Nutrition Notes

Spice Up the Holidays with Medicinal Botanicals

The holiday season brings with it its own unique - yet somewhat universal - “holiday” foods, drinks, and culinary herbs and spices. In the U.S., it’s that time of the year for hearty soups, pumpkin-spice everything, root vegetables, and turkey galore. Many holiday menus often incorporate sweet (e.g., cinnamon, nutmeg, clove) and savory (e.g., rosemary, thyme, sage) herbs and spices. What many of your patients may not be aware of is that aside from enhancing the flavor of foods many culinary herbs and spices also carry with them a plethora of potentially targeted health benefits.* Thus, liberally utilizing these herbs and spices in the kitchen is a great way to increase the likelihood of receiving their innate beneficial properties - the more the merrier!

Medicinal plants have been traditionally used for centuries worldwide by a variety of indigenous cultures. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), sage (Salvia officinalis), and clove (Syzygium aromaticum) are some of nature’s most powerful herbs and spices.

Rosemary is a native herb to the Mediterranean region that is commonly used as a condiment and food preservative. A review of in vivo and in vitro animal studies in the Journal of Biomedical Science showed R. officinalis L. to demonstrate beneficial effects similar to or superior to usual medications for a variety of physiological disorders. These include body weight and dyslipidemia, cerebral ischemia, pain, infections, cardiac remodeling after myocardial infarction, lead hepato-nephrotoxicity, stress and anxiety, and tumor cell proliferation.

A review looking at the antimicrobial and antioxidant properties of R. officinalis L. explains rosemary’s abundance in isoprenoid quinones, which “act as chain terminators of free radicals, and as chelators of reactive oxygen species (ROS)”. The major phenolic diterpenes (carnosic acid and carnosol) are responsible for 90% of the antioxidative properties in rosemary; they inhibit lipid peroxidation, scavenge hydroxyl and peroxyl radicals, and reduce cytochrome c via activation of the redox-dependent signaling pathways. Furthermore, carnosic acid has been shown to provide far superior antimicrobial actions to any other major constituents founds in rosemary. Studies have shown rosemary to have antibacterial effectiveness against resistant bacteria such as E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella choleraesuis, Bacillus cereus, and Clostridium perfringens.

Salvia officinalis (sage), another native to the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions, has been traditionally used in folk medicine to treat a variety of disorders. Recent research suggests S. officinalis possesses anti-inflammatory, anti-nociceptive, antimutagenic, hypoglycemic, and hypolipidemic effects, as well as antioxidative and antibacterial due to the presence of carnosic acid and carnosol in sage. S. officinalis contains high contents of glycosidic flavones that show good inhibitory capacity against xanthine oxidase activity.

Further research demonstrates this powerful herb’s cognitive-enhancing and neuroprotective properties. Human randomized-controlled trials (RCT) found that 4-month supplementation of S. officinalis in patients with Alzheimer’s disease experienced significant improvements in cognitive function; studies showed improved cognitive function (e.g., attention, word recall, memory) and mood-enhancement (e.g., alertness, sense of calm) in healthy, older-adults subjects. In another RCT, S. officinalis extract significantly reduced the severity of physical and psychological symptoms experienced in premenstrual syndrome. A recent article published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine shows freshly harvested Salvia leaves to be a potent modulator of neuroreceptor pathways involving serotonin transporters, which may help normalize thermoregulation and mental impairment during menopause.

Both rosemary and sage have been shown to improve gabaergic pathways in the brain that could help decrease the neuronal activity associated with anxiety disorders. A study published in Nutrition and Cancer found both rosemary and sage extracts have a hepatoprotective and antioxidative role via increasing catalase and glutathione peroxidase enzyme levels and decrease lipid peroxidation. 

Clove bud was originally found in east Indonesia and is well known for its role as a potent antimicrobial and antioxidative botanical. In vitro research shows clove oil to possess a bactericidal effect against the pathogenic species S. aureus, E. coli, L. monocytogenes, and S. Typhimurium. An article published earlier this year in Pharmaceutical Biology found clove oil extract to enhance anti-inflammatory activity by significantly reducing myeloperoxidase activity in human neutrophils, thus reducing ROS and a variety of other inflammatory mediators (e.g., IL-1, IL-6, TNF-alpha) that promote damage at the site of inflammation.

Whenever possible, patients should choose organic and non-irradiated spices and herbs to avoid contaminants, fillers, and heavy metals, as well as ensure that they are not past the expiration date. Spices are most often derived from the seeds of plants, thus are highly volatile and can be easily oxidized. Herbs and spices should be kept in air-tight containers, away from heat and light. Beyond dietary sources, supplementation of these powerful botanicals should be found in highly bioavailable forms from reputable and USP verified nutritional supplement brands.