Inflammation is linked to modern day health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and as well as many cancers. As numbers within each disease category continue to grow, so does the inflammation crisis. There are prescribed medications to combat inflammation caused illness symptoms but often come with numerous side-effects. Today, many people are going back to ancient holistic cures and searching for natural methods to address their health issues. Thereby, combat inflammation and improve quality of life without the side-effects.
Many posts discuss and share anti-inflammatory foods and solutions but rarely do they explain what is inflammation and why we need to combat it. So, before we get into the best spices and herbs to utilizes we will first explain what is inflammation, how inflammation leads to disease and what we can do to reduce it.
What is Inflammation?
Environmental toxins, microbes and processed foods are common factors that cause infection or damage body’s genes, cells, tissues, organs and systems. Our immune system uses inflammation to safeguard us from all such injuries, infections and disease. It is a process by which the immune system recognizes and removes foreign or harmful agents and begins the healing process.
The cells in our body communicate with each other by transmitting electric and chemical messages. These messages move by activating a series of proteins, enzymes and cofactors lined up in a chain. Some of these communication pathways have names like mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK). MAPK is a “domino effect” of enzymes that downstream the signal from cell surface to the nucleus, activating selected genes within DNA. Active genes trigger the production (transcription) of products they code. 
When foreign bacteria, virus or any other agent enters our systems, the immune system sounds the alarm through pathways like MAPK generating an inflammatory response. Acute Inflammation is a standard response of the immune system by rushing a surge of white blood cells to the affected area through increased blood flow. We all experience acute inflammation through physical symptoms often called the 5 cardinal signs: 
- rubor (redness),
- calor (increased heat),
- tumor (swelling),
- dolor (pain), and
- function laesa (loss of function).
When the infection or damage is controlled and repaired, the inflammation subsides. However, at times this immune response doesn’t stop and keeps going, over-reactively producing what is referred to as Chronic Inflammation. With no foreign invaders in site, this on-going inflammatory response begins to attack healthy body tissues, like in the case of some of the autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, type1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and lupus.
Free Radicals and Oxidative Stress
The body’s metabolism goes through millions of biochemical reactions producing byproducts that may be toxic or cause damage to our internal genetic material and cells. These are called free radicals which possess an unstable oxygen (reactive oxygen species (ROS)) or nitrogen molecules (reactive nitrogen species (RNS)) that sporadically react with body tissues causing damage known as oxidation.
Having some free radicals is not a bad thing, as our immune system keeps a reservoir of them for protection against foreign invaders. For example, liver produces and uses free radicals for detox reactions, and white blood cells use them to attack invading bacteria, viruses and damaged cells. To balance these destructive species, the body uses other types of molecules, these are called antioxidants.
Things like sun exposure, pollution, smoking, poor diet, chemicals, pharmaceutical drugs, excessive exercise and/or exhaustion are some of the factors that stress the body and produce more free radicals. When these free radical levels tip higher than available antioxidants, we run into all types of health trouble. This free radical to antioxidant imbalance is referred to as oxidative stress which changes immune response from acute to chronic inflammation.
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are compounds that inhibit or stop oxidation. There are industrial chemicals designed to prevent oxidation, but we’re interested in naturally occurring compounds in food and living organisms. Majority of these natural compounds are found in plants and come in numerous classes or types. For example, compounds classified as antioxidants can be: 
- plant colour (pigment) chemicals like carotenoids and flavonoids,
- vitamins (A group, C, E),
- minerals like selenium,
- small proteins like glutathione,
- large protein based enzymes like catalase (CAT) and superoxide dismutase (SOD),
- and even some fats like omega-3 have been shown to lower free radicals while increasing activity of CAT, SOD and others.[5,6]
Scientists believe that antioxidants have evolved in plants as defensive response against cellular damage and protection of life cycle mechanisms. With time, people steadily developed similar benefits by consuming such plants in our diet.
Our body is an amazing machine with many abilities to use foods as raw materials that build, store, repair, recycle and dispose of different compounds, cells and tissues. All such processes require nutrients to form the building blocks of molecules and energy. However, the western diet that is high in calories and low in nutrients is linked to one of the factors in increasing the Inflammation crisis.
To combat ever-rising oxidative stress we need to gradually introduce anti-inflammatory foods into our diet. Small incremental changes are more sustainable and are easer for the body to adapt to. Spices and herbs are the most potent antioxidant foods on the planet and are easy and tasty additions to numerous dishes.
Top 10 Anti-inflammatory Foods
Native to Moluccas islands of Indonesia cloves have been used as fragrance and spice for over 2000 years. Ancient traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic healers used cloves to treat variety of alignments from fever, digestion, respiratory and physical discomforts. When it comes to antioxidant capacity, cloves are an absolute powerhouses with an ORAC value of 314,446. This fragrant flower contains an abundance of anti-inflammatory compounds, like flavonoids, vitamins (A and C), minerals and many others. Its main active ingredient a phenolic type called eugenol which shown to be 5 times more effective in destroying free radicals than vitamin E (another powerful antioxidant). Cloves possess the most polyphenols (compounds like eugenol) of 100 most potent superfoods. This spice boosts immunity, fights bacteria and tooth decay, enhances organ function and circulation while inhibiting cancers and mutations.
Cinnamon is an ancient spice tracing back 4000+ years to the Egyptian pharos. It has been mentioned in the Bible and known for its healing abilities. Its unique smell and taste comes from essential oils possessing a multitude of powerful active compounds. If most superfoods have one or two main “go-to” antioxidant, cinnamon has a small, potent army, each one ready for a ferocious oxidative stress battle that tops ORAC value to 240,000. Cinnamon contains numerous flavonoids like eugenol, quercetin, gnaphalium, oroxindin, hypolaetin, hesperidin, gossypin, hibifolin, cinnamtannin B1 and cinnamaldeyde to name a few. Together these compounds fight bacteria, metabolic diseases, cancer and inflammation while improving circulation, brain health and immunity. Cinnamon shown strong promise in fight against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers and Parkinson’s by increasing neuro-protective proteins inside CNS and nerve cells. 
We’ve all heard about anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric and its active compound curcumin. Curcumin is a mighty free radical scavenger which also has been linked to effectively decreasing key protein factors involved in inflammation, and can easily cross blood-brain barrier. Because of this potential, curcumin is one of the hottest research topics. While curcumin is great, turmeric as a whole is filled with many other impressive active compounds which all contribute to fighting oxidative stress and protecting tissue integrity. Turmeric’s high ORAC score of 102,700 accounts for numerous antioxidants that decrease inflammation, boost immunity, fight cancers, protect brain tissues and enhance cognition while help with sleep and may even reverse the signs of aging. Cooking with turmeric further decreases DNA damage, something that leads to all kinds of problems including cancers. Turmeric is a flavourful spice and makes a great addition to many dishes, smoothies and curries.
Ginger has an extensive documented history as a natural remedy and has been used in ancient Ayurvedic medicine to improve immunity, organ health and detox. With ORAC’s 28,811 composition, ginger’s main active antioxidant is called gingerol. 6-gingerol is the commonly studied compound which demonstrated strong anti-inflammatory properties in numerous conditions including joint swelling, muscle soreness, indigestion, and several types of cancers. Also, ginger improves brain performance by increasing alertness, cognition and memory.
5. Oregano – the ancient herb
This plant has been used for over 2500 years in traditional practices as a flavouring herb and a healing agent. A popular choice among Ancient Greeks as Hippocrates himself used it as an antiseptic. Oregano’s main active compound is called carvacrol and has been the focus of many scientific studies. Carvacrol is a small phenol compound producing pungent and warm odour oregano is known for. Carvacrol is also a powerful antioxidant and anti-bacterial compound effective against common food-borne bacterial strains. With an ORAC value of 200,129 oregano is a mighty anti-inflammatory herb that is able to fight all types of bacteria, fungi, viruses, allergies and respiratory issues. In fact, some studies show oregano essential oil to compete as plant-derived alternative to some viral antibiotics. Oregano’s nutrients shown inhibiting progression of breast, liver and lung cancers. It is a tasty herb in many Mediterranean dishes and available in fresh, dry and essential oil liquid.
Another native of the Indonesian spice islands nutmeg’s history dates back to over 3500 years as a flavourful and medicinal spice. Nutmeg contains multitude of powerful compounds totalling ORAC value of 69,640, but the main one falls under terpene subtype called myristicin. These compounds rapidly neutralize free radicals and decrease inflammation causing proteins. Nutmeg protects organ function and is a strong detox and digestive agent. This tasty spice improves body’s internal antioxidant enzymes which further reduce oxidative stress and protect against mutations, cancers and neurological disorders. Along with antioxidants, nutmeg possesses numerous minerals and vitamins making it a popular ingredient in skin care industry treating damaged, inflamed and irritated skin.
Known as the king of spices, black pepper’s 4000+ year history made it a high priced commodity used by ancient Greeks and Romans as payments. The multitude of active compounds like phytonutrients, minerals and vitamins rank black pepper as #24 on the ORAC chart (24,426) produce a great taste and tremendous healing benefits. The peppercorns’ main active compound piperine is a mighty antioxidant that seeks out and neutralizes free radicals. Piperine reduces inflammation in all body tissues by decreasing inflammatory causing proteins through messaging pathways like MAPK (discussed above). Studies shown black pepper detoxifies the body, increases brain function and cognition, boosts immunity while combating cancerous tumors, metabolic diseases and neurological disorders.[21,22] Also, black pepper helps the absorption of other important nutrients. For example, piperine improves absorption of curcumin (powerful antioxidant of turmeric) by 2000 percent. Therefore, just by sprinkling some pepper on your dish, you not only enhancing flavour but increasing nutrient efficiency.
8. Peppermint – smell the freshness
This aromatic herb is a cross between watermint and spearmint which has thousand year history of flavour and health benefits. The fresh peppermint has lower antioxidant count with ORAC value of 13,978, but it’s harnessed compounds possess many wellness benefits. The refreshing smell and taste of peppermint come from main active ingredients: menthol, menthone and limonene. Mint is gentle and can improve stomach pain/discomfort in both adults and children. Mint is a strong anti-inflammatory and is known for overall gut health improving all types of digestive problems from the upset stomach and cramps to diseases such as IBS. Just by smelling mint helps reducing allergies, sinus congestion as well as nausea or vomiting. Menthone and menthol also good remedies against viral infections and toxin causing bacteria. The herb itself reduces appetite and boost overall energy which increases weight loss and fights fatigue. Mint is often used in aromatherapy as it relaxes muscles, relieves physical pain and reduces headaches and migraines. This caffeine free herb increases palatability of food or can simply be steeped as herbal tea.
9. Cumin – a pungent elixer
Believed to originate from ancient Egypt thousands of years ago, cumin became ever popular spice across Mediterranean, North African, Middle East and Far East regions. Cumin’s nutty-peppery smell comes from it main active compound cuminaldehyde contains variety of benefits. Numerous antioxidants within cumin’s essential oils fight oxidative stress, protect cells and DNA against damage and show strong potential in treatments of cancers, hypoglycaemia, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.[30,31] These active compounds make up cumin’s ORAC value of 76,800 into a potent digestive aid that increases nutrient absorption, detoxes vital organs and treats gastrointestinal disorders like cramping, constipation and IBS.[32,37] Cumin’s mighty anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties boost immunity and reduce congestion within lungs and airways. Cumin is also a great source of minerals like iron, magnesium and calcium that help in building bones, improving memory, cognition and blood circulation while reducing stress, anxiety and fatigue. This spice is popular in many cultural dishes across the globe, readily available and good for you.
10. Parsley – mild flavour with potent results
Native to Mediterranean, parsley’s 2000+ year history dates back to the ancient Greeks as sacred and mythological herb. Since then parsley was used in medicine and cultural ceremonies like Hebrew’s Passover. Nowadays, parsley is often added as a flavouring or dish garnish, but it has much more to offer. With ORAC value of 74,349 parsley packs an impressive list of vitamins and nutrients. Half of cup of chopped parsley contains 108% of vitamin A, 53% of vitamin C, 11% of vitamin B9 and a whopping 547% of vitamin K of the reference daily intake (RDI). Parsley’s fragrance comes from flavonoids, a strong antioxidant class with main compound called apigenin. Apigenin and others within parsley reduce oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals and lowering inflammation causing proteins. These benefits extend protections against digestive conditions, neuro-degeneration, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers while improving immunity, absorption of nutrients, bone density, eye health and blood sugar levels. It is also a strong anti-bacterial herb able to stop harmful food poisoning bacteria.[34,36] Whether dry or fresh, parsley can be easily added to many recipes increasing the taste and wellness.
Inflammation is responsible for numerous health problems and has been linked as a factor in many if not all of the modern illnesses. The spices and herbs in this post come from long cultural history and traditions as food and medicinal ingredients. Modern science has been confirming what our ancestors and their ancestors learned throughout generations. These powerful superfoods that once believed as mystical healer display their powers through potent ingredients which fight oxidative stress, inflammation and all related diseases.
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