Must-Have Herbs & Spices
Article written by Lucas J. Bader MD
*Words in red are defined in Glossary section at bottom of page
Herbs & Spices have been employed by our sagacious forbearers for centuries to treat the ills of joint dysfunction. Tellingly, the World Health Organization estimates 80% of the world’s people depend on traditional medicine for their health care needs, including debilitating pain, stiffness, and weakness. Herbs and spices contain a dizzying array of polyphenols, flavonoids, glycosides, alkaloids, tannins, vitamins, and minerals. These nutrients arm herbs and spices with anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and joint protective properties.
The following list is a high yield collection of herbs & spices in the treatment and prevention of joint disease. As is the usual story, scientific inquiry has attempted to compartmentalize components of herbs & spices to glorify one nutrient as the “most” important nutrient. I have included some of these presumed compounds. However, remember that herbs & spices, like any raw food, contain a multitude of critical nutrients that synergistically act to generate overall health benefits.
Zingiberacea Family (Ginger Family):
- Turmeric: Tumeric is a vibrant orange spice that is a staple of Indian culinary tradition. Ayurvedic medicine has utilized turmeric for thousands of years to cure the body’s infirmity. More recently, western medicine has explored the use of various turmeric ingredients in the treatment of cancer, digestive tract disease, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, and arthritis. A vital component of turmeric’s salutary effect is thought to be curcumin, a powerful polyphenol. Most human treatment trials involve concentrated curcumin extracts. Potential mechanisms of turmeric’s joint protective effect are the inhibition of potent inflammatory and joint compromising factors such as Nuclear Factor-KappaBeta, Tumor Necrosis Factor-Alpha, IL-1Beta, IL-6, COX-2, prostaglandin E2, and MMP. A recent study from Iran revealed usage of a concentrated curcumin extract decreased pain and increased function in a group of patients with debilitating knee osteoarthritis.
- Ginger: Ginger, with its name derived from the Sanskrit for horned body as testament to its uniquely-shaped root, has been prescribed by herbalists for the treatment of a variety of ailments. Ginger is widely popular for use in musculoskeletal disease. The majority of ginger’s salutary characteristics are thought to be due to three groups of biologically active compounds: gingerols, shogoals, and paradols. Scientific studies suggest ginger’s effectiveness is a result of its ability to reduce the production of joint-destroying agents including: COX-2, LOX, Tumor Necrosis Factor-Alpha, and IL-1Beta. In a randomized, placebo clinical trial, researchers reported the osteoarthritis treatment group receiving daily ginger experienced diminished pain and stiffness, along with improved function, compared to the non-treatment group.
- Rosemary: According to tradition, the Virgin Mary spread her blue cloak over a white-blossomed rosemary bush and the flowers turned blue; thus, the shrub became known as the “Rose of Mary”. In antiquity, rosemary was a sought after herb known for its memory-supporting properties. More recently, the potency of its anti-inflammatory properties have come to the fore. Research suggests rosmarinic acid and luteolin are the crucial polyphenols in rosemary. Scientists have noted that rosemary’s joint protection proficiency stems from its ability to stymy the synthesis of COX-2, LOX, and scavenge free radicals. Researchers from South Korea demonstrated romanic acid’s efficacy at suppressing synovitis in rats riddled with arthritis. Many experts believe synovitis is the main source of pain in an arthritic joint.
- Thyme: Thyme was utilized by the ancient Egyptians to embalm their dead. Traditionally, thyme was heavily prescribed to treat inflammatory and infectious conditions of the respiratory tract. More recently, thyme has been employed to mitigate an assortment of inflammatory disease. Thymol, rosmarinic acid, and luteolin are considered the cardinal health-promoting components of thyme. Thyme has been shown to possess formidable anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidation properties. Thyme drastically reduces the activity of the pain catalyzing COX-2 enzyme and the subsequent release of pain inducing PGE2. COX-2 is an influential player in the cascade of events that leads to joint deterioration. COX-2 suppression is a favorite target of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories.
- Mint: In antiquity, mint was prized for its soothing aroma and was commonly administered to treat inflammatory disease throughout the body. As the Greek legend goes, the herb was originally a nymph named Minthe whose dalliance with Pluto enraged his wife, Persephone. As punishment, Persephone, transmuted Minthe into a plant. Pluto, devastated by his loss, bestowed on Minthe the sweet smell so familiar to us all. As with other members of the Lamiaceae family, mint is high is rosmarinic acid and other potent phytonutrients. In addition to the anti-inflammatory mechanisms and joint protective attributes already elucidated, mint has been shown to inhibit the production of Prostagladin E2, and nitic oxide. Both are key chemical mediators in the chronic destruction of the joint. In a fascinating recent publication, researchers from Canada have demonstrated daily use of a concentrated spearmint tea can reduce pain and improve function in individuals with osteoarthritis.
- Notable Family Members:
i.Sage, Basil, and Oregano: These herbs contain many of the same beneficial polyphenolic acids, flavonoids, and essential oils found in rosemary, thyme, and mint. Scientists have found they possess similar anti-inflammatory and chondro-protective benefits to their more researched family members. Thus, sage, basil, and oregano would make a welcomed addition to any joint-health promoting herb armamentarium.
Other essential Herbs & Spices:
- Cinnamon: In classical times, cinnamon was so valued it was considered as precious as gold. Additionally, the Bible makes multiple references to this splendid spice. Traditional medicine has employed cinnamon in a vast array of infirm states plagued by inflammation, pain, and stiffness. Many experts believe the majority of cinnamon’s beneficial effects can be attributed to the active ingredients of benzyl cinnamide and cinnamic acid. Countless animal studies have illustrated cinnamon to be an effective anti-inflammatory. In addition, rat-based arthritic models have highlighted cinnamon’s capability to hamper joint-destroying inflammatory pathways, likely though Tumor Necrosis Factor-Alpha, and other cytokine suppression.
- Cloves: Originally indigenous to Indonesia, cloves have been a popular spice for a millennia. Ancient Chinese supplicants would store cloves in their mouths while speaking to the emperor, as not to offend him with foul breath. Cloves possess incredible anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory attributes. They also contain a diverse set of beneficial compounds; however, eugenol has received special consideration as cloves’ preponderant healthful nutrient. Multiple studies comparing eugenol to active ingredients in other herbs & spices have underscored eugenol’s ascendant ability to restrain inflammation and oxidation. In test tube studies, few if any, herbs and spices are more effective than cloves at thwarting the deleterious effects of rampant inflammation and oxidation.
Anti-oxidant: Any substance that can prevent or abate the destructive capacity of free radicals and oxidative stress.
Cyclooxygenase (COX-2) : Enzyme that converts arachidonic acid to pro-inflammatory prostaglandins. COX-2 vital for the propagation of inflammation. NSAIDs target COX-2.
Free Radical: A highly unstable molecule that can attack and destroy the normal components of healthy cells, such as DNA, RNA, protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
Interleukin (IL-1B, IL-6, and IL-8): A sub type of cytokine that plays an essential role in inflammation. Relevant examples for arthritis include: IL-1B, IL-6, and IL-8. Within the framework of osteoarthritis, the aforementioned interleukins promote inflammation and eventual joint destruction.
Lipoxygenases (LOX): An enzyme involved in the generation of pro-inflammatory mediators known as leukotrienes.
Matrix metalloproteinases (MMP): Group of enzymes that are intimately involved in the destruction of the extracellular matrix. Arthritis relevant examples include: MMP-1, MMP-3, MMP-13.
Nitric oxide: A signaling molecule that plays a pivotal role in the amplification of inflammation.
Nuclear Factor- KappaBeta: Signaling pathway that is triggered by external signals, such as pro-inflammatory cytokines. Nuclear Factor- KB mediates the synthesis of new cellular and extracellular molecules. Activation of this pathway often promotes excessive inflammation and gratuitous joint destruction.
Polyphenols: Group of molecules that are primarily synthesized by plants. Polyphenols share similar chemical structure that engenders potent ant-oxidant capacity.
Prostaglandins(PGE2): A subclass of Eicosanoids. Prostaglandins are the principle mediators in inflammation. Chief subtype is Prostaglandin E2.
Tumor Necrosis Factor-Alpha: A key pro-inflammatory cytokine. Exuberant synthesis of Tumor Necrosis Factor Alpha seems to catalyze joint degradation.
For complete Glossary click here.