Chronic inflammation has been deemed as a major factor of all modern day diseases.

Antioxidants are natural compounds produced in plants that react and neutralize free radicals, reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.

Spices and herbs are the most potent antioxidant foods on the planet that can be easily added to numerous dishes (including teas), enhancing flavour and health benefits.

dupis chai antioxidants

An antioxidant is a substance that counteracts and reduces damage to our cells. Antioxidants are found in all plants, including herbs and spices, that protect cells from damage by unstable molecules known as free radicals.

By eating antioxidant-rich foods we protect the body from cellular damage, enhance immunity and minimize risk of illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. In this article, we’ll take a look at the top 10 herbs and spices which are loaded with antioxidants.

antioxidant herbs spicesFree Radicals

Our body is amazingly complex. It is made up of more than 30 trillion cells. [1] Different cells have different jobs and vary in structure and function. There are more than 200 different types of cells, each one containing about 20 different structures or organelles. [1]

All of these cells go through millions of biochemical reactions, producing energy, products, structural materials along with waste. This waste or byproducts often have unstable molecules like oxygen (reactive oxygen species [ROS]) or nitrogen (reactive nitrogen species [RNS]) that sporadically react with body tissues causing damage known as oxidation.[2,9] These waste byproducts are also known as free radicals.

Some levels of free radicals are necessary, as they play several communicative and protective roles. For example, free radicals signal for glucose to come inside muscle cells. [2] Our immune system uses free radicals against invading viruses, bacteria, and to neutralize damaged cells. [2,3] However, the natural destructive nature of free radicals becomes a problem with higher levels, which attack and destabilize many regular, functioning cells and DNA. Our systems work through balance, and to stabilize free radicals the body uses counter molecules called antioxidants. The imbalance of free radicals in the body is often referred to as oxidative stress that if not corrected can lead to many health issues. [4,9]

Inflammation

So, how does the body responds to free radicals’ damaging cascade and oxidative stress?

With inflammation.

Inflammation is a process by which the immune system recognizes foreign agents and damaged cells and initiates repairs. It is a method of how we fight infections, disease and heal from injuries.

Cells communicate with each other through electrical and chemical messaging pathways. These messages move in a sequence like a “domino effect” activating numerous enzymes and protein cofactors. One of the most studied communication systems is called mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK). Messages carried through MAPK activate specific genes, initiating production of (transcription) products unleashing the immune response. [5,9]

When foreign bacteria, virus or any other pathogen enters our body, the immune system sounds the alarm through pathways like MAPK generating an inflammatory response. Acute Inflammation is a standard reaction by increasing blood flow and delivering large amounts of immune cells (white blood cells) to the affected area.

We all experienced physical symptoms of acute inflammation through the 5 cardinal signs: [6]

  • redness (rubor),
  • increase in heat (calor),
  • swelling (tumor),
  • pain (dolor), and
  • loss of function (function laesa).

The inflammation subsides after the infection is controlled and damage is repaired. However, at times this immune response doesn’t stop and keeps going, over-reactively producing what is referred to as Chronic Inflammation. This can occur in case of autoimmune disease (such as type1 diabetes, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and alike), as the body produces inflammatory response without any foreign pathogens present. Inflammation can also become chronic by continuously responding to elevated oxidative stress.

Antioxidant Power

Antioxidants are compounds that inhibit or stop oxidation. There are synthetic chemicals designed to prevent oxidation but, we’re interested in natural compounds that are found in plants and come in numerous classes or types.

For example, compounds classified as antioxidants can be: [3,4,7]

  • 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), [9]
  • and, even some fats like omega-3 have been shown to lower free radicals while increasing activity of CAT, SOD and others. [8]

Scientists believe that antioxidants evolved in plants as defence mechanism against cellular damage and protection of life cycles. With time, people steadily developed similar benefits by consuming such plants in our diet. [7]

Why are antioxidants important?

Besides normal metabolic production of oxidants, environmental factors like diet, smoking, air quality, emotional or physical stressors further increase free-radicals and oxidative stress. The body continuously attempts to restore balance through inflammatory response which can become chronic if not amended. Chronic inflammation plays a common link in vast number of conditions, from seasonal allergies to dementia, diabetes, heart disease and cancers. Antioxidants play a vital role by seeking out free radicals, neutralizing their harmful effects and protecting our tissues and systems from oxidative stress and chronic inflammation.

There are several methods of measuring antioxidant activity such as TEAC (Trolox equivalent antioxidant capacity), FRAP (ferric-reducing ability of plasma), and ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity assay). Each technique produces values, with higher numbers equating to greater neutralizing ability. [7] Consuming antioxidant rich foods is a common strategy in battling rising inflammation. Spices and herbs are the most potent antioxidant foods on the planet that can be easily added to numerous dishes, enhancing flavour and health benefits.

herbal tea in pot1. Sumac Bran – beast of middle east

Originally containing 250+ varieties including poison sumac (related to poison ivy), the edible  sumac (also spelled sumak, soumak, sumach, and sumaq) has been re-classified to 35 species within the Rhus genus plant. [10] The bright red fruits (known as drupes) grown abundantly throughout Middle East, East Africa and North America, are ground into purply-ruby coloured spice that is lemon-tangy to taste. Due to its abundance, many world regions use sumac as flavouring and medicinal spice. Traditional sumac remedies treat diarrhea, ulcers, wound healing, sore throat, conjunctivitis and oral infections. [11]

The antioxidant activity of sumac is massive with ORAC value of 312,400. [12,13] This antioxidant-power is produced from 191+ phytonutrients (identified thus far) that detoxify the body, fight microbes, regulate blood sugar and reduce cholesterol. [14-16] The antioxidant effect of sumac also reduces blood pressure and diabetic symptoms, [16,17] lowers inflammation, muscle, joint and general pain [14,18] while protecting bone mass. [19] These phytonutrients hold strong potential in anticancer research, inhibiting various tumor cells through number of communication and replication pathways [20,21] making it a promising chemotherapeutic. [22]

2. Cloves – antioxidant powerhouse 

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 290,283.[13] This fragrant flower contains abundance of 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).[23] Cloves possess multitude of highly reactive polyphenols (like eugenol) which boosts immunity, combat bacteria, viruses and tooth decay, enhance organ performance, and internal antioxidant production. Eugenol in cloves protects bone mass, improves circulation while inhibiting cancers and mutations.[23,25]

3. Cinnamon – the universal spice

Cinnamon is an ancient spice tracing back 4000+ years to the Egyptian pharos. It has been mentioned in the Bible and well documented for its healing abilities. Cinnamon’s unique smell and taste comes from essential oils containing a wide range of active ingredients. If most superfoods have one or two main “go-to” antioxidants, cinnamon has a small army, each one ready for a ferocious oxidative stress battle that tops ORAC value to 131,420.[13] 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, balance hormones, improve liver function along with blood pressure and all types of metabolic conditions. [26] Cinnamon shown to reduce inflammation in every tested tissue, inhibit cancers while improving circulation, brain health and immunity.[27] Cinnamon shows great promise against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers and Parkinson’s by increasing neuro-protective proteins inside CNS and nerve cells. [28,29]

4. 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 produces oregano’s pungent odour and is a powerful antioxidant and anti-bacterial compound against common food-borne bacterial strains.[30] With an ORAC value of 175,295 [13] oregano is a strong anti-inflammatory herb that fights bacteria, fungi, viruses, allergies and respiratory issues.[30] In fact, some studies show oregano essential oil to compete as plant-derived alternative to some viral antibiotics.[31] Oregano’s antioxidants lower progression of breast, liver and lung cancers.[30] It is a tasty herb in many Mediterranean dishes and available in fresh, dry and essential oil liquid.

5. Rosemary – the fragrant evergreen

From latin’s meaning “dew of the sea” rosemary dates back to more than 7,000 years when ancient Egyptians used this fragrant herb in their rituals. Native to Mediterranean area rosemary was extensively used as a culinary and medicinal herb by the ancient Greeks and Romans. From there, its popularity spread east to China and west to rest of Europe. [32] A member of Lamiacea mint family which includes other powerful herbs like oregano, thyme, basil and lavender; rosemary has been hailed as a superfood since the ancient times. With ORAC value of 165,280 this herb packs plenty of antioxidant punch. [13]

Rosemary is loaded with numerous phytonutrients which pair as highly reactive antioxidants like caffeic acid, carnosic acid, chlorogenic acid, oleanolic acid, rosmarinic acid, ursolic acid, pinene, camphor, carnosol, eugenol, luteolin and their derivatives. [33] These compounds fight oxidative stress, protect liver, cardiac, muscle and other body tissues [33], decrease blood sugar levels and diabetic symptoms [34], reduce physical pain and anxiety while improving mood, cognition and concentration. [33,35,36] In the brain, rosemary protects the integrity of blood-brain barrier (BBB) along with other brain cells reducing the risk of damage (as seen in a stoke) or degeneration (as in Alzheimers) [33,36,37]. Rosemary shown effective against bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant kind, by weakening and damaging their external walls. [33,38] Same phytochemicals have also shown strong promise in cancer research. Polyphenols like carnosic and rosmarinic acids attacks tumors through inflammatory and hormonal pathways causing cell death in number of cancers. [33,39-41]

6. Dried Peppermint – scent of freshness

This aromatic herb is a cross between watermint and spearmint which has thousand year history of flavour and medicinal properties. The dried variety significantly bolsters antioxidant count to ORAC value of 160,820 harnessing powerful polyphenols packing many wellness benefits. [13] 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. Strong anti-inflammatory polyphenols within peppermint enhance overall gut health by reducing all types of digestive issues; from the excess gas, upset stomach and cramps to diseases such as IBS. [42] Just by smelling mint helps reduce allergies, sinus congestion as well as nausea or vomiting. [43] Menthone and menthol also good remedies against viral infections and toxin causing bacteria. The herb itself reduces appetite and boosts overall energy increasing weight loss while fighting fatigue.[44] Mint is often used in aromatherapy as it reduces stress, relaxes muscles, and relieves muscle pain, headaches and migraines. [45] Among other attributes, peppermint is a strong antimicrobial herb. Ingredients like camphor, menthol and carvacrol slow down growth of harmful bacteria while enhancing immune response. [42,46] This caffeine free product increases palatability of food or can simply be steeped as herbal tea for relaxation and better sleep.

7. Thyme – strength and purity

With over 350 species, this evergreen herb belongs to the mint family Lamiacea, with an extensive tradition of culinary, medicinal and symbolic uses. From ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks and Romans to Middle Aged European, thyme represented strength and purification; signified courage in warrior rituals, used spiritual transitions of the dead, and warded off bad spirits and nightmares. [47] The fresh, dry or essential oil forms of thyme all contain potent polyphenols known for anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anti-fungal and antioxidant properties tipping ORAC scale at 157,380. [13] These compounds (also found in parsley, oregano, mint and others) shown to treat vast array of ailments including all types of digestive issues, microbial infections and skin conditions. [48]

Thymol is the main ingredient of thyme shown great versatility in lowering inflammation and naturally protecting against respiratory infections including bronchitis. [48] Other thyme’s polyphenols enhance immune, nervous, circulatory and respiratory systems, [48-49] by fighting 120 infectious bacteria strains [50], lowering blood pressure [51] and improving mood and cognition. [52] Thyme’s antioxidants are powerful free radical scavengers that destroy variety of germs and pathogens, inhibit cancer metastasis and reduce the signs of aging. [48-49] Thyme is an excellent addition for many culinary creations, cosmetic and aromatherapy applications, or simply steeped as herbal tea.

8. Turmeric – all about curcumin

We’ve all heard about anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric and its active compound curcumin. Curcumin is a mighty free radical scavenger showing great ability in decreasing inflammation causing pathways all over the body. Curcumin needs a bit of help (black pepper) getting into blood stream but once inside, can easily cross numerous organ walls like blood-brain barrier (BBB). [53] 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. [54] Turmeric’s high ORAC score of 127,068 accounts for numerous potent phyto-compounds that decrease inflammation, boost immunity and internal antioxidant production, fight cancers, detox the body, improve circulation, protect liver, heart and brain tissues while elevating focus and cognition. Turmeric’s antioxidants shown to treat metabolic syndrome, help with sleep and even reverse the signs of aging.[54,55] This colourful and flavourful spice makes a great addition to many dishes, smoothies and curries for flavour and health profiles.

9. Vanilla Bean – pricy and delicious

As a second most expensive spice in the world, vanilla has several species but originally comes from Vanilla genus within Orchidaceae plant family. This popular flavouring of numerous desserts comes from Vanilla bean pods which were first discovered in Mexico region by Spanish conquistadors in early 1500s. [56]. Since then Vanilla orchid has been moved and grown in other tropical countries. Vanilla bean contains over 100 active compounds, vanillin being its chief ingredient. [56] As the result, this flavourful spice produces 122,400 score on the ORAC chart. [13]

The rich antioxidants reduce inflammation all over the body improving conditions like arthritis, damaged liver, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. [57-59]. The rejuvenation properties of vanilla bean protect cells from free radicals damage including sporadic mutations or cancers. [57] These phytochemicals also possess antimicrobial abilities treating infections of several bacteria, fungi and viruses. [60]

Be aware that vanilla bean and extract are not the same products. Majority of vanilla extract not made from the vanilla bean, but commercially produced from paper waste (pulp), synthetically generating vanillin and adding “natural flavours” to mimic aroma and flavour. These synthetic extracts are much cheeper but do not possess the health benefits of the real vanilla bean. [56]

10. Sage – a true bulletproof

Native to Mediterranean, Sage has one of the longest histories as a culinary, folklore-spiritual and medicinal herb.  From ancient Egyptians, Romans to middle age Euro-Asia, this evergreen perennial used to ward off evil spirits, preserve food and treat many conditions within nervous, circulatory, respiratory, digestive, metabolic and endocrine systems. [62] Sage or Salvia is the largest member of the mint Lamiacea family with over 1000 species. The name comes from Latin (Salvia) meaning “to save or heal”. [61,64] Its pungent flavours and earthy aromas produced from numerous antioxidants which peak the ORAC value of 119,929. [13] Phenolic compounds within sage essential oils (like 1,8-cineole, camphor, pinene, bornyl acetate, linalool, carnosol, caffeic acid, tannic acid, rosmarinic acid, carnosoic acid, ursolic acid and many others) protect DNA, cells, and tissues against oxidative stress and inflammation showing strong potential in treating cancers, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, bacterial infections and indigestion. [62]

Sage shown to improve cases of depression and memory loss. [63,64] Active ingredients of sage scavenge free radicals, protect nerve cells, raise brain enhancing proteins and improve neural imbalances leading to better cognition, memory and reducing amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s disease. [62-64] Just by smelling sage extracts improves memory, mood and focus. Sage is a common cosmetic ingredient which combats the signs of aging by protecting against sun damage, inflamed skin or infection. [65] Sage also improves women’s health from relieving digestive symptoms during pregnancy to treating menopausal hot flashes. [62,66,67] Whether dry or fresh, sage can be easily added to many recipes increasing the taste and wellbeing.

Final Thoughts

Chronic inflammation has been deemed as a major factor of all modern day diseases. Antioxidants are natural compounds produced in plants that react and neutralize free radicals, reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.

Today’s science confirms our ancestral wisdom regarding herbs and spices. These powerful superfoods that once believed as majestic and mystical healers display powers through potent phytonutrients which protect our cells and genetic materials against numerous mutations, diseases and pathogens. Antioxidant rich diet comes from natural foods which enhance culinary flavours while boosting health and wellness.

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