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Which Spices Fight Inflammation?

An elegant experiment is described in which the blood of those eating different types of spices such as cloves, ginger, rosemary, and turmeric is tested for anti-inflammatory capacity.

January 10, 2014 |
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Sources Cited

Acknowledgements

Images thanks to SteamDave, PNNL – Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Paolovalde and Riy via Flickr and Saxluvr via clker.com. Thanks to Ellen Reid for her image-finding expertise and Jeff Thomas for his Keynote help.

 

Transcript

Once in a while I come across a study that's so juicy, I do an entire video about it. It's like my "which fruit fights cancer better?" video, or the best cooking method one, or that one comparing thousands of foods. Well, this is one such study.

A group of researchers at U-of-F Gainesville and Penn State set up just a brilliant experiment. We've known ounce per ounce, herbs and spices have some of the greatest antioxidant activities known, but that's in a test tube. Before we can ask if an herb or spice has health benefits, it is first necessary to determine whether it is bioavailable. This is never been done, until now.

They could have went 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 to proteins or cells. So they 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 it would protect the strands of our DNA from breaking when confronted by free radicals. They also wondered if the consumption of herbs and spices might alter cellular inflammatory responses in the presence of a physiologically relevant inflammatory insult. What does that all mean?

What they did was take a bunch of people and had each of them eat different types of spices for a week. There are so many really unique things about this study but one was that the quantity that study subjects consumed was based on the usual levels of consumption in actual food. Like the oregano group was given a half teaspoon a day—the kinds of practical quantities people might actually eat once and awhile. Then at the end of the week they drew blood from the dozen or so people they had adding black pepper to their diets that week, and compared the effects of their blood to the effects of the blood of the dozen on cayenne, or cinnamon, or cloves, or cumin. They had about 10 different groups of people eating about 10 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. They wanted to pick something really inflammatory so they chose oxidized cholesterol, which is like what you'd get in your bloodstream after eating something like fried chicken. So the jabbed the white blood cells with oxidized cholesterol and measured how much TNF they produced in response.

Tumor necrosis factor 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, was the blood of those eating black pepper able to significantly dampen the inflammatory response? No. What about any of these other spices? Cloves, ginger, rosemary, and turmeric were able to significantly stifle the inflammatory response. And remember, they weren't dripping the spices themselves on these human white blood cells, but the blood of those who ate the spices and so 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 your spaghetti sauce taste good, or your pumpkin pie, or curry sauce.

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 rake in more than $20 billion a year, because drug companies charge people $15,000–20,000 a year for the drug. At that price, the side effects better be hugs and rainbows, but no, they carry a black label warning because they can cause things like, oh, cancer and heart failure. If only there was a cheaper, safer solution.

Curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric is a tad 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, and so with health-care costs and safety being such major issues, this golden spice turmeric may help provide the solution.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org.

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

Here are links to those other juicy videos I opened up with:

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 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).

If oxidized cholesterol is a new concept for you, please check out its role in heart disease progression in my video Arterial Acne.

I’ll cover the DNA findings in my next video, Spicing Up DNA Protection. And if turmeric compounds are so anti-inflammatory, can they be used to successfully treat inflammatory diseases? Find out in my next next video Turmeric Curcumin and Rheumatoid Arthritis.

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • Melody

    Great video! I wonder what results they would have gotten if they combined spices, since black pepper and turmeric may work better synergistically?

    I love rosemary tea, and I was curious if you had encountered this preliminary study on its effect on prospective memory: http://www.sci-news.com/medicine/article01000.html

    If anyone is looking for ideas about fitting more herbs and spices into each day, these are a few tricks I have found useful:

    I have a large stainless steel french coffee press I use to brew mixed blends of these herbs for tea.

    I also made a ground spice and matcha mixture to make an instant chai, so that I consume the whole herb, not just the water soluble constituents.

    To save time, I stirred small quantities of all the nuts, seeds, dried berries, and powders in my pantry in a large jar. I keep a measuring cup inside, and add a scoop to my morning smoothie.

    This way, with just a few scoops here and there added to water, I take in at least 35 varieties of plants in each day, in addition to my liberally spiced regular meals.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/ Michael Greger M.D.

      So glad you liked it! I touched on the rosemary data in my lavender video: http://nutritionfacts.org/video/lavender-for-generalized-anxiety-disorder/

      • omer

        Interesting how they did not test garlic… or am I missing something?

        • Darryl

          This older study demonstrates similar effects of diallyl disulfide (the major liver metabolite of allicin from garlic) in inhibiting inflammatory cytokine expression, at plausible plasma concentrations. And this more recent study supports an effect on TNF-α.

          Perhaps the featured study opted against dried garlic capsules because, at the doses in this protocol, equivalent to having all foods in the diet strongly seasoned with each spice, their volunteers would smell of sulfur for a week.

          • omer

            Thanks for clarifying :)

    • http://www.naturallifeenergy.com/ Aqiyl Aniys

      I dissolve the curcumin I use of coconut oil to make it bioavailable. I don’t use the pepperine/curcumin combination because of the toxicity of high levels of pepperine. I agree though I wuold like to have seen the results for the pepper/turmeric combination against just the pepper to see how much more the bioavailability increased.

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

      Here’s a recipe for a turmeric concoction that combines it with black pepper to increase its potency and cumin to improve its taste:

      http://eatandbeatcancer.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/anti-cancer-recipes-how-to-make-turmeric-more-potent-and-tasty/

    • Brian

      Do you have any recipes for your concoctions/ teas? Also, I would be interested in doing the same, how do I start?

    • Susan

      Andrew Weil has recommended a supplement available at Amazon that uses black pepper and turmeric. I bought it but found that it gave me a major case of heart burn, which I had never had before trying this.
      Andrew Weil, M.D. suggests using fresh turmeric, garlic, and ginger to reduce pain and inflammation, which I used to make a pot of tea and sipped all day long.

  • sally

    Hi Dr. Greger,
    I love your videos – thank you!! What amount of turmeric would you recommend a day? My Husbands PSA has risen to 6 and i’m wanting him to start having this in his diet along with a plant based diet of course :)

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/ Michael Greger M.D.

      A teaspoon a day (unless has gallstones or kidney stones).

    • John Galt

      Start yesterday. Quit pussyfooting around.
      It is easier to keep psa low than to lower it. My psa was 6 five years ago, 3 months ago: 25, now 31. A friend died with a 25 psa. Do not ever get a biopsy: why poke a dozen poop covered needles in the bloodiest organ in the body into a tumor which just might be confined to the prostrate and risk spreading it??? Plus, Mr. Happy will not like it!! You DO NOT want to piss him off. Just assume you have cancer, are dying from it and change your lifestyle to slow the growth. Use Dr. ORnish’s program.

  • Marianne

    Can we assume that these spices would also decrease hs-CRP?

  • Ronald Chavin

    Dr. Greger seems to contradict himself on turmeric. In one of his previous videos, Dr. Greger advised everybody to avoid swallowing turmeric powder because they were too high in oxalic acid – the bad, soluble kind that might cause kidney stones. In this video, Dr. Greger is praising turmeric.

    The truth is that the vast majority of people can swallow huge quantities of turmeric powder without getting kidney stones. However, much less than 1% of the turmeric can be absorbed into our bloodstream. Therefore, it’s unlikely that turmeric will benefit where our blood flows to. However, turmeric might be an excellent choice for protecting the inner lining of our entire digestive tract.

    I swallow turmeric powder capsules whenever I eat wakame (seaweed). Turmeric has been shown to block nitrosation (the formation of reactive nitrogen species (RNS) or cancer-causing nitrosamines) in the human stomach and esophagus. I try to rinse the salt away from my wakame but a tiny amount of salt always remains. Salt always contains nitrosamine precursors such as nitrites and nitrates. Wakame and other “brown” seaweeds (such as mekabu, mozuku, kombu, arame, limu moui, and hijiki) contain marine polyphenols called, “phlorotannins,” which also help in blocking nitrosation.

    The fact that oregano, which has a very high ORAC antioxidant score because of its tannin content, did poorly in this study that Dr. Greger shared with us in this video indicates that powerful antioxidants don’t necessarily prevent inflammation that well.

    • Brian Humphrey

      He’s just reading the results of studies on spices and there anti-inflammatory effect. Relax…

    • Brian Humphrey

      Relax…its just turmeric. He’s not praising turmeric. He’s just giving you the results of the study.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/ Michael Greger M.D.

      No contradiction–you just don’t want to take too much! http://nutritionfacts.org/video/oxalates-in-cinnamon/

    • Darryl

      None of the spices in this study had any impact on plasma antioxidant capacity. Nearly all of them do have compounds known to inhibit NF-κB mediated transcription of inflammatory factors. Eg: black pepper, cayenne, cloves, ginger. oregano, paprika, rosemary, sage, Saigon cinnamon, turmeric. Couldn’t find anything on NF-κB inhibitors in cumin (Cuminum cyminum), though there’s extensive research on unrelated black cumin (Nigella sativa).

    • Susan

      Perhaps, it is the amount or frequency of turmeric that may cause negative effects.

      As more and more studies come out, more and more physicians have changed their points of view.

      I think we all need to listen to our own bodies.

  • Brian Humphrey

    Great video Dr. Greger! Special thanks to your team also! Getting back on the tumeric wagon (just have to figure out how to keep my dishes from turning yellow!)

    • Susan

      Have you tried washing your dishes with baking soda? Baking soda removes coffee and tea stains from my Corningware.

  • Harvey

    In Ayurvedic medicine ginger and tumeric have been used successfully to treat ear,nose,throat infections for millenia.

  • Vincent Ocasla

    Did they go on to study potential synergistic effects of combined herbs+spices?

  • Coacervate

    But heat-treated turmeric lost activity. So sprinkle on after cooking? I could live with that.

    • Darryl

      Heat treated turmeric actually had greater average activity than raw, looking at inhibition of the three factors (IL-6, TNF-α, and IL-1α), but the variation in response between subjects/samples was too great for a statistically significant result. Heat treated turmeric also reduced DNA strand breaks more than any other spice, while raw turmeric had no significant effect.

  • veggierob

    After reading this I went right to my kitchen mixed turmeric, ginger, cloves (and a bit of black pepper as I have read that it activates the turmeric) and, using veggiecaps (available online at a very reasonable price) made up capsules. I used to use just turmeric, but have been incorporating new information. I take 2 per day. Yes, I do use these spices in cooking, but not everyday so I think this is a good way to get them.

    • JoJo

      This may sound weird, but I mash up half a banana, sprinkle on turmeric, ginger, cloves and black pepper, mix it all up, and just eat it straight up! Now I might have to add rosemary!

  • Dolly

    Great information! To add, I just read an article regarding the use of Ginger, Turmeric, Cocoa, Cayenne, and Cinnamon – it stated that these “spices” are rated high for great skin and hair. So added to the information you provided, it sounds like “spices” are essential for a healthy “overall” body! Thank you and your voice is very enjoyable to listen to!!!!

  • Debby

    My husband has suffered from muscular inflammation and pain as a result for years. I finally talked him into trying turmeric, oregano and black pepper every morning. !/4 tsp of each combined in a glass of water and lo and behold (just like I expected) no more pain after about a week. Now it’s just part of his day and the relief from daily achiness in every muscle is going a long way towards improving his quality of life.

    We combine the three because somewhere I read that the benefits of turmeric and oregano are enhanced with the inclusion of the pepper. ,

    • Lawrence

      Do you have any idea what is causing the muscular inflammation in the first place? My first reaction to this video was don’t eat the fried chicken then the need for the spices decreases. My point is are we treating the cause or just a symptom?

      • HereHere

        I was thinking he might suffer from something such as fibromyalgia (which responds well to a plant-based diet).

    • Susan

      I tried the supplement which is available at Amazon that has turmeric, oregano and black pepper. The black pepper gives me heart burn, which I had never had previously.

      What works for me is the Herbal Therapy which contains turmeric from Andrew Weil, M.D. Although he does say that taking too much turmeric can contribute to heart burn. His combination gives me relief from pain and inflammation which occurred after an accidental bump to the area of the calf bone located on the lateral side of the tibia.
      I’ve had severe inflammation and pain for two years, yet a recent x-ray showed no fracture. The only thing that worked was the turmeric from Dr. Weil, and the pain and inflammation vanished. No amount of praise should be limited on this herbal therapy, in my opinion.

  • Psych MD

    What is the difference between turmeric and turmeric “HT” at the right side of the chart?

    • Darryl

      encapsulated after a heat treatment designed to simulate cooking.

      The full text, brought to you by the sponsor, The McCormick Science Institute.

      • Susan

        Did you know McCormick is one of the corporations who contributed in Washington State and California to keep the public controlled and ignorant about GMO’s in their foods/spices?

        • Darryl

          Mark Lynas is correct: Why We Need to Label GMOs.

          It has nothing to do with the negligible health/nutrition differences between current GMO and non-GMO crops, but the strategic decision to not label GMOs generates the impression that engineering for higher yield, lower chemical inputs, or (coming soon) better nutrition is something to be ashamed of. As with 911 truthers, Obama birthers, and other internet echo-chambers, transparency is the best antidote.

  • Rich

    Dr. Greger, do you think it’s significant that cardamom is a member of the ginger family?

  • Sven

    I have read that the bio availability of turmeric/curcumin can be increased with heat stabilization: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/adt.2007.064
    This basically means adding it to boiling water. I guess the best method would be to add some back pepper as well.

    I also found a study showing that turmeric/curcumin is synergistic with
    Resveratrol: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2249.2006.03257.x/full

    • Susan

      I automatically take my turmeric and vitamin-anti oxidant supplements with a cup of hot organic green tea after breakfast every day. It seems to speed relief to my body.

  • Tan

    More awesome news. I love these foods anyway. Thanks again Dr. Greger.

  • http://blessedveganlife.blogspot.com BlessedMama

    Thanks for the vid! I happen to lov all those spices, so it will be easy for me to increase my intake of them.

  • Keith Krumbach

    Do data exist for the high-cost TNF blockers vs. ability to dampen inflammatory response that are comparable and could be plotted on the scale? Is the effect within the same order of magnitude or would apples and oranges be as similar?

  • http://www.flowertattoo.biz/ Tattoo Designs

    Interesting video! I was blown away.

  • KP

    Let’s rewrite those old lyrics slightly–Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…one of these is a true friend of mine!

    • Thea

      Love it. KP, you started my day out with a smile!

  • Karine

    Dear Dr. Greger,

    I’ve been putting powdered turmeric into my smoothies, but someone told me that in order for it to be effective and properly absorbed it should be usied in cooking (heated up) instead.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    Thanks!

  • Nicole

    Loved this video! And this is exactly why I make sure to cook with turmeric (and also take a curcumin supplement) for my ankylosing spondylitis. It doesn’t make my disease go away completely, but it sure does help!

  • stephanie

    Does turmeric thin blood? I am having a hip replacement and the surgeon said not to take any anti-inflamation meds.

  • Trent

    I read McCormick sponsored study.
    I assume they sell all the tested spices?
    What about garlic, onions, kale, beans, red cabbage….

    Very thorough study (for what was tested).

    What stands out is:

    1. Anti-oxidant ability measured In Vitro (never touches digestive or olfactory track) does not correlate with anti-oxidant potential in the body.
    USDA withdrew web publication of ORAC values for common American foods in 2012 due to lack of evidence ORAC has biological significance. This study clearly demonstrated USDA position as none of test subjects serum had In Vitro anti-oxidant activity at the end of the study.

    yet… this study was published in 2013.

    When subjects serum (presumably containing active metabolites of hers/spices) was placed in test tubes to “reduce” oxidative chemicals, as the native herbs/spices were, NONE demonstrated antioxidant ability- this “astonished” the researchers.

    2. The serum from patients ingesting 6 herbs/spices DID have biologic activity in decreasing inflammatory markers in leukemia cell line (THP-1) and a protecting subjects normal monocytes (type of white blood cell) from DNA damage caused by adding hydrogen peroxide.
    Don’t know if this is realistic simulation of oxidative stress the body actually faces unless one does shots of peroxide. However, it is HUGE step forward. Hopefully, more beneficial effects and new biologic pathways await to be discovered. Time will tell whether markers researchers chose as proxy for In Vivo anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory capacity are biologically beneficial.

    3. DR. G- are current In Vitro anti-oxidant levels valid or to be taken with a grain of salt? Looks like in Vitro measure of anti-oxidant ability batted 50/50 in predicting In Vivo performance, at least for the stressed out monocytic and leukemia cell.

    7 herbs & spices did not make the grade as either anti-oxidant & anti-inflammatory when tested In Vivo
    Do we call them the “Sucky Seven”?
    Sadly, Cinnamon was one of these failures.
    I will still use it on my whole wheat toast and oatmeal

    (sorry- ginger, turmeric, sage, rosemary, cumin & paprika doesn’t cut it at breakfast time)

  • Susan

    It appears that the biotechnology pharmaceutical companies have cut the sound on your videos, just as the biotechnology pesticide industry does to Mercola’s web site. But, thank God and Dr. Greger, you have a transcript and citations, so we can still get the information.

  • Arjan den Hollander.

    Mercola is a pill pushing slave of commerce.
    He clearly does not have the best intentions towards peoples health or financial health in mind doing what he does.

    That man or other minions of industry like him should not be mentioned within this sanctuary devoted to well-being :)