The secret to healthful aging and increased longevity may come as a surprise to you. As we age, our bodies change — our bones shrink in density, our memory becomes weak, we’re even at a risk of getting heart disease and other cardiovascular problems, according to the Mayo Clinic. Aging is an inevitable process but that doesn’t mean you cannot slow it down. The key is to strengthen your immune response — the system in our bodies that fight disease — because it weakens as we age, says Harvard Health. Luckily, some essential herbs and spices in your pantry can boost your immunity, decrease inflammation, and help slow down aging.
If you’re a fan of channa masala or baklava, chances are you’ve probably seen this spice. Cardamom is a spice from the seed pods of ginger plants, most commonly used in Indian, Middle Eastern, and Swedish cooking. It’s used for sweet and savory foods.
This spice is filled with antioxidants, according to a study published July 2017 in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy. Researchers found that the antioxidants in this spice are effective in fighting free radicals — high levels of this can cause oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. Cardamom has also been tested extensively and shown to have powerful properties that can fight cancer cells, says a 2015 study in Journal of Environmental Pathology, Toxicology and Oncology.
Cardamom is also really good for your heart. “Cardamom can protect one from a stroke by lowering blood pressure levels. It also helps reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels,” says Amanda Nicole, RDN, a registered dietitian based in Los Angeles. Add a couple cardamom seeds to your morning coffee or mix it in with your favorite veggie stir-fry!
This nostalgic spice is present in almost every fall flavor you can find. From pumpkin spice to apple pie spice, you cannot get enough cinnamon during this season. Cinnamon is made from the bark of an evergreen tree that produces berry fruit. No wonder it goes really well with berries! It’s a versatile spice that goes well in multiple cuisines and foods, from cereals to lattes to everything in between.
“Research suggests that cinnamon is high in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which can help the body in removing damaging free radicals from the cells,” says Dr. Kristamarie Collman, MD, a family medicine physician and the founder of Prōse Medical. A study published 2015 in Food & Function found that cinnamon contains phytochemical compounds that may be helpful in the treatment of age-related inflammatory conditions.
Cinnamon has also been studied to have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health. In a 2014 study published in Advanced Pharmaceutical Bulletin, researchers performed a long-term experiment to examine the medicinal properties of cinnamon and found that rats who received cinnamon supplementation and aerobic training had improved cholesterol levels and heart function than those that did not. Sprinkle a bit of cinnamon on your go-to breakfast or baked dessert!
This is a warm spice found in classic gingerbread and many other baked goods. Cloves are essentially the flower buds of the clove tree and are used in a variety of cuisines and foods. Similar to many spices, cloves have been used in ancient medicinal systems due to their disease-fighting properties.
In a 2017 study published in Pharmaceutical Biology, researchers found that clove essential oil inhibited several proinflammatory markers and tissue remodeling molecules. This is attributed to its major active component, eugenol, which has been tested for its anti-inflammatory and pro-wound healing properties. Another study published 2014 in Oncology Research found that the bioactive compounds in cloves suppressed tumor growth and cancer cells.
“Cloves help you maintain bone strength and density. While the exact link is not clear, cloves can lower the risk of diabetes by balancing blood sugar levels. The risk of diabetes increases as you age,” says Nicole. To incorporate cloves in your diet, try adding a few buds in boiling water to make a delicious tea or in boiled rice to make a flavorful meal.
Ginger is a popular spice used in predominantly Asian cuisine. You’ve probably had it in noodles, stir-frys, and even holiday baked goods such as gingerbread. The spice is the rhizome, aka the underground stem, from the ginger plant. It has been used since the 1500s for various medicinal and herbal uses due to its healing properties.
Ginger has been tested to decrease inflammatory cytokines and improve pain in individuals with arthritis-related diseases, according to a 2020 systematic review published in Nutrients. The researchers reviewed over a hundred randomized control trials and found that ginger has powerful properties to improve digestion and prevent colorectal cancer.
“Ginger packs a powerful punch due to its bio-active compound, gingerol. Gingerol has antioxidant properties and may help to decrease inflammation in organs such as the liver. This is highly beneficial as the liver is responsible for helping our body filter waste and remove toxins,” says Dr. Collman. Drink ginger tea by adding ginger slices to boiling water or add ginger powder to your favorite meals!
Ginseng is a plant that has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb. The root of the plant is normally used in food, for ginseng tea or a homemade sauce. This spice is mostly bitter and earthy with tones of sweetness. It’s also very pungent and stronger, like ginger.
“Research has shown ginseng properties to have positive effects against cancer, diabetes, and to help improve immune function and relieve stress. Chronic stress over long periods of time can increase inflammation within the body, negatively impacting our health and in turn decreasing longevity,” says Dr. Collman.
Ginseng has therapeutic effects on many bodily disorders, according to a 2018 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Researchers examined red ginseng extract and found that it blocked proinflammatory markers. In their experiment on mice, they found this spice can also inhibit septic shock and inflammation in their cells. Mix some ginseng powder in your energy smoothie or warm soup broth!
If you’re thinking of sage, you’re probably thinking of those holiday dinner meals. Sage is a common ingredient in holiday stuffing and meat dinners. It has an earthy flavor with a slight peppery taste that is perfect for savory dishes. Sage has also been used as medicine in ancient systems.
In a 2017 study published in Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers tested the anti-inflammatory effects of sage on rats. Inflammation levels in the liver, lungs, and kidneys of the rats given sage were found to be lower compared to the rats who were not given the sage. Findings suggest that sage has powerful properties in reducing oxidative stress in those areas.
“Sage has 160 specific polyphenols, compounds found in plants, that act as antibodies in the body. The caffeic acid, rosmarinic acid, chlorogenic acid, rutin, and ellagic acid, in sage, has been associated with improved brain function and memory as well as a reduced risk of cancer,” says Nicole.
Spirulina is one of few herbs and spices that are blue in color. It is a kind of cyanobacteria, which is an organism that grows in both saltwater and freshwater. Spirulina is found in a variety of foods, including energy bars, acai bowls, and crackers. It boasts a taste of lake water and is usually consumed as a powder.
“Spirulina contains a high amount of a plant-based protein called phycocyanin, which is what is responsible for the blue green color. This protein may help to fight free radicals and reduce inflammation that could be damaging to our cells. It is known that some plants can play a huge role in anti-aging. Spirulina is also an excellent source of B vitamins, copper and iron, important nutrients which may help to support our immune health,” says Dr. Collman.
A 2016 review published in Archives of Toxicology found that spirulina activates cellular antioxidant enzymes, inhibits DNA damage, and prevents free radicals from entering the blood. While the exact link is not clear, the report suggests that spirulina can restrict muscle damage from exercise-induced oxidative stress due to the phycocyanin. Sprinkle some spirulina powder in a glass of lemon water or create your own smoothie bowl with your favorite fruits.
For thousands of years, turmeric has been used in Ayurveda — a natural system of medicine which originated in India — and traditional Chinese medicine because of its healing properties. Turmeric is often used in Thai, Indian, Chinese, and many other Asian cuisines. It’s part of the ginger family, but it does not have much of a pungent flavor. It is slightly bitter with an earthy and peppery taste.
“Turmeric is known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. The focus is curcumin, the biologically active component of turmeric. Some studies have shown curcumin to be effective in decreasing inflammation in many chronic conditions and to be beneficial for cardiovascular and neurologic health,” says Dr. Collman.
A 2018 study published in The Journal of Immunology found that curcumin in turmeric inhibits inflammation through suppressing the pathways that activate it in the body. The findings of the study support the potential use of turmeric as a herbal supplement in helping prevent inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Stir some turmeric with milk for a golden latte or add it to your favorite soups.