Herbs and spices are part of our festivities

What is it we all love about Christmas so much? This year for the first time I went out and bought a real tree, to bring joy into the house, and to feel the warm glow of childhood memories following what has been a tough year. 

The other thing we all reach for at Christmas are kitchen spices. Cinnamon for sweetness, ginger for its heat, and cloves to fill our noses with a rich aroma. Like my pine tree, our desire for delicious tastes and fragrances evoke happy memories from the past. 

Spices like ginger, cinnamon and clove are entering our calendars earlier every year with the sales of pumpkin spice lattes and mulled cider flourishing. On cold, miserable, winter days we seek out these flavours simply to feel good.

directly above shot of dried decoration

Spice up your health!

This seasonal spice invasion makes us happier, and it may make us healthier. A simple cup of festive and warming herbal tea is probably a blend of a dozen or more herbs and spices. Plant-based foods like these contain what scientists call polyphenols. If we can get more of these into our diet this helps maintain the diversity of our gut microbiome – the incredible ecosystem that helps us digest our food and supports our health. If you drink several cups of a good herbal tea a day, you’ll be receiving a nourishing dose of these polyphenols.

Unlike other herbal supplements that may come in many different forms and be a little confusing to buy, using the herbs and spices that we all know is simple and has always been popular. We cook with herbs and spices in the kitchen, we use them for self-care, and they are a part of our culture. We reach for ginger and mint to help soothe stomach upsets. We might put lavender oil under our pillows to help us sleep. And it may surprise you just how much good science there is to back up these common uses.

Supporting research

We’ve moved far beyond folk tales. Herbs and spices like turmeric, ginger and mint are the subject of serious scientific studies. Some have explored turmeric compounds and shown they can reduce pain in osteoarthritis (1), others have demonstrated that ginger can reduce vomiting during cancer treatment (2). A study by Northumbria University showed that taking rosemary in water could improve alertness by enhancing blood flow in the brain in healthy volunteers (3).

One area that has attracted particular interest recently is using herbs and spices to manage metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes. A whole host of festive herbs and spices, including cinnamon and ginger (along with Boxing Day curry favourites like black pepper, chilli, fennel, garlic, and turmeric) have been used in promising studies around the globe. A paper in the journal Nutrients brought all this peer-reviewed work together – many of our herbs and spices can be used to regulate our blood sugars and reduce inflammation. This is a clear and cheap benefit that could help us manage our metabolic health (4).

Recipes and tips

There are many simple ways to bring healthy herbs and spices into your daily life. Many are rich in essential oils and can be blended into festive fragrances for use in oil burners, like thieves’ oil with clove, cinnamon, rosemary, lemon and eucalyptus. These are all good for you, and the mixture smells amazing, but the eucalyptus is well known to help with seasonal colds and flu.

Then there are mulled wine and cider recipes which can include slivers of orange peel releasing essential oils known to be uplifting and mood enhancing. You can create a healthy breakfast by using cinnamon to liven up porridge or toast. You can make a cheap meal more tasty by adding turmeric to mashed potato or grating nutmeg onto pasta. And if you start using more herbs and spices, you might reduce the need to use sugar or salt in your cooking.

So as you reach for your kitchen spices this Christmas, be creative – and see how many different drinks and dishes you can conjure up. You will feel uplifted by bringing these warm, rich colours onto your plate, and your home will be filled with delicious aromas. And, as the science tells us, you will be helping your health.

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