5 Spices for a Healthy Heart – Let Food Be Your Medicine
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food.” Often referred to as the father of medicine, Hippocrates suggested that disease was caused by behavioral factors, including diet and lifestyle, and not by a curse from the gods.
And, if disease is caused by diet, lifestyle, and other environmental factors, then it should be able to be cured by changing these same factors, including diet.
Nothing in your environment is quite so packed with potential healing agents as your spice cabinet. Spices have been included in cuisines from around the world for as long as people have been eating – to improve the taste of food and to provide health-promoting benefits.
Several of these spices, found in nearly every spice cabinet in America, offer particular benefits for a healthy heart and blood vessels. Although many of the constituents in these spices have made their way into your medicine cabinet, the intension of this blog is to guide you in their use in the kitchen – with clinically relevant support for nutritionally relevant amounts of these spices.
Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum) is a popular spice in Mexican, Cajun, Creole, and Asian cuisines – sometimes used fresh, but more often used in the form of dried powder or flakes.
On the heat scale, cayenne is considered to be a medium hot pepper – hotter than a jalapeno but cooler than a habanero. Cayenne pepper contains vitamin C, potassium, and constituents like capsaicin, which is responsible for its heat and many of its health benefits.
Circulation is probably the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about cayenne’s cardiovascular health benefits. But how does it improve circulation? Research shows that it might work in several ways. Studies have shown that its constituents can lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides, and increase HDL cholesterol.1
Cayenne can improve endothelial function by increasing nitric oxide, which is a scientific way of saying it helps arteries relax or expand, which improves circulation. One study in guinea pigs – yes, they were serving as “guinea pigs” – showed that capsaicin decreased plaque formation in artery walls.2
Cayenne pepper also offers potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which further benefit the cardiovascular system.
Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease. Consuming cayenne pepper might also benefit weight loss. Ingredients in cayenne pepper (and other members of the Capsicum family of peppers) called capsinoids, were shown to decrease body weight and body fat mass when fed to 80 overweight men and women.3
In another study, 1 gram (roughly half a teaspoon) of cayenne pepper resulted in increased thermogenesis and fat oxidation (translation: fat burning). Amounts ranging from one-tenth of a gram up to more than three grams (based on the amount preferred by individual study participants) decreased preoccupation with food and suppressed cravings for fatty, salty, and sweet foods.
Eating the pepper as opposed to taking it in capsule form was more effective. The authors concluded: “Preferred concentrations, in real foods rather than dietary supplements, may be most effective for weight management.”4
Cinnamon is a spice that comes from the inner bark of several species of tree from the genus Cinnamomum. Although cinnamon sticks are often found in hot cider or mulled wines, it is typically used in powdered form, in both sweet and savory dishes.
Cinnamon has a long history that began as early as 2,000 BC. Initially a rare spice fit for kings, it is now found in nearly every kitchen in America. An oily compound called cinnamaldehyde is responsible for its distinct aroma and flavor, as well as many of its health benefits.
Like cayenne pepper, cinnamon has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that are responsible for its heart health benefits.
Although cinnamon is probably best known for its ability to help lower blood sugar, it might help reduce heart disease risk in other ways because it can also improve cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
In a study of 60 men and women with type 2 diabetes, one-half teaspoon of cinnamon daily for 40 days resulted in decreases in fasting blood sugar, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol.5
There were no changes in the study group that took a placebo. Another large study that analyzed the effects of 10 double-blind studies found similar effects on cholesterol, triglycerides, and fasting blood sugar.6 Cinnamon has also been shown to lower blood pressure.7
Garlic (Allium sativum) is a plant cultivated all over the world, although it is believed to have originated in Siberia. The bulb of the garlic plant is used in cooking as whole cloves, chopped/minced, pressed/paste, juiced, or in powdered form.
Garlic is one of the most popular cooking spices, as well as the most researched one. More than 100 phytochemicals have been identified in garlic, with the sulfur-containing ingredient allicin being the most well-known one.
Allicin and other sulfur compounds are also found in the relatives of garlic, including onions and leeks. These health-promoting sulfur compounds are formed when the garlic clove is damaged – by chopping, crushing, or chewing.
Allicin and other sulfur compounds are responsible for the pungent taste and many of the health benefits of garlic. Are you noticing a trend? The most health-promoting constituents of these foods also seem to be the ingredients that provide their unique tastes and aromas.
It probably won’t come as a big surprise that garlic is good for you – especially for your heart and circulation (unless, of course, you are allergic to it).
Several studies have found that garlic lowers blood pressure and fights free radical damage in the blood vessels of individuals who have high blood pressure.8,9
Numerous studies have found that garlic can lower blood lipid levels, particularly total and LDL cholesterol. Although one study found the equivalent of one garlic clove was not enough to make a difference,10 others suggest that four garlic cloves daily do make a difference. Another study found that garlic worked better when combined with a tablespoon of lemon juice.11
In that trial, 20 grams of garlic were consumed, which is the equivalent to 2-4 cloves. An analysis of 39 other trials found that garlic consumption for two months significantly lowered total cholesterol by an average of 17 points and LDL cholesterol by an average of 9 points in individuals who had a total cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or higher. This study concluded that garlic did not have much effect on triglycerides and had inconsistent effects on HDL cholesterol.12
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) was first cultivated in Southeast Asia and made its way to the West during the spice trade. This species of ginger does not exist in the wild, although there is a completely different plant called wild ginger (Asarum canadense) that does (and is said to contain potentially toxic ingredients).
The only other “wild ginger” you will find are the Wild Ginger restaurants dotting the country, including in Seattle, WA and Summerville, SC. In this article, references to ginger will be to the common spice ginger (Zingiber officinale).
Although ginger root is used in savory dishes in Indian and Asian cuisine, it tends to be used in sweet foods in Western cuisine – gingerbread, ginger cookies, ginger ale/ginger beer, Moscow mules, and pumpkin pie, for example. Ginger root can be sliced, diced, juiced, pickled, and candied, but is most often used as a powder.
Gingerol, the most bioactive constituent of ginger, is responsible for its flavor and aroma, in addition to many of its health benefits, which come from its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Although ginger, often as a tea, is best known for its anti-nausea effects, recent research has examined its effects on reducing risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease.
A review of 12 studies found ginger achieved better results when used in 2-gram amounts, including an average 38-point decrease in triglycerides and a 12-point decrease in total cholesterol.13 Two grams of ginger powder is equivalent to approximately one teaspoon. Other studies in type 2 diabetes found ginger reduces fasting blood sugar and hemoglobin A1c (a measure of long-term blood sugar control).14,15 Elevated triglycerides, cholesterol, and blood sugar are all risk factors for heart disease.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is from the same family as ginger – the Zingiberaceae family – and is native to tropical India and Southeast Asia. It is most commonly used in Indian dishes, such as curries, tikka masala, and tandoori chicken. Like ginger, the root is the portion used in cooking. Most often in powder form either alone or as one of nine spices typically found in curry powder, turmeric provides curry powder its golden yellow color.
The curcuminoids in turmeric provide many of the health benefits attributed to Indian dishes – primarily associated with their anti-inflammatory effects.
Although there is a plethora of studies on the health benefits of isolated curcumin, this article focuses on the commonly consumed food sources of spices, in this case the whole herb turmeric.
Beyond curcumin, turmeric has numerous antioxidant constituents that are not sensitive to destruction by cooking. And some studies have looked at turmeric for decreasing heart disease risk. One study found 2.4 grams (approximately 1¼ teaspoons) of turmeric for four weeks resulted in reduced LDL cholesterol and C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation associated with increased risk for heart disease).16
Decreases craving for junk food
1/8 teaspoon up to 1 ½ teaspoons
Increases fat burning; decreases body fat
Decreases LDL and increases HDL cholesterol
Frequent dietary consumption
Decreases blood sugar, triglycerides, LDL and total cholesterol
Lowers blood pressure
600-900 mg (¼ -½ teaspoon) garlic powder
Lowers total and LDL cholesterol
2-4 cloves (20 grams)
Lowers triglycerides and total cholesterol
Best results with less than 1 teaspoon daily
Lowers fasting blood sugar and HbA1c
1 teaspoon (2 grams)
Decreases inflammatory CRP
Decreases LDL cholesterol and CRP
1 ¼ teaspoons
How can you incorporate these five spices into your diet?
Although these spices are likely found in meals you frequently cook at home or order in a restaurant, how many are you able to incorporate into one meal? Interestingly, four of the five spices are included in curry powder – turmeric, ginger, cayenne, and cinnamon – but we’re missing garlic!
I asked my culinary expert friend and co-worker, Jacob, if he has a recipe that includes all five – and amazingly he does and it sounds fantastic. Jacob is a professional copywriter and amateur food blogger.
His growing knowledge of the culinary arts is coupled with a passion for experimenting with new recipes, sharing stories about the history and culture of different foods, and finding the perfect meal to share among friends and family. And he’s sharing his quadruple “C” recipe with us – Cherry Chipotle Chicken Chili.
- Lee C, Kim M, Yoon S, Lee C. Short-term control of capsaicin on blood and oxidative stress of rats in vivo. Phytother Res 2003;17(5):454-458.
- Yang S, Liu L, Meng L, Hu X. Capsaicin is beneficial to hyperlipidemia, oxidative stress, endothelial dysfunction, and atherosclerosis in Guinea pigs fed on a high-fat diet. Chem Biol Interact 2019;297:1-7.
- Snitker S, Fujishima Y, Shen H, et al. Effects of novel capsinoid treatment on fatness and energy metabolism in humans: possible pharmacogenetic implications. Am J Clin Nutr 2009;89(1):45-50.
- Ludy M, Mattes R. The effects of hedonically acceptable red pepper doses on thermogenesis and appetite. Physiol Behav 2011;102(3-4):251-258.
- Khan A, Safdar M, Ali Khan M, et al. Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 2003;26(12):3215-3218.
- Allen R, Schwartzman E, Baker W, et al. Cinnamon use in type 2 diabetes: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Fam Med 2013;11(5):452-459.
- Rao P, Gan S. Cinnamon: A multi-faceted medicinal plant. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2014; doi: 10.1155/2014/642942
- Dhawan V, Jain S. Garlic supplementation prevents oxidative DNA damage in essential hypertension. Mol Cell Biochem 2005;275(1-2):85-94.
- Ried K. Garlic lowers blood pressure in hypertensive individuals, regulates serum cholesterol, and stimulates immunity: an updated meta-analysis and review. J Nutr 2016;146(2):389S-396S.
- Isaacsohn J, Moser M, Stein E, et al. Garlic powder and plasma lipids and lipoproteins: a multicenter, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Arch Intern Med 1998;158(11):1189-1194.
- Aslani N, Entezari M, Askari G, et al. Effect of garlic and lemon juice mixture on lipid profile and some cardiovascular risk factors in people 30-60 years old with moderate hyperlipidaemia: a randomized clinical trial. Int J Prev Med 2016;7:95. doi: 10.4103/2008-7802.187248.
- Ried K, Toben C, Fakler P. Effect of garlic on serum lipids: an updated meta-analysis. Nutr Rev 2013;71(5):282-299.
- Pourmasoumi M, Hadi A, Rafie N, et al. The effect of ginger supplementation on lipid profile: A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials. Phytomedicine 2018;43:28-36.
- Makhdoomi Arzati M, Mohammadzadeh Honarvar N, Saedisomeolia A, et al. The effects of ginger on fasting blood sugar, hemoglobin a1c, and lipid profiles in patients with type 2 diabetes. Int J Endocrinol Metab 2017;15(4):e57927. doi: 10.5812/ijem.57927.
- Zhu J, Chen H, Song Z, et al. Effects of ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe) on type 2 diabetes mellitus and components of the metabolic syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2018 Jan 9;2018:5692962. doi: 10.1155/2018/5692962.
- Amin F, Islam N, Anila N, Gilani A. Clinical efficacy of the co-administration of turmeric and black seeds (Kalongi) in metabolic syndrome – a double blind randomized controlled trial – TAK-MetS trial. Complement Ther Med 2015;23(2):165-174.