Doctor’s Tip: Other beneficial spices

Dr. Greg Feinsinger
Doctor’s Tip

As mentioned in the three previous columns, many herbs and spices used for centuries in various cultures as “folk medicine” have been studied in recent years, and some have been found to be effective and others haven’t. Ginger, turmeric and peppermint were discussed in previous columns. Today’s column is about other herbs and spices that have proven to be effective, based on Dr. Greger’s book “How Not to Die.”

• Fenugreek, used in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, has been shown to improve weight-lifting power. One study showed that athletes could leg press an extra 80 pounds when taking fenugreek, compared to a placebo group.

• Cilantro is used for its flavor in Mexican, southeast Asian and other cultures. A study of arthritis sufferers showed that their pain and inflammation was reduced compared to a placebo after taking about 20 sprigs of cilantro a day for two months. It also lowers uric acid levels and therefore might be useful in preventing and treating gout.

• Cayenne pepper contains capsaicin, which causes a burning sensation when it comes in contact with skin and mucous membranes. When used repetitively on painful areas it desensitizes the pain fibers, causing pain to diminish and even resolve. Capsaicin has been used successfully for several pain syndromes, including post-shingles pain and cluster headaches. Although it seems counter-intuitive, after several days coated capsules of red pepper powder decreased abdominal pain in people who suffer from IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and chronic indigestion (dyspepsia).

• Oregano has been shown in the lab to reduce DNA damage caused by radiation. Other lab experiments show that it has anticancer and anti-inflammatory properties. Marjoram, a closely-related herb, inhibited breast cancer cells in the lab. The only study done on live people showed that after a month, daily marjoram tea reduced abnormally high hormone levels in PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) sufferers.

• Cinnamon: There are 2 types — cassia (aka Chinese cinnamon) and Ceylon cinnamon. If the label just says “cinnamon,” it is usually cassia, which contains coumarin. This compound can cause liver toxicity, so daily intake of cinnamon should be kept at well under one teaspoon a day, and much less for children. Ceylon cinnamon doesn’t contain coumarin, but may not have the health benefits of cassia cinnamon, which brings down blood sugars in diabetes as well as the common diabetic drug metformin does (and without the side effects).

• Amla is also known as dried Indian gooseberry fruit, and is often used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Amla has a very high anti-oxidant content, which probably translates into many health benefits, but studies have yet to be done.

• Poppy seeds contain some natural morphine and codeine and have been used for pain in European folk medicine. High doses can cause positive drug screens and can cause respiratory depression — in one case an infant given poppy seeds stopped breathing.

• Dr. Greger’s favorite spice mixes are “pumpkin pie spice, curry powder, chili powder, Chinese five-spice powder, an Indian spice blend called garam masala, an Ethiopian blend called berbere, Italian seasoning, poultry seasoning, and Middle Eastern blend called za’atar.” These spice blends likely have synergistic medicinal benefits, but studies haven’t been done yet.

It needs to be stressed that doses of these spices that have been proven to promote health, were relatively small when used in traditional folk medicine — a pinch of this and a pinch of that. If a little is good doesn’t mean that a lot is better — and high doses of these things can be harmful.

Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and other medical issues, and to help people with hospital or other medical bills they don’t understand or think are too high. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at

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