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Eating Healthy With Herbs and Spices

Herbs and Spices Pack Flavor...and Health Benefits


Updated December 18, 2008

Look in your spice rack for some powerful powders that have been compared to some of today's cancer-fighting drugs. Healing herbs and smart spices have been valued for ages, both for their flavor, color, and medicinal properties. These plants and their phytonutrients have left an impact on cultures and beliefs (one was said to prevent nightmares; another was an object of worship). You can add these herbs and spices to your dishes to help fight and prevent breast cancer. Each herb and spice is listed below, with its anticancer compound.

"Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food." – Hippocrates

Turmeric (Curcumin)

Photo © Pam Stephan
Turmeric is a yellow powder made from the plant Curcuma longa, and is a venerable ingredient in yellow curry. Most Asian or Middle Eastern kitchens will have a supply of turmeric on hand. Turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for about 5,000 years.

Very solid science shows that curcumin has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer powers, and thus has potential in helping fight a host of malignant diseases. In one lab study, breast cancer tumors and metastasis were reduced with a dietary dose of curcumin, even on tumors that resisted treatment with Taxol.

When mixed with black pepper and olive oil, your body absorbs curcumin two thousand times better than if you take turmeric capsules.

Labiates - Leafy Herbs (Terpene)

Photo © Pam Stephan
Labiates include mint, thyme, marjoram, oregano, basil, which are often used as garnish or flavoring for vegetable and meat dishes. Fresh leaves of these herbs have a noticeable fragrance, thanks to fatty acids of terpenes, a substance that works on tumors by encouraging cancer cells to kill themselves.

In England, during the 1500s, it was thought that putting clippings of rosemary under your bed would keep away bad dreams. Modern research found that when a rosemary terpene –- carnosol -- was given along with Adriamycin (doxorubicin) and Velban (vinblastine) chemotherapy, breast cancer cells began to absorb the chemo that they had previously resisted. The terpene helped to reduce the spread of cancer cells, or caused their death.

Apiums (Apigenine)

Photo © Pam Stephan
Apiums include parsley (apium petroselinum) and wild celery (apium graveolens), which often show up in salads and stews, giving color and texture to meat and vegetables dishes. Parsley, now most commonly seen sprinkled as a garnish, was used in ancient Greece to crown victors at the Isthmian games; it was also thought to have power to cure people and animals from the effects of poison. Maybe it got its reputation because it can almost vanquish the powerful fragrance of garlic.

Parsley contains apigenine, an oil that can inhibit angiogenesis -- the growth of blood vessels that supply tumors with nutrients. When apigenine from parsley or celery cuts off the blood supply of a tumor, it acts similar to the targeted biologic drug Avastin.

Alliums (Diallyl disulfide)

Alliums - Garlic, Chives, Onions
Photo © Pam Stephan
Garlic, onions, leeks, shallots, and chives are all part of the allium family. Alliums are so fragrant that ancient Egyptians may have thought onions, buried with mummies, would revive the dead. Onions and garlic are often cooked with other foods. When eaten this way, they help lower your insulin peaks. This effect can help prevent uncontrolled cell growth and inflammation, which can leave you vulnerable to cancer. In lab studies, natural diallyl disulfide was more effective than 5-Fu fluorouracil and cyclophosphamide at causing cancer cell suicide. Alliums also have quercetin and allicin, strong antioxidants and anti-inflammatory flavonoids, which may prevent the formation of carcinogens and initiate cancer cell death.

Cinnamon (Proanthocyanidin)

Photo © Pam Stephan
Cinnamon is used in stick or powdered form, both of which are derived from cinnamon bark. This aromatic spice finds its way into baked goods as well as meat marinades. The Imperial Romans burned cinnamon at royal funerals and considered it a sacred plant.

Phenloic polymers in cinnamon are beneficial for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Cinnamon can reduce your blood sugar and LDL cholesterol levels, as well as increase your insulin levels. Proanthocyanidins, a type of flavonoids in cinnamon, have potent antioxidant capability and may be able to inhibit tumor growth by starving the cancer cells. These special flavonoids may also block the formation of nitrosamines, a carcinogen that can damage the DNA in your breast tissue.

Ginger (Gingerol)

Ginger root and powder
Photo © Pam Stephan
Ginger is a rhizome that is related to turmeric. Ground ginger has been used in western and European cooking since the time of the Roman Empire; in Asia and India, it is more commonly used fresh and used as a natural treatment for nausea and motion-sickness. In either form, ginger has a hot, pungent taste that works as a good contrast to sweet flavors in desserts and main dishes.

Gingerol has anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor powers. In some studies, gingerol inhibited tumor angiogenesis (formation of blood vessels leading to the tumor), and seemed to reduce metastasis of cancer cells. Gingerol also acts as an antioxidant, scavenging free radicals that might otherwise cause cell damage.

Herbs Are Enhancement, Not Replacement, for Treatment

There are many more herbs and spices that contain anticarcinogenic compounds. These are just a few that may be in your everyday spice rack, or growing in your garden. While they do have powerful effects on your health, don't take these instead of standard treatments for breast cancer. You will get the most benefit from fresh herbs and spices, rather than nutritional supplements. Let your doctor know if you start using larger than average amounts of these plants, since that may affect the effectiveness of your treatment or pose related side effects.



Curcumin: the Indian solid gold. Aggarwal BB, Sundaram C, Malani N, Ichikawa H. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2007;595:1-75.

Inhibition of P-glycoprotein activity and reversal of multidrug resistance in vitro by rosemary extract. Plouzek CA, Ciolino HP, Clarke R, Yeh GC. Eur J Cancer. 1999 Oct;35(10):1541-5.

Comparative effects of natural and synthetic diallyl disulfide on apoptosis of human breast cancer MCF-7 cells. Xiao J, Suzuki M, Jun Z, Wen J, Talbot SG, Li GC, Xu M. Biotechnol Appl Biochem. 2008 Feb 21.

[6]-Gingerol, a pungent ingredient of ginger, inhibits angiogenesis in vitro and in vivo. Kim EC, Min JK, Kim TY, Lee SJ, Yang HO, Han S, Kim YM, Kwon YG. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2005 Sep 23;335(2):300-8.

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