The Top Four Anti-Inflammatory Spices

Which Spices Fight Inflammation?
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Once in a while I come across a study that’s so juicy I have to do a whole video about it (Which Spices Fight Inflammation?).

A group of researchers at the University of Florida, Gainesville and Pennsylvania State set up a brilliant experiment. We’ve known that ounce per ounce, herbs and spices have some of the greatest antioxidant activities known. But that’s only ever been tested in a test tube. Before we can ask if an herb or spice has real health benefits, it is first necessary to determine whether it is bioavailable — whether the active ingredients are even absorbed. This had never been done, until now.

The researchers could have taken the easy route and just measured the change in antioxidant level in one’s bloodstream before and after consumption, but the assumption that the appearance of antioxidant activity in the blood is an indication of bioavailability has a weakness. Maybe more gets absorbed than we think but doesn’t show up on antioxidant tests because it gets bound up to proteins or cells. So the researchers attempted to measure physiological changes in the blood. They were interested in whether absorbed compounds would be able to protect white blood cells from an oxidative or inflammatory injury—whether herb and spice consumption would protect the strands of our DNA from breaking when attacked by free radicals. I cover the DNA findings in my video, Spicing Up DNA Protection. They also wondered if the consumption might alter cellular inflammatory responses in the presence of a physiologically relevant inflammatory insult. What does this all mean?

The researchers took a bunch of people and had each of them eat different types of spices for a week. There were many truly unique things about this study, but one was that the quantity of spices that study subjects consumed was based on the usual levels of consumption in actual food. For example, the oregano group was given a half teaspoon a day—a practical quantity that people might actually eat once in a while. At the end of the week, they drew blood from the dozen or so people they had adding, for example, black pepper to their diets that week, and compared the effects of their blood to the effects of the blood of the dozen subjects on cayenne, or cinnamon, or cloves, or cumin. They had about ten different groups of people eating about ten different spices. Then they dripped their plasma (the liquid fraction of their blood) onto human white blood cells in a Petri dish that had been exposed to an inflammatory insult. The researchers wanted to pick something really inflammatory, so they chose oxidized cholesterol (which is what we’d get in our bloodstream after eating something like fried chicken. If oxidized cholesterol is a new concept for you, please check out its role in heart disease progression in my video Arterial Acne). So they jabbed the white blood cells with oxidized cholesterol and measured how much tumor necrosis factor (TNF) they produced in response.

TNF is a powerful inflammatory cytokine, infamous for the role it plays in autoimmune attacks like inflammatory bowel disease. Compared to the blood of those who ate no spices for a week, black pepper was unable to significantly dampen the inflammatory response. What about any of the other spices? The following significantly stifled the inflammatory response:

  • cloves
  • ginger
  • rosemary
  • turmeric

And remember, they weren’t dripping the spices themselves on these human white blood cells, but the blood of those who ate the spices. So the results represents what might happen when cells in our body are exposed to the levels of spices that circulate in our bloodstream after normal daily consumption—not megadoses in some pill. Just the amount that makes our spaghetti sauce, pumpkin pie, or curry sauce taste good.

There are drugs that can do the same thing. Tumor necrosis factors are such major mediators of inflammation and inflammation-related diseases that there are TNF-blocking drugs on the market for the treatment of inflammatory diseases such as osteoarthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, and ankylosing spondylitis, which collectively rake in more than $20 billion a year ($15,000–$20,000 per person per year). At that price, the side effects better be hugs and rainbows. But no, the drugs carry a so-called “black box warning” because they can cause things like cancer and heart failure. If only there was a cheaper, safer solution.

The spice curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric, is substantially cheaper and safer, but does it work outside of a test tube? There’s evidence that it may help in all of the diseases for which TNF blockers are currently being used. So with health-care costs and safety being such major issues, this golden spice turmeric may help provide the solution.

See Antioxidants in a Pinch and How to Reach the Antioxidant RDA to see the extent to which even small amounts of spices can affect one’s antioxidant intake.

Another elegant series of “ex vivo” experiments exploring the cancer fighting power of lifestyle changes can be seen in the videos starting with Ex Vivo Cancer Proliferation Bioassay.

Mushrooms (Boosting Immunity While Reducing Inflammation), nuts (Fighting Inflammation in a Nut Shell), and purple potatoes (Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Purple Potatoes) may also reduce inflammation (along with plant foods in general, see Anti-Inflammatory Antioxidants and Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods). In fact so well that plant-based diets can be used to treat inflammatory conditions. See, for example, Dietary Treatment of Crohn’s Disease, Diet & Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Potassium and Autoimmune Disease. Animal products on the other hand may increase inflammation through a variety of mechanisms, including endotoxins (How Does Meat Cause Inflammation?), arachidonic acid (Chicken, Eggs, and Inflammation), and Neu5Gc (The Inflammatory Meat Molecule Neu5Gc).

-Michael Greger, M.D

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit:  jo-marshall (was Jo-h) / Flickr

  • Phil

    Great article. Thank you. I was surprised that cinnamon was not on the list. Was that tested?

  • Matthew Smith

    This article perhaps in part shows that some spices can blunt the impact of meat eating, IGF-1 spikes, or other kinds of inflammation. This is the same list of spices that is recommended as the best at fighting cancer in vitro. The only spice recommended as high in ORAC but not included here is Oregano, which does not seem to be a known cancer fighter but is rich in anti-oxidants. Cloves, rosemary, tumeric (maybe with pepper), and ginger should be eaten daily to reduce cancer risk and inflammation risk. Drinking a cup or two of Chai or other cloves and ginger tea daily could add years to life or reduce injury. Rosemary tumeric, cloves, and ginger are all spices available in tea, are all known cancer fighters, and can reduce inflammation based health issues that can accumulate in life.

  • bettertoday

    good information but best 5 out of 10 is not much of a contest

  • ron

    I have to loose confidence of what is said here, Cayenne pepper deserves to be one of best.

  • Ilana

    I wonder if it’s possible to eat too much of these spices?

    • dogulas

      Yes. Because of oxalate absorption, keep it under a teaspoon of turmeric a day. http://nutritionfacts.org/video/oxalates-in-cinnamon/
      I wouldn’t go overboard on any of these. Small amounts are plenty. Everything is toxic in large amounts. Except whole fruit apparently ;)

      • balconesfalk

        Ashton Kutcher ate only whole fruit and ended up in the hospital. There is such a thing as too much fruit.

        • dogulas

          Too much fruit is only too much fruit if it replaces all other foods. Ashton Kutcher ate nothing but fruit. If he ate that much fruit in addition to a diet of whole grains, beans, greens and veggies, he would have had no problem.

  • Charzie

    Dr Greger, I guess it would be considered a spice, but I am really curious if you can find out any legitimate info on nigella sativa, the infamous black seed, black caraway, black cumin, kalonji, and so forth! It has even more purported uses than it does aliases and it is said to cure everything but death! LOL! I use it a lot in and on bread and certain dishes for it’s very unique flavor, but recently I’ve been reading about it’s benefits everywhere, from the distant past to the present and am wondering how much of it is hype and how much is factual because the stuff sounds like a pharmacy! Google black seed benefits or something similar, it’s crazy! I think this site is the only place I can’t find anything about it! LOL!

    • Darryl

      Nigella sativa has been far more extensively studied than unrelated Cuminum cyminum (ordinary cumin), appearing in the title of 1600+ papers. Most studies of N. sativa, its essential oil, or important components thymoquinone, alpha-hederin, and carvacrol have been in vitro or in animals, and many have found cancer chemoprevention, anti-tumor, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and indirect antioxidant effects.

      Studies of Nigella sativa in humans. most from developing nations where its long been a herbal medicine, report pluripotent effects:
      • relief of repiratory symptoms in asthmatics 1, 2 and chemical war victims 3
      • reduction of seizures in intractible epilepsy in two studies 4, 5, but not a third 6
      • reducted LDL cholesterol and triglycerides 7, 8, 9, 10, additive with statin therapy 11
      • reduced blood pressure in hypertensives 12, 13, 14
      • improved glycemic control 15
      • topically effective against allergic rhinitis 18 and may reduce immunosuppresion from conventional therapy 19
      • improved symptoms in rhumatoid arthritis 20
      • relieved soreness in tonsilitis 21
      • enhanced memory, attention and cognition 22
      • stabilized mood in adolescents 23
      • reduced opiate withdrawal symptoms 24
      • improved semen quality in infertile men 25
      • effective against tapeworms 26,
      • comparable to triple antibiotics in eradicating H. Pylori 27
      • reduced hepatitis C viral load 28
      and an an unusual case report, may have eliminated HIV 29

      Several papers report contact dermatitis from N. sativa essential oil, but the the most worrysome report of toxicity is that of acute kidney failure in a hopitalized diabetic taking N. sativa tablets 30.

      • Charzie

        WOW Darryl, thanks, that oughta keep me busy for a while! The stuff really is amazing! I was surprised I didn’t find any mention of it here prior to your helpful response, as this is always my go-to fact checking central, whenever I have a health related question. I know he can’t possibly cover it all, but apparently this is a pretty hot item! Nature is so amazing! The more I learn, the more the line between food and medicine blurs, and the less pharmaceuticals seem to deserve the same term. A pharmaceutical drug’s focus is so singular and concentrated, which unlike the wide spectrum of complementary effects of the natural plant based herbals, seems ironically primitive by comparison! (Isn’t amazing how a shift in perspective can alter your entire reality? LOL)

  • Susan

    Just have to add in my thanks – this was a great article and it is so empowering to think that we can impact the course of diseases in our bodies. Makes me hopeful!!! Thanks, Doc – you rock!

  • jj

    I would like to see the top ten not just the top four. I can’t use cloves. Rosemary only in small amounts in cooking. Do use ground ginger and turmeric in a tea but sometimes it seems that the system rebels. Am really into anti-inflammatory herbs for osteoarthritis. Would like to see more choices in any article by Dr. Greger because can’t always tolerate the specific items mentioned.

    Dr. Greger’s articles are mostly interesting and informative but too many times they just raise more ?’s that don’t have answers. There are a lot of answers out on the web but too much of it can’t be trusted.

    • Veganrunner

      JJ you might have missed it. This is the article Dr Greger is referencing. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23378457

      • jj

        Thank you. Remember looking at it but was in a migraine aura and it wasn’t making sense.
        Wonder what the difference is between paprika and cayenne?

  • Ilana

    Do you think dried/ground ginger and tumeric are better or fresh?

    • dogulas

      The answer is probably…both. Benefits from each. I don’t think you can go wrong though with the standard dried sources though. Such small amounts are needed too.

  • Sebastian Tristan

    I use all those spices daily except rosemary. My girlfriend and I even put turmeric in our porridge.

  • broken1

    Thanks Doc, and thank you for your newsletters. Your information makes being vegan so much more wonderful. I am learning many good things that I can share with my family and friends. Keep up the good work. Stay well, do good deeds and spread the love.

  • Rob Di Censo

    Before I start I would like to say that this site is my go to for nutrition.

    Anyways, I didn’t see anything here about “Milk Thistle”. I have U. Colitis and I’ve started using M. Thistle. I found results instantly especially in my energy level. There seems to be a lot of research on it out there. I was wondering if Dr. Gregor could look into it. It seems to be a great Liver detox (as well as other organs), protects mucus membranes, stim. Glutathione production.

    Regards,
    Rob

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Hi Rob. Thanks for reposting your question and glad you come here for nutrition info! I did find some research on milk thistle and UC. It seems milk thistle may be used in UC patients to maintain remission.

      Another one: Amelioration of experimental colitis by a novel nanoselenium-silymarin mixture.

      Hope these are helpful. I always take the stance if a herb or food can help the symptoms of a disease, so long as it does not cause additional harm, than no harm in trying.

      Best,
      Joseph

      • Rob Di Censo

        Thanks Dr. I found it very powerful for my condition. I felt a difference right away. But it was a little too stimulating. I decreased my intake to 1 per day or 1 every other day (Milk Thistle Tea).

        Thanks

      • Rob Di Censo

        Thanks Doctor. This passed week I added milk thistle and increased mushroom intake for it’s Ergothioneine. I think with my UC (chronic condition) the Mitochondria was being affected. My Acupuncture Instructor puts emphasis on the mitochondria for health so that’s what sparked my interest here.

        Thanks again,
        Rob

        • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

          Glad to hear you are finding solutions. I think acupuncture can help many ailments. Quick clarification: I am registered dietitian, not a doctor ;)

          Thanks again for your post, Rob

          Joseph

          • http://www.eatandbeatcancer.com/ Harriet Sugar Miller

            Dr. Gonzales,
            Do you know which anti-oxidant and/or anti-inflammatory compounds in foods cross the blood-brain barrier? What does their ability to cross that barrier depend on?

          • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

            Yes, polyphenols can. Check out the latest blog (I am sure you saw it) :-) on berries.

  • Evan

    So is it safe if I eat a lot of these spices via gelatin capsules? How much is too much?
    Thanks

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Those caps are so small I am not sure their impact. If worries about the gelatin can you find a veg capsule or buy spices in bulk? I always encourage using them in food preparation rather than swallow as capsules.