Spicing it Up for Wellness
This week we’re going to get into herbs and spices aimed at supporting gut health. We’ve covered different foods like cruciferous vegetables, probiotic and prebiotic foods and fiber-rich foods as ways to support the gut. Maybe you found them interesting. Maybe you found them boring in and of themselves. Today I’ll give you ways to add some flavor. I’ll keep it short this week and just give you the basics, including an infographic you can save or print.
History of Herbs and Spices
Like many of the natural techniques we’ve discussed, herbs and spices have been used for centuries as health promoters and for flavor and food preservation. Like essential oils, when used in their concentrated form herbs and spices have medicinal value in the hands of herbalists. Ayurvedic medicine and Eastern cultures have traditionally used herbs and spices as regular ingredients in cooking for health promotion as well as their acute use for medicinal purposes.
Because of their delicate nature, fresh herbs are best added toward the end of cooking so as not to destroy their flavor and potency. Use dried spices during cooking to integrate their flavors into your dish. Then add a bit more at the end to replace what has been cooked off.
Here is a short list of herbs and spices that you can use to support gut health.
Additional Support – Polyphenols
Herbs and spices aren’t the only things you can add to your diet to help reduce your cravings for the foods you’re trying to crowd out. We’ve talked before about the tools plants use to protect themselves from danger and how these tools – polyphenols and phytonutrients – can have antioxidant effects on the body when consumed. Just like herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables.
Polyphenols specifically, are compounds in plants that can help reduce inflammation, and may affect factors that can contribute to certain cancers and metabolic disorders.
The gut microbiome helps to make these polyphenols usable by the body. It does so by transforming the compounds in the polyphenols into absorbable nutrients. We’ve talked about the gut’s role in nutrient absorption as a function of digestion. Our gut bacteria break these compounds down just like the nutrients in food. Another reason to ensure healthy microbiome diversity.
Flavonoids are a type of polyphenol, and the one you are probably most familiar with. They are found in many fruits and are known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as for defending against the effects of free radicals. Those pesky unpaired electrons that roam the body searching for a mate to pair with, causing oxidative stress (damage) and the aging of our cells. Here are some ways to add polyphenols to your diet.
- Tea – black and green teas are favored for their level of polyphenols and digestive support. You can even get fermented black tea in the form of oolong and pu’erh. Green tea contains catechins, a type of flavonoid. Matcha, in case you’re wondering, is a powdered, concentrated form of green tea. You can use a hot cup of tea as a way to slow down and relax, reducing stress levels.
- Chocolate – but let’s set the record straight. We’re not talking about sugar-laden candy here. The energy being sold to you on television is all about a sugar high. What I’m referring to is real chocolate: cacao. The darker the better. Dark chocolate has been shown to aid in reducing cortisol levels, and it has prebiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. Look for 70% or more cacao content and little or no refined sugars. Work your way up in percentage and down in sweetness by starting at 70% and moving up as you get used to each step up. You may also want to experiment with different brands until you find the one you like. You can also add cacao powder or nibs to smoothies or chia pudding. Grab my healthy habits guide on the home page for more info on chocolate as a prebiotic. (The link is fixed.) No more than 1 ounce per day is recommended.
- Red wine – if you’re like me and want to have at least one adult drink that you don’t suffer guilt over, pick red wine. The healthiest version is a dry wine made from organic grapes and no additives for finishing. Next best is red wine made from organic grapes. The polyphenol in red wine is resveratrol. Know that you would need to drink unhealthy levels of wine to obtain the benefits available from resveratrol supplements. So please drink in moderation.
- Coffee – this is individual based. Not everyone likes coffee, and not everyone can metabolize caffeine well. Not to mention this is one of those areas where research is still mixed on benefits and detriments. I would say if you tolerate coffee well, a cup a day should be okay. Coffee naturally increases cortisol which stresses the adrenals. Drinking coffee in conjunction with exercise or stress is a double whammy when it comes to the sympathetic nervous system. In these cases, I recommend grabbing green tea or a good herbal tea. For women experiencing menopausal symptoms, I recommend removing coffee and black tea, and restricting or removing alcohol to see if your symptoms ease up. Keep in mind that just removing one or two bad actors out of many may not resolve the issue.
- Fruits and vegetables – always worth a second mention; the best source of polyphenols and antioxidants. Noteworthy for higher amounts are dark berries, plums and broccoli. Citrus fruits are rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant flavonoids. And remember, whole foods over juices to get the full spectrum of nutrients without the blood sugar spike.
- Olives – along with high polyphenol count comes the healthy fats we need. Olives and olive oil have been linked to lower LDL levels and heart health.
Always remember it’s best to eat the whole food, which is typically packaged with the fiber needed to take the nutrients to the large intestine (colon) where it can be processed by your microbiome.
Okay, it’s time for dinner. What will you cook up with the herbs and spices above? Experiment and try something new. Post your favorite in the comments below and share why it’s your favorite. Mine? Rosemary and cinnamon. Not together of course. I use cinnamon because I love it’s slight sweetness. I put rosemary in just about anything to feel grounded; plus I love it’s earthy taste with sage and cilantro in eggs.
Yours in Wellness,