All throughout history herbs and spices have played a major role in our daily food preparation. Based on the hunter-gatherer lifestyle many herbs have attained the status of medicines.
Traditional medicines, folk medicines, and even modern pharmacology, base their healing success on the powers of nature’s plants. Today, many natural medicine modalities use herbal and plant therapies.
Different cultures may use different names for similar approaches:
Plant Parts used for their taste and medicinal properties are:
Plants contain many chemical compounds, properties and actions.
Different climates, locations and soils result in distinctive chemical compositions. This makes the exact properties hard to predict—unless all plants are harvested under the same conditions.
For this reason, modern pharmacology prefers chemical extractions and synthetic forms of active plant components. However, this approach misses out on the interactions of different properties—reinforcing or mitigating interactions—everything that traditional Chinese medicine calls “harmonizing.”
Plant therapy is about balance and interaction of the many components that make up one particular plant—something we lose once we no longer use the unadulterated plant parts.
The Role of Food
Food preparation also is a major form of medicine. A well-balanced meal provides the body with the essential nutrients.
Spices and herbs not only highlight the flavor of food. They also may aid digestion, fight parasites, act as diuretics, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antioxidants, and more.
Uses and Abuses
Many benefits of spices, herbs, or so-called “power foods” are not widely accepted. Yet, for centuries, herbs and spices used in cooking, teas, infusions, concoctions, extracts, poultices, and many other herbal preparations have been part of every-day use.
Used in small quantities to add flavor to food, spices generally are considered safe.
However, for those on prescription drugs, from insulin (type 1 diabetics) to heart medication, even a simple spice and tea regimen may become problematic.
Indiscriminate self-supplementing may cause serious harm!
Blood sugar reducing herbs and spices can be dangerous if you are a type 1 diabetic, experience hypoglycemia, or are on insulin medication.
Excess use of the same herb or spice day-in day-out, on a long-term basis, may cause body function changes and possibly illness.
Unfortunately, pesticides and preservatives are commonly used in the production of popular spices. Therefore, buy herbal remedies and spices from credible, known sources only.
Avoid interactions, overdosing, side effects, or ratio imbalances:
Let a knowledgeable health practitioner help you work out and review an individualized plan for your herb and spice use.
Partial List of Herbs and Spices suggested for their Benefits for Blood Sugar Control and Diabetes Avoidance
Cassia Bark Latin name: Cinnamomum aromaticum
Cassia bark, often called Chinese Cinnamon, is produced in China and Vietnam. It is less refined, but sweeter tasting than its close cousin, true cinnamon.
In North-America, ground cassia bark is frequently sold as cinnamon. In order to avoid confusing the two, it is best to use whole pieces of the rough outer bark of the cassia tree.
Traditional Chinese medicine, for centuries, has been using rou gui for type 2 diabetes in order to enhance insulin sensitivity and reduce blood sugar levels.
Uses of Cassia Bark:
Slowly simmer a pot of green tea with a piece of cassia and a couple of slices of fresh ginger.
Use cassia bark pieces in cooking to flavor meats, stocks, broths, stews and curries. Remove before serving.
Consuming large amounts of cassia for long periods of time is not recommended.
Cassia bark contains natural coumarin, which may be toxic and may interact with blood thinners and heart drugs.
Rinse the bark pieces well before use and watch out for preservatives, e.g. sulfites. If an acidic smell covers up the fragrance of cassia when you first open the package, discard the package.
Cinnamon Latin name: Cinnamonum verum, Cinnamonum zeylanicum
Cinnamon has been praised as an antioxidant and antimicrobial for digestive issues, diarrhea, toothaches, and bad breath.
Cinnamon appears to reduce blood sugar. It is said to counteract insulin resistance and triple the effect of insulin. But, cinnamon is not for everyone. Natural medicine suggests:
Uses of Cinnamon:
Add 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon to full-fat yoghurt, a coconut milk drink, or other dish. Enjoy ground cinnamon, or a cinnamon stick in broths, stocks, stews, curries, chutneys and other preserves.
Simmer a stick of cinnamon (together with a piece of cassia, a couple of cardamom pods, and a slice of fresh ginger) in hot water for a soothing pot of green chai-like tea.
True cinnamon contains very little toxic coumarin. But watch out for preservatives such as sulfites—acidic smell covers up the fragrance of cinnamon on opening the package.
Fenugreek Latin name: Trigonella foenum-graecum
Fenugreek is best-known by its use in traditional dishes such as methi, or hilbeh.
We use the fresh or dried herb, or the slightly bitter seeds, which can be ground into a paste.
Fenugreek seeds are said to
Uses of Fenugreek:
Eat the fresh young shoots instead of parsley, finely chopped, in sauces, on salads, and other dishes.
For a delicious flavor, add fresh or dried leaves to stews, soups, egg and other dishes.
Boil seeds in water for a healing cup of tea and sip with a little stevia as a sweetener.
In the Middle East, the seed is ground into a hummus-like paste, and used in many ethnic dishes.
Lightly toast the seeds and sprinkle them over soups and vegetable dishes.
Garlic Latin name: Allium sativum
From old Egypt to today, garlic cloves have been venerated as a powerful spice and “heal-all.”
Garlic is a topically or internally used antimicrobial and antifungal.
Garlic has been attributed strong cholesterol reducing properties. It appears to lower bad cholesterols (LDL) and raise good cholesterols (HDL).
It may protect against heart disease by thinning the blood and reducing hypertension.
Uses of Garlic:
Add raw or cooked garlic cloves to flavor almost any foods.
Apply topically by rubbing onto skin affected by rashes and fungal infections.
Bleeders must avoid garlic.
Consult your healthcare professional if you are on blood thinners. Garlic may support the action of your medication, in effect leading to a medication overdose.
Garlic smell can be unpleasant and undesirable, yet, odorless preparations are only a partial alternative.
Quite a few people are allergic to garlic. Symptoms may include nausea and dizziness.
Ginger Root Latin name: Zingiber officinalis
Ginger increases the production of saliva, calms down the digestive tract, and helps to eliminate bloating and gas. It helps to reestablish the digestive function of the intestines, and is said to have antibacterial properties.
Ginger promotes bile flow, and may have blood thinning and cholesterol lowering properties.
Other conditions improved by ginger include: diarrhea, nausea, motion sickness, and morning sickness during early pregnancy.
Uses of Ginger:
Add grated or thinly sliced ginger to the hot oil just before stir frying vegetables or meats.
Boil a pot of green tea or hot water and add a couple of slices of fresh, crushed ginger root.
Avoid ginger if you suffer from gallstones.
Do not give ginger to children 2 years of age or younger.
If you are on blood thinners, aspirin, etc., consult your health professional before using ginger.
Ginseng Latin names: Panax ginseng, Panax quinquefolius
We distinguish between Asian ginseng (panax ginseng) and American ginseng (panax quinquefolius) with slightly different actions.
Ginseng appears to affect the central nervous system and all related body functions.
Asian Ginseng, Ren Shen, is used by traditional Chinese medicine in the treatment of type 2 diabetes to increase the release of insulin.
Studies have shown increased energy levels and improved blood sugar control with up to 200 mg of Asian ginseng extract.
American Ginseng (panax quinquefolius) in doses of up to 1.5 to 3 grams has been used in studies 40 minutes prior to meals and has shown to increase glucose tolerance in type 2 diabetics.
Uses of Ginseng:
Look for a high quality, uncontaminated ginseng elixir or gently simmer thin slices of the root for 20 minutes in water. Let cool, strain, and sip as infusion or tea.
Extended use of ginseng may cause headache.
Avoid ginseng and ginseng-containing preparations if you are hypoglycemic.
Hyssop Latin name: Hyssopus officinalis
Hyssop is one of the oldest known herbs. In the Old Testament, it is mentioned as part of a spice oil mix and for purification rituals.
In many cultures, hyssop has been used for respiratory infections. It acts as an expectorant and appears to have anti-inflammatory properties.
External uses include topical application for minor skin damage and bruises.
Hyssop also appears to balance low blood pressure and dizzy spells.
Uses of Hyssop:
Add fresh or dried hyssop leaves, or hyssop flowers, to meat and legume stews.
Infuse a strong cup of tea using 1 teaspoon of dried (or 2 teaspoons of fresh) hyssop leaves.
Combine hyssop with other herbs, e.g. lemon balm or ginger for a soothing cup of tea.
Do not use during pregnancy.
Avoid if you suffer from seizures, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, ALS, and other spasm-related conditions.
Licorice Root Latin name: Radix glyzyrrhizae uralensis
Licorice is a legume whose root we chew for its sweetness. It is 50 times sweeter than sugar, but is rather high in calories.
Licorice appears to co-regulate the adrenal-hypothalamic-pituitary axis. It is high in phytoestrogens and is traditionally used for PMS and menopausal issues.
Licorice affects the endocrine system, including documented uses for Addison’s disease. It may raise the cortisol effect on the kidney and mimic the hormone aldosterone.
In traditional Chinese medicine, licorice is used to “harmonize” and “bind together” the herbal ingredients of many a herbal formula.
Interesting uses include auto-immune conditions, lupus and, as an antispasmodic in leaky gut syndrome, IBS, and Crohn’s. It is said to heal stomach and duodenal ulcers, and to stop H. Pylori.
Licorice acts on certain digestive enzymes, increases mucus, and decreases acid secretion in the stomach.
Long-term licorice use may cause serious side-effects, or lead to nausea and vomiting. It can be toxic to the liver and may lower serum testosterone.
Relatively small doses (for as little as two weeks) may lead to serious complications such as increased blood pressure and hypokalemia (lowered blood potassium concentration and edema).
Nigella Latin name: Nigella sativa
Nigella seed has a pleasant peppery flavor with a tinge of oregano and lemon taste.
Other names to describe nigella seed are:
Nigella has been known as a remedy since antiquity. In the Bible it is being juxtaposed to wheat. In the Quran it is praised as a heal-all.
Uses include those as an anti-parasitic and a carminative to counter bloating and digestive issues.
Nigella is said to counteract hypertension.
One of the nigella components, thymoquinine, has been found to block the growth of pancreatic cancer cells.
Uses of Nigella:
Use nigella seed any place you would use black pepper.
Sprinkle over salads, eggs, meat, or vegetable dishes.
Dry roast to flavor stews, curries, legume, or vegetable dishes.
Oregano Latin name: Origanum vulgare
Recent research found that several commonly used spice herbs naturally inhibit triggers of pancreas, duodenum, and cardiovascular issues by affecting alpha-amylase, alpha-glucosidase, and angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE).
Oregano has a distinctive, mildly bitter taste. Oregano is widely used for indigestion and as a topical antiseptic.
Some of its beneficial actions in diabetes prevention may be due to its high antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
Uses of Oregano:
Add dried or fresh oregano to stir-fried or grilled vegetables and cheese dishes.
Use in Mediterranean style cooking in tomato sauces, on meat and vegetable dishes, and stews.
Oregano is the favorite ingredient of the Italian Herbs mix, and the Middle Eastern Za’atar.
Oregano is safe in normal, spice-size amounts, but should not be consumed in large doses.
When using oregano oil topically, it should be diluted in almond or olive oil to avoid skin burns.
Sage Latin name: Salvia officinalis
Sage is an ancient and popular garden herb. Its Latin name translates into “to heal”.
Sage has traditionally been used as a tonic, and to reduce excess milk flow in young mothers. It is well-known for its use for indigestion, anxiety, or depression.
Topically, sage may be beneficial to keep the gums healthy, for skin infections and insect bites.
Most importantly, sage is attributed antibiotic properties.
Research indicates strong antibiotic, antifungal, antispasmodic, and astringent properties. Possible uses are suggested for Alzheimer’s and hypoglycemia in diabetes.
Uses of Sage:
Use a moderate amount of rubbed, dry sage (or a couple of fresh sage leaves) on white meats, poultry, potato dishes, and in vegetable soups.
Infuse a cup of herbal tea by steeping one or two fresh sage leaves in a cup of hot water.
Rub the gums with a fresh leaf, or a strong sage infusion obtained by steeping a handful of leaves in a cup of hot water.
Avoid during pregnancy, if you experience seizures, or if you are on CNS regulating prescription drugs.
Stevia Latin name: Stevia Rebaudiana Bertoni
Stevia is a leafy green plant. It is also known as sweetleaf or sugarleaf, and is 300 times sweeter than sugar. It does not ferment, and has a stable pH value. This makes stevia the ideal sugar substitute.
Sugar has a detrimental and addictive impact on the body. To avoid this, many traditional peoples have used stevia in place of sugar in their drinks (e.g. in yerba mate), or for medicinal teas. For instance, in Japan, stevia accounts for 40% of all sweeteners on the market.
Stevia appears to have a slight blood sugar reducing effect by improving insulin sensitivity.
Several research projects have successfully used stevia to treat high blood sugar and obesity.
Uses of Stevia:
A little goes a long way; use sparingly.
Use part of a fresh green leaf, a tiny amount of powdered stevia, or a drop or two of liquid stevia concentrate to sweeten your dishes and drinks.
In Canada, stevia has been approved as a dietary supplement; in the US, it is only available labeled as a supplement.
Check for legality in your country. A political controversy over production rights is ongoing. In the attempt to use stevia extract in a leading soft-drink line, several countries have restricted use of natural stevia over “toxicological concerns.”
Sumac Latin names: Rhus coriaria (Sicilian Sumac), Rhus aromatica (North-American Sumac)
Frequently used in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries, sumac is high in tannins and adds a lemony flavor to meat, legume, and vegetable dishes.
Sumac is a wonderful alternative to lemon if citrus allergies are an issue.
Sumac is rather astringent and may be used to counter severe diarrhea and infections.
Most importantly for diabetics and individuals at risk of diabetes, sumac is particularly high in the trace mineral germanium.
Uses of Sumac:
Sprinkle finely ground sumac onto salad dressings, meats, kebabs, chicken, lamb, fish, legumes (chickpeas and lentils).
Middle Eastern use includes sumac as part of the famous spice mix, Za’atar (consisting of oregano, sumac, and sesame seed), and to flavor and garnish the chickpea dish Hummus.
Steep a half-teaspoon of whole sumac in hot water for a refreshing and tangy cup of summer tea.
Many of this family’s plants are highly toxic. Do NOT use ornamental sumac!
Szechuan Pepper Latin names: Pericarpium zanthoxyli, Zanthoxylum piperitum
Also spelled Sichuan pepper or called “Chinese prickly ash”.
Where black pepper may irritate the stomach wall of many individuals, the slightly tangy, mild, and lemony Szechuan pepper is preferable.
In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used to stimulate food “transport and transformation” by acting on the function of the spleen (pancreas).
Szechuan pepper has anti-inflammatory properties. It is said to stimulate blood circulation, reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) levels, and lower high blood pressure.
Szechuan pepper hulls are highly alkaline, slightly numbing to mouth and tongue, and frequently are being combined with chili peppers or cayenne pepper for additional heat.
Uses of Szechuan Pepper:
Grind and sprinkle over foods, instead of black pepper. If you like, toast the pods before grinding.
Concoct a few whole Szechuan pods in your herbal or chai tea for a fresh and tangy aroma.
Use caution if you have issues with nightshade plants.
Large scale cultivation may expose the fruit and pods to pesticides. Buy organic only!
Turmeric Latin name: Curcuma longa
Turmeric, also known as Indian Saffron, is part of the family of the ginger plants. We use turmeric root.
Used as E100 (sometimes combined with E160b—annatto seed), turmeric is a natural colorant and common food additive. Turmeric is an important ingredient of all yellow curry blends.
Turmeric root is traditionally used to aid digestion and as an effective natural antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and a general pain reliever.
Several sources suggest turmeric for
Uses of Turmeric:
Add ground turmeric to yoghurt, salad dressings, soft cheeses, herbal butters, or egg dishes.
Add a teaspoon or two of turmeric powder or a whole small root to the cooking water of rice, quinoa, millet, soup stock, broths, stews, curries, and more.
Supplied by the author of “At Risk? Avoid Diabetes by Recognizing Early Rsk – A Natural Medicine View” and the DIABETES-Series Little Book “Health through Herbs and Spices for Diabetes”.
Diabetes Health is the essential resource for people living with diabetes- both newly diagnosed and experienced as well as the professionals who care for them. We provide balanced expert news and information on living healthfully with diabetes. Each issue includes cutting-edge editorial coverage of new products, research, treatment options, and meaningful lifestyle issues.