radicals from damaging our blood vessels and organs and helps reduce the risk of developing a chronic disease. If you are cooking with oil in high heat, add a bit rosemary or sage to prevent the oxidation of the oil, which can reduce inflammation associated with oxidation.
I tend to recommend cinnamon to patients who are pre-diabetic or already have a diagnosis of diabetes as it has been found to help stabilize and even lower blood sugar. I always add it to my daily breakfast smoothie. Cinnamon also has been found to contain both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce our risk of developing chronic diseases. Cinnamon not only reduces inflammation, it can prevent our platelets (cells that help our blood clot) from sticking together unnecessarily. This can reduce our risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke.
Cloves contain eugenol, the anti-inflammatory component that can help reduce our risk of developing a chronic disease. It also has anti-oxidant properties which can prevent cell damage and keep our organs functioning at their highest level. Interestingly, cloves also have anti-fungal properties that can help protect against yeast infections.
Cayenne pepper has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine and by Native Americans to help improve circulation and digestion. Capsaicin is the compound responsible for the "zing" associated with its spicy flavor as well as its medicinal properties. Capsaicin may sound familiar as it is readily available in over the counter creams which are used to reduce nerve pain (often associated with diabetic nerve pain or shingles). Cayenne Pepper contains antioxidants properties that help reduce inflammation within the body. Ongoing studies are looking at its potential to slow the growth of cancer cells as well as with weight loss.
As we look for ways to reduce our chronic disease burden in the United States, we will all need to be accountable and mindful as it relates to nutrition. Food as medicine is a critical component of the lifestyle changes necessary to reduce the amount of money being spent on healthcare.
Our current healthcare expenditure is 18 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP). At our current rate of chronic disease influx, healthcare spend is expected to grow to 33 percent of GDP in the next 30 years. That makes our country as we know it unsustainable - we will have no money to spend on defense, education, social programs, and infrastructure. This will have a significant effect on our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
Let us all take individual responsibility and model to them how lifestyle changes can have a positive impact on our health and overall quality of life. Until next time, spice up your life, give thanks for what you have, and be well.