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Brain-Healthy Spices You Should Be Using

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 04/29/2010
Last Updated: 03/12/2019

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Science and research is a godsend, but it can get so darn confusing and frustrating sometimes. Take Alzheimer's disease; it's forever in the news. Brain games help, researchers say. Sleep and diet is important, scientists insist. Genes and exercise count, everyone agrees.

It's hard to keep up with everything; it all changes daily and sometimes, hourly. And the more I write about health and interview doctors and scientists and researchers, the more I realize that studies, even though they seem to say a lot, are oftentimes flawed, inconsistent, difficult to interpret and forever subject to change. But, alas, sometimes they're all we've got. So my theory is approach them with caution and skepticism. What's a no-no today can be heartily endorsed tomorrow. Bad news is the new good news. Yesterday's skepticism is today's miracle cure.

And then, just as I was feeling good and hopeful – writing about things we can do to keep our brains sharp – last night's gloom and doom announced the NIH’s latest stance on Alzheimer's disease: the scientific evidence is not strong enough to make any recommendations to help prevent, or even slow it.

So…WHY do we need to know this? Does this mean we should give up our crossword puzzles, our exercises, our healthy lifestyles? Do we throw away the ginko biloba and fish oil because one of these panelists called them "garbage?" No, I say. This Matters> Keep exercising, keep socializing, keep on eating a healthy diet.

So, let's talk spices. There's new research (I know, there's that word again, but, hey, spices really seem kinda innocuous, you know?) that they are good for your brain. They may not be the anti-Alzheimer's panacea, but since we probably already have a lot of these in our kitchen, why not put them to good use?

Turmeric: There might be a reason that the rate of Alzheimer's in India is one-fourth of ours in the U.S. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric (that's what gives curry its yellow color), breaks up brain plaques of amyloid beta (the abnormal protein buildup that is a hallmark of Alzheimer's). Curcumin has also been found to inhibit the growth of cancer cells and reduce inflammation. Just a teaspoon of curry powder (which is a blend of turmeric and other spices) is equal to ½ cup of red grapes in antioxidants. Oh, how this makes me wish I liked Indian food….

Saffron: What does this have in common with Prozac? In a 2007 study, it was found to work as well as the anti-depressant in treating mild-to-moderate depression. When my son visited Spain when he was in high school, my souvenir was 2 good-size bags of the stuff. (when I think about that, it's cute…after all, all you need to use is ½ teaspoon added to 2 cups of rice. If you need any saffron, call me.) Saffron is a concentrated source of antioxidants, on par with strawberries, cherries and raspberries.

Garlic: It may help fight brain cancer; garlic compounds, in a study, eliminated cancer cells. Of course, further studies need to be done to further test the effectiveness of this claim. But hey, garlic has so many other benefits, like possibly helping keep cholesterol low, so who knows what else is hidden behind those cloves?

Cinnamon: Cinnamon has one of the highest antioxidant levels of any spice – and even more than many foods. There are as many antioxidants in 1 teaspoon of cinnamon as a full cup of pomegranate juice or ½ cup of blueberries. And chewing cinnamon gum may keep your brain sharp: a recent study found that it speeds the rate at which your brain processes visual cues. (It may be because cinnamon also helps to regulate blood sugar levels – which is good news for diabetics – and by doing this, may help you stay focused).

Thyme: A teaspoon of thyme has about the same amount of antioxidants as a carrot of ½ a cup of chopped tomatoes. And the flavanoids in this spice give it antioxidant properties as well. There are some studies that suggest these antioxidants may have age-related benefits like helping to maintain cognitive function and promote heart health.

Coffee: Okay, I'm cheating; it's not a spice. But I wanted to sneak it in here because of this: Scientists have already documented coffee's ability to enhance learning and memory and speed the processing of information. Now new research published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease says that coffee can also ward off some effects of aging on the brain. Previous research shows that caffeine can lessen the damage of Alzheimer's disease caused by the toxic peptide that forms plaques in the brains of Alzheimer patients. New findings show that women (not the same for men, for whatever reason) who drank 3 or more cups of coffee a day (or 6 cups of tea) were protected against the deterioration and loss of brain tissue. Caffeine also stimulates blood flow.

To read more on aging and memory, click here


Really interesting post! I intend to add more spices to my life starting now!

Also, about garlic, I have heard that when you eat garlic, it can help keep the ticks away so there's an added benefit.

This is a great list. I agree it is so confusing and disheartening to read one study that says one thing and another that then contradicts it. I heard a report this morning in NPR about the NIH study you reference and thought the same thing - no matter what they say I will continue to exercise, eat healthy foods, and do mentally challenging activities because I know all of it is good for me.

I know; sometimes we just have to turn a deaf ear to what's *new* in these studies. Let common sense prevail, I say!

I love it when medical science is delicious. :) I have a whole pharmacy in my cabinet!

A pharmacy in your cabinet - now that's a healthy cabinet!

I've experienced the anti inflammatory effect of turmeric -- used when recovering from a joint injury, and it helped. comes in capsule, too, Sheryl, so if you do not care so much for eating it maybe that'd work for you.

Ah, yes, Kerry, I did forget that fact. I took it ages ago when I had an injury, and it was indeed in capsule form. Thanks for the reminder!

Hi Sheryl, as you know I write about nutrition here, and I'm so happy to see you include some of my faves, particularly that you snuck in coffee! I quit drinking coffee for 13 years after I had my first child in the mistaken belief that I was making a healthy choice to give up something I loved. Lo and behold I find out it prevents Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and, for some people at least, works to prevent depression! Now I happily have my two cups of Joe in the morning before switching to green tea...

I'm with you on the coffee, Melanie, esp. since there's more and more evidence that it does more good than harm! I like your way of two cups and then green tea...if only I liked tea...

Excellent, informative post, Sheryl. With all of this, I think, we use the best science that's currently available. I do know exercise simply makes me feel better, whatever it's doing or not doing for my brain.

Agreed, Ruth. Exercise is something that ALWAYS makes me feel better. And *they* do say it is one of the best things you can do for your brain...

I'm a huge fan of ginger--fresh, ground, candied. If I remember right ginger has multiple health benefits. Very interesting to hear about tumeric's potential to ward off Alzheimer's.

yes, ginger is great, especially in place of Dramamine, for motion sickness. Works like a charm.

The only trouble with saffron is the darn pricetag. I think it might cost more than the Prozac, but I'm not sure.

About spices, I've wondered this: do they lose their healing power over time? Do I need to use them within a certain time period after opening? I've always wondered that as far as phytochemicals and antioxidants are concerned. Also whether their healing jolt is lost when they are heated/cooked and esp when microwaved.

Alisa, those are great questions. I'm going to see if I can find the answers to them and report back. And the heating question is most interesting, since I do know that sometimes heating things brings out more nutrients than not heating.

Did you find the answers to these great questions? I'd also like to know.

Hi Hannah, Thanks for checking in!

Although spices do not spoil, they can lose their pungency; their active compounds will also degrade over time. That's why it's important to keep them in a dark, cool place, away from humidity. And if you're using fresh herbs or spices, you need to double the amount to get the same levels of active substances as you get in their dried counterparts.
Hope that helps!

I'm doing a happy dance reading this article. I love all these spices! And I recently started putting turmeric in homemade granola (so yummy). It's so good to hear how good these are for us! And I never knew saffron was so antioxidant rich. I will cook with it tomorrow for sure

Just because mental exercise (and spices) to not slow, prevent or stop Alzheimer, does not mean they do not add spice to your life (pardon). Lots of aging people--not all of them have the big A, but all of them need to keep brains sharp. So keep on spicing and crosswording.

Hadn't heard that about garlic, Alexandra. I suspect if you eat enough of it, you'll stink enough to keep lots of things away :) Thanks for the tip!

Great post, Sheryl! I actually have more thyme than I could ever use in my kitchen garden, so I'll have to start using more of it in pizzas, pasta dishes, or salads. I'm also a frequent user of cinnamon and garlic (not together, obviously).

Great that you have so much thyme on your hands :) It's got a great taste, I think!

Great post! I always splash some cinnamon in my coffe and it is yummy!
Next weekend I'll be making "Spanish Paella",I used to use Goya yellow something..., but now I think that I going to ask you for some of your saffron.

What's mine is yours...happy to hand over some of the real stuff.

I love the idea of adding and/or increasing spices for brain health. Thanks so much for sharing this! I also saw the reader note that turmeric is available in capsule form. Now that's great news!

Can you say something about basil? It's my favorite spice. Sure would like to hear if it's good for me!

Thanks for your question, Sissy. You'll be happy it's your favorite spice after you read this:

Basil contains many healthy flavanoids, which help protect cells and chromosomes from damage.

And the essential oil from basil has anti-bacterial properties; it inhibits the growth of several types of bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.

It also has Vitamin A, a powerful antioxidant and magnesium, which promotes cardiovascular health.

It's also a good source of iron, calcium, potassium and vitamin C.

health professionals & in-the-know friends have been pushing garlic, turmeric, and cinnamon for years. now i know why. thanks for the head healthy tips.

When I was 19, I married a handsome young man from Northern India who told me he couldn't eat western food for the rest of his life & that he would teach me Indian cooking. Well, I learned. Ever since I've been cooking with garlic, turmeric & all the spices included in what's called curry powder, ginger, as well as many others. The marriage didn't last forever, but the kind of cooking did. My children by another marriage have grown up eating vegetarian dishes I cook using various spices, but always turmeric / curry powder. I learned to like vegetables I would never eat before, always a good thing. I'm 80, brain still healthy, & so happy these spices are now being recommended by physicians & nutritionists. Spices like turmeric can be added to Mexican, Italian, Hungarian, Chinese & harmonize with the other spices in those recipes. Even with American food, they're good. The statistic that Indians have the lowest incidence of Alzheimer's of any other country also registers positively with me.

I'm curious what your references are for all the health benefits noted in this article. You mention a bunch of studies and the health results found from using these spices in cooking; can you please provide me with the links or info re: the specific studies. I'd like to read them. Thanks!


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