No doubt you’ve heard about the current “it” spice, turmeric, which shows promise at protecting against cancer, inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease. But your spice rack can do so much more for you if you also boost your use of six particular hot and healthy spices.

Naturally, adding these six spices to your food is key—but you also can get some surprising health benefits from inhaling a certain spice-infused steam…and even by rubbing a particular spiced-up sauce on your skin!

According to James A. Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy Guide to Healing Food, each of the following spices helps improve cholesterol levels, and each has additional benefits as well. Today’s hottest health-boosting spices include…

Black pepper. Dr. Duke calls piperine, a compound in black pepper, a “potentiator” because it helps our bodies to better absorb and make use of other beneficial herbs and spices. For example, when used together with turmeric, black pepper increases turmeric’s protective effects against cancer, inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Duke said. Piperine also blocks the formation of new fat cells and aids digestion by increasing the flow of digestive juices.

To up your intake: Add black pepper to just about any savory dish—eggs, soups, sauces, legumes, salads, etc. Note that there is a huge difference in taste between most preground pepper, which is rather bland, and the black pepper that you grind right onto your food from peppercorns. So get yourself a pepper mill…and also, for maximum potency, choose the most pungent peppercorns you can find.

Cardamom. Used as an aphrodisiac in Middle Eastern countries, both the pods and the seeds within help stimulate the central nervous system. “Cardamom is the richest source I know of the compound cineole, which helps improve memory by preventing the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine,” Dr. Duke said. Cardamom also contains chemicals that ease stomach and intestinal spasms, reduce gas and speed the movement of food through the digestive tract.

Breathe it in: We absorb cineole best by inhaling it, Dr. Duke noted, so add one or two cardamom pods or a bit of ground cardamom to a cup of hot water, then inhale the steam for several minutes. (Do not inhale ground cardamom directly, as this could irritate the lungs.) Add to food: Try ground cardamom seeds in rice pilaf and meat dishes. Caution: If you have gallstones, do not go overboard on cardamom—excessive amounts (beyond what is typically used in food) could exacerbate gallstone-related pain.

Fennel seeds. If you’ve eaten in an Indian restaurant, you’ve probably seen a bowl of small seeds (some candied, some not) where you’d normally find after-dinner mints. Those are fennel seeds, and they’re there for good reason—with an aroma reminiscent of licorice, the seeds are an effective breath freshener. Fennel seeds also are a digestive aid, relaxing the smooth muscles that line the digestive tract and relieving flatulence, bloating and gas. They soothe the tough-to-relieve symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease.

Try it: Chew whole fennel seeds to freshen your breath…use ground fennel seeds to add flavor to spice rubs for meat or fish, or sprinkle it into vegetable dishes. For best flavor, grind your own seeds using a small coffee grinder or a pestle and mortar, or place the seeds in a sealed bag and crush them with a rolling pin.

Fenugreek seeds. Many women first learn about fenugreek while nursing their infants because the spice stimulates the production of breast milk. It also is an anti-inflammatory…and it helps stabilize blood glucose in people with diabetes by slowing absorption of sugars. Fenugreek’s flavor is a cross between maple sugar and celery, though it can be bitter if used in excess. If you can’t find it in your supermarket, look instead in Indian or Middle Eastern groceries (where it may be called methi) or purchase it online.

Cooking tip: Fenugreek adds a distinctive flavor to soups, stews and sauces. The seeds are hard, though, so you may want to buy them preground or use a small coffee grinder…or dry-fry the whole seeds in a skillet over medium heat for several minutes before adding them to whatever you’re cooking.

Horseradish. This pungent root—which lends a distinctive sharp flavor to cocktail sauce (or Bloody Mary cocktails)—is loaded with isothiocyanates. These compounds have antiseptic properties and also may help protect against the development of certain cancers by promoting elimination of carcinogens from the body.

Healthful flavor boost: Add ground horseradish to dips, hummus, mustard and other condiments, or spread it on a sandwich. Aromatherapy for colds: Next time you have a cold, try grating some fresh horseradish and inhaling the aroma to open your sinuses and kill germs. Start by inhaling gently—fresh horseradish can be strong, and you don’t want to give yourself an uncomfortable blast.

Red pepper. Chile peppers—from which paprika, cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, and Tabasco sauce and similar hot sauces derive—contain the super-spicy compound capsaicin. This is a potent antioxidant that helps neutralize cell-damaging free radicals. Capsaicin also curbs the appetite…raises body temperature…and may help kill off cancer cells. In addition, capsaicin is used as a topical pain reliever, neutralizing the nerves so they are less sensitive.

Topical treatment: To ease his own knee pain, Dr. Duke has been rubbing on a few drops of hot sauce from the grocery store, as often as needed. He has been using this remedy for several years and it’s working for him, but he noted that, for some people, the treatment seems to stop helping after awhile. (If you try this, use your palm rather than fingertips, then wash hands thoroughly so you won’t inadvertently get any of the stinging sauce into a cut or your eyes or onto any mucous membrane.) Another option is to use a nonprescription capsaicin cream, such as Zostrix. Add zip to foods: Add a dash of any red pepper product to pasta sauces, casseroles and veggie dishes…or even sprinkle a bit on ice cream!

How much to use? With any of these spices, the effective (and palate-pleasing) dosage can vary greatly from one person to the next. Dr. Duke recommends starting conservatively, with just a small amount. He said, “If you don’t enjoy the flavor, you’re using too much. If you like the way you feel, you’re probably getting a good dose.”


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