Spices of Life: Pinches and Dashes Boost Health
by Anastasia Pryanikova
Spices offer so much more than flavor, providing both food and medicine. Spring is the perfect time to sort through the spice drawer’s contents, toss the old, faded jars and pick new herbs that may better serve our evolving needs and health goals. A healthy digestion plays an enormous part in our overall vitality and the functioning of other body systems. Fortunately, the gut responds well to herbal remedies and diet changes.
Herbs that support gut health are known as carminatives. They improve digestion, dispel gas, and relieve bloating and cramps. Many of our aromatic culinary spices fall into this category. Why not restock the spice drawer with these gut-friendly plants, taking into account some important considerations for buying and storing herbs and spices?
Source and Store
When purchasing herbs and spices, some factors to consider include quality, sustainability, organic farming and fair trade. Avoid herbs that are polluted, sprayed, improperly stored, moldy or too old. Choose to protect medicinal plants that may be overharvested and endangered. To do this, buy from sources you trust. Check out local herb growers, herb farms and farmers’ markets to source herbs locally whenever possible. There are many reputable organic herb suppliers online as well.
Once you get your herbs home, a good storage system should protect spices from air, heat, humidity and light to keep them fresh and potent longer. Small glass containers or mason jars with air-tight lids are the best when it comes to keeping air and humidity out. Glass containers will need to be stored in a dark, cool place, like a drawer or a cabinet. Metal containers with tight lids can also work well. It is better to avoid the store-bought plastic containers.
Label spices, even if you think you can recognize what is inside the container. Along with the ingredients, include the expiration date or the date of purchase. Most dried herbs will lose their potency after a year of proper storage. Keep in mind that seeds go rancid much faster due to higher oil content.
Toss and Transfer
The process is simple; open that spice drawer, examine the spices and get rid of:
• Anything past the expiration date.
• Damaged containers or any others that show signs of having been exposed to too much air, heat, humidity or light.
• Jars with contents you can’t identify.
• Spices faded in color or those that have lost their scent or show other signs of
View this task as an opportunity to learn how to identify fresh herbs from stale ones. Using spices is a sensory experience, so engage the senses of vision, smell and touch while examining the herbs.
Next, transfer spices worth keeping into new containers and label each container immediately.
When pouring the herbs from one container to another, study their appearance and smell them. Don’t rush. Many herbalists attest that they love sorting herbs, making herbal remedies and engaging with plants because the process feels soothing, nourishing and meditative.
Remember not to breathe in hot peppers, powders and other small particles as they can irritate delicate mucous membranes. An earloop face mask can be helpful in this situation.
Now, let’s look at some common spices with surprising digestive health benefits. They can be a good start for any culinary apothecary.
Chew On Fennel and Dill with It
Sweet, licorice-like flavored seeds of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are known to bring immediate gastrointestinal relief. They are safe and effective and appear in many “gripe water” recipes for children with colic. Fennel is also an antispasmodic herb, known for soothing muscle tension and digestive spasms. Try chewing fennel seeds after a meal for improved digestion and a fresh taste in the mouth. Herbalist Rosalee de la Forêt, in her book Alchemy of Herbs, suggests steeping fennel seeds in boiled water for five minutes for a healthy tea that also has been found to stop hiccups. Sprinkle fennel seeds on root vegetables before roasting them. Dill, another member of the Apiaceae plant family, has similar digestive benefits.
Cool It Down With Peppermint
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is a classic digestive tonic that relieves nausea and gas and freshens the breath. The oil extracted from the leaves is rich in menthol, which is a potent antispasmodic used to soothe stomach cramping and spasms. Menthol is also responsible for the distinctly cooling effect of peppermint. Clinical studies have shown the effectiveness of peppermint, specifically enteric-coated capsules of peppermint oil, in reducing pain associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar suggests making tea with equal parts of peppermint and chamomile for indigestion and headaches linked to indigestion.
Warm It Up With Ginger
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) warms up the digestive system, inhibits gut pathogens and helps to relieve bloating, gas, pain and nausea. Ginger is used to decrease inflammation, support detoxification and reduce blood sugar levels. Studies have shown that people taking ginger emptied their stomachs faster than those who were taking a placebo. A cup of ginger-lemon tea can be wonderful on a cold, dreary day. For a warming mocktail, try a shot of lemon and ginger juice topped with some sparkling water and a pinch of cayenne. People taking blood thinners, however, should consult their doctor before taking ginger in large doses due to its blood-thinning properties. It’s not recommended in high doses during pregnancy.
Sweeten With Cinnamon
Cinnamon is a delicious spice made from the inner bark of several tree species from the genus Cinnamomum. There are two main types of cinnamon: Ceylon, or the “true” cinnamon, and Cassia, which is comparable but less sweet. Cinnamon tends to warm up digestion and can ease indigestion, gas, cramping and diarrhea. It has antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, decreasing inflammation in the body. Studies show its capacity to lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes, as well as reduce insulin resistance and lower blood sugar. Most studies used the dose of one to six grams per day of powdered cinnamon. Try a cup of cinnamon tea after dinner to stimulate digestion and help regulate blood sugar. Cinnamon can also thin the blood, so people who take blood-thinning medications should consult their doctor before taking it in large doses.
Small spice jars hide many superpowers, waiting to be released as we sprinkle, boil and brew. Are you ready to strengthen the digestive fire in your belly?
Anastasia Pryanikova is an herbalist and certified wellness coach. She offers herbal workshops, herbal remedies, consultations and custom formulations. Connect at 203-354-9808 or