Integrative Pet Vet column: Holiday spices offer medicinal benefits |

Integrative Pet Vet column: Holiday spices offer medicinal benefits

Dr. Ron Carsten
Integrative Pet Vet

Many plants have a long and fascinating history of medicinal use. This includes the holiday spices. Cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves are spices commonly used in holiday foods.

In the past, these spices were highly prized and costly to obtain. For example, cinnamon was more valuable than gold, and one pound of ginger was worth as much as a sheep. Some speculate that this high value may account for why spices became increasingly important during the holiday season, because it was common to include them in lavish parties.

In addition, certain European religious orders also had an interest in the spices that fostered use during special seasons. The inherent appeal of the spices themselves undoubtedly contributed to propagation of their use in holiday baking — especially as they became less costly. Interestingly, in addition to their use in holiday baking, these spices also have medicinal properties that have been recognized and used for centuries. Cinnamon and ginger are the most prominent spices in this holiday group.

Cinnamon is considered to be one of the oldest spices known to man. In ancient Egypt it was highly valued, and in medieval Europe it was the focus of the spice trade. Further, cinnamon is mentioned centuries ago in one of the earliest Chinese botanical medicine texts.

There are many varieties of cinnamon grown worldwide. The Cinnamomum verum variety is considered the true cinnamon because of its more refined and subtle taste. This is largely due to having less cinnamaldehyde in its essential oil. Cinnamomum cassia is considered the Chinese cinnamon because it is the variety described in the early Chinese herbal texts and is a component of numerous Chinese herbal formulas.

The cassia variety has more cinnamaldehyde and has a stronger taste. It is cheaper to obtain and widely available making it the variety that is most commonly consumed. In traditional Chinese medicine cinnamon is considered to be a warming herb that counteracts the effects of wind-cold. Both the inner bark and twigs are used. In simple terms, the effects of cinnamon twig include influencing the heart, lung, and bladder acupuncture meridians by warming, dispersing cold and promoting blood circulation.

Research has focused on the cinnamaldehyde as the component in cinnamon that provides health benefits. Cinnamon has demonstrated anti-inflammatory effects. See how inflammation affects health in the previous article “Chronic inflammation can harm pets’ health” and see why this anti-inflammatory effect can be valuable. Cinnamon has also been shown to reduce blood pressure, reduce LDL cholesterol, reduce blood glucose, and increase sensitivity to insulin. These benefits can help to lower risk of heart disease and assist management of diabetes.

Some recommend cinnamon for older dogs to help with joint discomfort associated with inflammation, muscle cramps, for its appetite stimulating property, and its ability to act as an antibiotic. Cinnamon powder is considered safe for cats, but caution should be exercised because toxicity is a concern with the cinnamon essential oil.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) root is also used as an enjoyable holiday spice. It is thought to be the most commonly consumed dietary condiment in the world. The Chinese have used ginger for its medicinal benefits for over 5,000 years. Ginger was valued for its medicinal properties during the Roman Empire, and in Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries it was a highly prized part of the spice trade.

Ginger is considered to be warming, and in traditional Chinese medicine it acts on the lung, spleen and stomach acupuncture meridians. Research has shown a wide range of benefits similar to cinnamon, and ginger has notable anti-nausea and anti-vomiting effects.

Ginger has also been recommended for older dogs that have digestive problems. It also has benefits for reducing pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis. Ginger is felt to be safe for cats.

As with all herbs, the effects are dependent on the amount of the active component that is ingested, how well it is absorbed and distributed in the body, and how fast it is eliminated. Optimal oral doses have not been established for all of the effects.

If you have questions about the use of these spices in your pet, contact a veterinary herbalist.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.

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