Kitchen Remedies: Herbs & Spices for Common Aliments

If you have a drawer or cupboard full of culinary herbs and spices, you also have an abundance of herbal medicine right under your nose. Did you know that almost all of the herbs and spices we use to make our food more delicious also have medicinal properties? In this post, I’m going to take you on a whirlwind tour through my spice drawer. I think you’ll be amazed at the many kitchen remedies for colds, flu, digestive complaints and other common aliments in those little spice bottles. And that’s not all!

In addition to adding flavor and complexity to our food and offering relief for common ailments, culinary herbs and spices can play a really important role in maintaining optimal health and vitality. So, spice it up! In addition to improving flavor, cooking with herbs and spices offers many collateral benefits. Using more herbs and spices is a good way to reduce salt in your food without sacrificing flavor. Excessive salt is a risk factor for high blood pressure. Eating food that is well seasoned with herbs and spices also expands the palate and increases satisfaction, that is to say, satiation, without the addition of more calories in the form of fat and sugar. And, when food is tastier and more satisfying to the palate, we tend to eat less, which helps maintain healthy weight.

My spice drawer is also loaded with herbs and spices that are protective against many of the common diseases of western culture—conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and dementia. And these are not exotic spices. If you like to cook even a little, I bet you have them in your kitchen too. Basil, Oregano, Rosemary and Turmeric all possess anti-oxidant properties. Turmeric and Ginger are effective anti-inflammatories. Cinnamon can help balance blood sugar. Basil, Garlic, and Turmeric all support a healthy cardiovascular system, helping to maintain healthy cholesterol and blood pressure.

Even a single serving of spice-rich curry can dilate your arteries and help prevent the negative cardiovascular effects associated with eating common foods. A study reported in Nutrition Journal compared consumption of a traditional curry dish made with Coriander, Cumin, Garlic, Ginger, Onion, Red pepper, and Turmeric with consumption of a spice-free control meal. Both meals included cooked rice and the same calorie count. The consumption of the curry meal improved blood flow through the blood vessels, whereas the control meal resulted in decreased blood flow. Specifically, spice-rich curry prevented the negative effects of the meal on post-meal ‘endothelial function,’ that is, it prevented the inner lining (endothelium) of the blood vessels from contracting and inhibiting normal blood flow through the cardiovascular system. The researchers concluded that the activity of the spices in the curry meal may be beneficial for preventing cardiovascular events and may help fight against lifestyle related diseases like atherosclerosis (aka hardening of the arteries) and type 2 diabetes (sometimes referred to as adult onset diabetes, though if occurs in young people as well).

So, in case you thought your grandmother was passing on “old wives tales,” think again. There is an ever growing body of research on the therapeutic benefits of herbs. There’s real wisdom in some of those so-called “wives’ tales,” and there’s good medicine in your kitchen!

Next time you feel a cold coming on, can’t sleep, or have a belly ache, take a look in your spice rack. I hope you discover some of these kitchen remedies.

Herbs & Spices for Common Ailments

Anise or Aniseed (Pimpinella anisum):

This sweet, aromatic seed is useful for simple indigestion with gas and bloating. It is also an excellent remedy for dry coughs or bronchitis. Steep the seeds in hot water for a simple tea, or use the crushed seeds in honey.

Actions: Carminative, expectorant, antispasmodic.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

This familiar culinary herb helps fight infection with its antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-candida properties. It is also useful for colds, flu, and fevers. Uplifting to mood, it also improves memory, concentration, and metal clarity. Steep the dried herb in hot water to make a simple tea. A strong tea can also be added to a bath for colds, flu, and fever.

Actions: Antimicrobial, antispasmodic, carminative, anti-depressant, gentle stimulant.

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)

This delicious spice is relieves gas, bloating, cramping, and improves sluggish digestion. Steep the seeds in hot water for a simple tea, or use the crushed seeds in honey. I also love to grind the seeds with coffee beans for a more nuanced ‘cup of joe.’

Actions: Carminative, calming digestive bitter, antispasmodic, mucolytic, and aphrodisiac.  

Cayenne (Capsicum spp.)

In small doses, this hot spicy remedy aids digestion, improves appetite and supports circulation. (Be careful not to overdo it with Cayenne—large doses can have the opposite effect, causing stomach irritation and acidity.) It can be used topically (in oil or creams) for joint and nerve pain and to stop bleeding. If you have a cold and flu, a pinch of Cayenne in tea or food will help open congested nasal passages. I always include a bit of Cayenne in my Fire Cider to make this winter health tonic more warming. You can find my Fire Cider recipe, here. Use a pinch in tea or food. For topically use add a pinch to olive oil or coconut oil and massage in to the affected area, being careful not to touch your eyes or face.

Actions: Anodyne, warming stimulant, circulatory aid, antispasmodic, carminative.

Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum)

This is another delicious spice that useful for gas, bloating vomiting, and weak digestion. It acts as an astringent to mucus membranes throughout the body—making it helpful for diarrhea, sore throat and excessive bleeding. It will even inhibit bacterial growth and helps normalize blood sugar levels. For healthy blood sugar use 1.5 teaspoons per day in food. I prefer using chipped Cinnamon when making tea rather than powdered cinnamon which makes a clumpy mess. Steep chipped cinnamon in hot water up to 30 minutes to make a tea.

Actions: Astringent, warming carminative, antispasmodic, and antimicrobial, blood sugar balancing.

Clove (Eugenia caryophylus)

This winter spice is useful for toothache and can be used topically as a local anesthetic. It combines well with other carminative spices like anise and cardamom for gas, bloating, indigestion, and digestive cramps.  Chewing on a clove bud will help to clear mucus in colds and flus and relieve sore throat pain.

Actions: Warming carminative, analgesic, stimulant, antispasmodic, antiseptic.

Fennel Seed (Foeniculum vulgare)

Chewing these sweet, aromatic seeds after meals helps settle the stomach and ease digestion, gas and bloating. Fennel also promotes lactation, and nursing mothers and small children can drink the tea to relieve colic. Spasmodic coughs, chest congestion, and bronchitis are also relieved by fennel. Steep tea seeds to make a simple tea.

Actions: Cooling carminative, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, galactagogue.

Garlic (Allium sativum)

Garlic is powerful medicine! The health promoting compounds are absorbed into bloodstream from the digestive tract and excreted via the lungs, bowels, skin, and urinary system, acting as a disinfectant. Its antimicrobial properties make garlic an excellent remedy for colds, flu, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Raw is best! Chop a couple cloves of raw garlic; add honey, and a squeeze of fresh lemon to make a potent cold buster. Garlic also features prominently in Fire Cider.

Actions: Antimicrobial (antiviral, antiseptic, anti-parasitic), antispasmodic, immune-enhancing, blood-vessel strengthening, antioxidant.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

There are so many spice cupboard remedies for common ailments. Like garlic, ginger also works well fresh, but dried ginger is good medicine, too. Ginger relieves coughs, congestion and fever during colds and flu. It is an effective remedy for motion-sickness and nausea as well as colic, gas, and indigestion. Promotes blood flow to the peripheries and as such has a warming effect. Steep fresh or dried ginger for tea. You can gargle with ginger tea for a sore throat. For fevers, steep 2–3 inches of chopped ginger root in 2 cups water for 15-20 minutes, add juice of one lemon, a spoonful of raw honey, and pinch of cayenne pepper; drink immediately. Topically ginger can be used for sore inflamed joints or sprains. Simply grate the fresh ginger root and apply as a warm compress. An infused oil of grated ginger (optional pinch of cayenne pepper; avoid contact with eyes/mucous membranes) can be used to massage sore muscles.

Actions: Anti-inflammatory, carminative, anti-emetic, antispasmodic, expectorant, circulatory stimulant, vasodilator, anti-coagulant.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

This common Italian herb is useful for indigestion, colds, flu, fever, and bronchitis. Externally it can be applied as a poultice for coughs, arthritic, and muscular pain. Gargle with oregano tea for inflammation and infection in the mouth and throat. The tea is also an excellent remedy for coughs and menstrual cramps. Steep the herb in hot water for a simple tea, add a strong tea to your bath, or use the herb in a steam inhalation.

Actions: Antimicrobial (antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiparasitic), antioxidant, antispasmodic, expectorant, carminative, hypoglycemic.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Another common Italian herb, sage is toning and calming to digestion and diarrhea. It acts to soothes and tone mucus membranes and reduce inflammation making it a specific for congested respiratory infections. Add sea salt to sage tea for an excellent gargle for strep and sore throat. The cool tea is a great mouthwash for inflamed and bleeding gums, tongue, or mouth ulcers. Sage can also be used to reduce sweating, making it helpful with hot flashes. When nursing mothers and their small children are ready to wean, sage can be used to reduce milk production. As its name implies, sage also promotes wisdom, mental calm and mental clarity.

Actions: Carminative, astringent, antimicrobial (antifungal and anti-bacterial), antioxidant

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

I have thyme in my spice drawer and I do use it in the kitchen, but I use it way more frequently as a medicinal herb. It is most helpful for bronchitis, whooping cough, and asthma. The tea makes an excellent gargle for laryngitis, tonsillitis, sore throats, and irritable coughs. It is also helpful for any infectious condition including gastro-intestinal and urinary system infections. Steep the herb in hot water for a simple tea or add a strong tea to bath. It can also be use in a steam inhalation and combines well with oregano for this purpose.

Actions: Antimicrobial (antiviral and antibacterial), expectorant, bronchodilator, antispasmodic, carminative, antioxidant.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Volumes have been written about the many health benefits of turmeric, but let’s keep it short. Turmeric is useful for indigestion, gas, ulcerations of the digestive tract, and gall stones. It possesses potent anti-inflammatory compounds and is useful for chronic joint pain. Used regularly this pungent spice can help you stay healthy warding off conditions like cardiovascular disease, dementia, and cancer.  Use turmeric liberally in your diet, at least one tablespoon per day. Golden Milk is a delicious warming drink and one of my favorite ways to get turmeric into the diet. You can find the recipe here.

Actions: Anti-inflammatory, digestive aid and liver stimulant, hypolipidemic, hypotensive, anticoagulant, anti-mutagenic, antioxidant.

Surprised by all the good medicine in my spice drawer? Go take a look at your own spice rack, now. What do you see? Next time you experience indigestion, feel a cold or flu coming on, or have a headache, reach for one of these simple effective remedies. Your body will thank you.

Stay well and be happy,
Herbalist & Proprietress
Nectar Herb and Tea

A single consumption of curry improved postprandial endothelial function in healthy male subjects: a randomized, controlled crossover trial, Nutrition Journal 2014 13:67;

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