The cozy smell of fresh cinnamon cookies, a whiff of nutmeg-sprinkled eggnog, gingerbread baking in the oven—these pungent, perfumed spices evoke the best of holiday cheer. But they do more than add to your cooking; cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger can also help with health problems. Best of all, unlike many traditional medications, they’re inexpensive, safe, and readily available.
Sri Lanka is the ancestral home of sweet-smelling cinnamon, a spice featured in sacred rituals since ancient times. Egyptians used the fragrant bark to embalm mummies, and Romans considered it so extravagant that the emperor Nero seized all the cinnamon in Rome to burn on his late empress’s funeral pyre (a surprising gesture, considering that he was the one who bumped her off).
For more than 4,000 years, Chinese medical specialists have prescribed cinnamon for influenza, parasites, skin infections, and digestive problems, such as diarrhea and nausea. A recent study in Taiwan attests to cinnamon’s antiseptic properties; even in tiny amounts, the spice can wipe out bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, and various strains of staphylococcus (Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 2001, vol. 77, no. 1).
Western physicians are now taking note, especially since an influential publication showed that people with type 2 diabetes who took 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of cinnamon a day lowered their blood sugar levels and cholesterol up to 30 percent in just over a month (Diabetes Care, 2003, vol. 26, no. 12). Study lead author Richard Anderson, PhD, explains that cinnamon contains a polyphenol similar to insulin (the hormone that clears sugar from the blood) that helps insulin work more effectively. Because cinnamon has no known side effects, Anderson recommends that even healthy people eat it every day.
Ubiquitous in Indian and Asian cooking, this spicy rhizome is a well-known digestive aid. Chinese fishermen have used fresh ginger for centuries to stave off seasickness, and many pregnant women rely on it to quell morning sickness, effects confirmed by numerous medical studies (Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2004, vol. 103, no. 4).
According to herbalist Jeanne Rose, author of the classic Herbs & Things (Last Gasp, 2001) and 375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols (Frog Ltd., 1999), ginger’s active ingredients, gingerols and shogaols, help stimulate the release of digestive juices, whet the appetite, and neutralize stomach acids. Rose packs a bottle of pure ginger oil in her purse so she can add a drop to after-dinner beverages such as tea to help food settle. “It’s wonderful for the holidays, when we all tend to overeat,” she observes.
Ginger’s health benefits reach beyond the digestive tract. In 2001, scientists found that ginger may help control chronic pain, particularly arthritic pain, by reducing inflammation and the secretion of pain-inducing prostaglandins (Arthritis and Rheumatism, 2001, vol. 44, no. 11). Allergy sufferers also may find relief using ginger (American Surgeon, 2002, vol. 68, no. 10). A new study indicates that ginger may even contain antitumor properties (International Journal of Cancer, 2004, vol. 110, no. 4).
Although a few people experience heartburn or an upset stomach when they eat ginger, its side effects are negligible, especially when compared to Western antinausea or pain medicines. “I’ve used ginger to treat at least a couple of thousand patients [with various ailments],” says Keith DeOrio, MD, a Los Angeles acupuncturist and homeopath, “and I haven’t seen any significant downsides at all.”
Appreciated for its heady scent and sometimes thought to possess magical powers (possibly due to its hallucinogenic properties), nutmeg also enjoys a reputation as a potent aphrodisiac, extolled in the Kama Sutra. Historically, the spice was so valued that the Dutch traded Manhattan Island to the British in return for a tiny nutmeg-producing Indonesian isle.
Nutmeg’s minor but uncomfortable potential side effects (which range from headaches to nausea and vomiting) mean that it is not used medicinally as often as cinnamon and ginger—too bad, considering nutmeg’s strong antioxidant and antimicrobial qualities. It’s also been shown to help protect the liver (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2003, vol. 51, no. 6), and, like ginger, is considered a digestive aid that helps reduce flatulence and diarrhea.
When used in combination with other herbs and spices as a homeopathic remedy, nutmeg can sometimes aid digestion when nothing else works, says DeOrio.
“I had one AIDS patient with no appetite; he’d tried traditional medications and even medical marijuana with no relief,” he says. “I started prescribing a small amount of nutmeg, and after a short time he was able to eat again.”
It’s easy to incorporate nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon into your cooking, even after the holidays are over. Add one—or a combination—to pancake batters, frittatas, hot or cold teas, oatmeal, muffins, fruit salads, dressings, marinades, meat rubs … you get the idea. Like all holiday cheer, the more the merrier.
Joyce Slaton is a cinnamon-toast fan who lives in San Francisco.