In the Western world we think of spices primarily used to make the food taste good. But it turns out that they also have healing properties, just like the herbs and foods do.
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We could give cardamom pods to help digest protein, or fenugreek seeds and/or cumin seeds to help with the digestion of fats, ginger is used to ignite the digestive fire, and fennel seed has the capability of bringing the digestive fire up if the flame is too low or down if the flame is set too high. I would add a cautionary note here in that fennel is somewhat estrogenic, so I wouldn’t use fennel in treating your digestion if you have a problem which we call high estrogen/low progesterone, which is very common, and which can cause glandular growths, such as cysts on the ovaries or breasts, uterine polyps, fibroid tumors or a heavy menstrual flow, all of which happen when estrogen is too high.
We use ajwain seeds when the body’s physical channels are very clogged, which can happen if the patient has been eating a lot of hard aged cheeses, red meats, nut butters and unfermented soy like tofu. We also use ajwain to purify the mother’s breastmilk if she did not know that she should do some cleansing before conceiving her baby and now her breast milk contains toxins which are creating problems in the baby, such as acid reflux or eczema. And finally, we use ajwain in our cleanses to dilate the urinary channels so that the coriander tea can direct the toxins that we are pulling out of the deeper tissues into the kidneys.
When we teach our client the correct way to take milk, we show them how to simmer the milk with cardamom pods which help you digest the protein in the milk and a cinnamon stick, which helps you digest the sugar in the milk. Cinnamon is also used to increase the patients’ sensitivity to insulin. Many people are diabetic because of insulin resistance where they are making the insulin but their body no longer responds to it. Cooking with cinnamon sticks helps to increase the insulin sensitivity by 20%. Which is why it is recommended in many of the Ayurvedic herbal formulas for blood sugar.
Just as a sidenote, we usually recommend the whole spices because they will lose some of their essential oils and therapeutic properties if they are ground up and having been sitting in spice bottles for some time.
Ginger root has always been famous for increasing the digestive fire if it is too low, say, for example if someone has lost their appetite. It is also used for nausea, especially when combined with cardamom pods, in a tea.
Sometimes we encounter a person who has lots of congestion, but they also have high pitta, or too much heat in the body. In cases where there is congestion, usually ginger and black pepper are used in a tea to burn through the congestion in the sinuses and other channels. But if someone has too much heat already in the body, we cannot use ginger and pepper, as it will heat them up more. So in situations like this we recommend the use of whole cloves, both in cooking and in a tea, since cloves can open the clogged channels and create a cooling energy once taken into the body.
Nutmeg is good for calming the brain — it can be boiled into the milk and taken at bedtime. However, you don’t want to do this longterm, as it can dull the brain a little. We also use nutmeg and formulas in teas and beverages to calm down diarrhea since it tells the brain to slow down the motility in the gut. Again, in these cases, we recommend the use of grating the whole nutmeg and not using the ground up version.
Curry leaves are used in cooking to help the liver lower the blood sugar.
Fenugreek seeds are also used to lower both the blood sugar and high blood cholesterol. This is because it helps the liver which keeps both the blood sugar and cholesterol in check. This is also why fenugreek is used to help with weight loss, since it helps metabolize the fats in the diet. We also recommend tea to our nursing mothers combining fenugreek seed and fennel seed in two quarts of hot water to be sipped throughout the day to help bring in the breast milk.
Cumin seed can also be used for fat metabolism, lowering cholesterol and losing weight, which is why we usually have our patients combine cumin seed and fenugreek seed in these situations, always along with other spices and herbs to balance out the formula. Whole cumin seed helps our gut absorb foods, which is why it is combined with nutmeg to help stop diarrhea. And it is because it is so effective in aiding absorption that we use it in our rehydration drinks when someone is dehydrated. Many people say they drink water but it goes right through them, but if you add toasted and crushed cumin seed to your water, or lassi or buttermilk drink, it helps the absorption of that water into the cells.
Saffron can be simmered in milk to prevent Parkinson’s Disease. But again, we caution our patients who tend to have high pitta to be careful with saffron, as it is known to increase the heat in the blood if used for an extended period of time.
The majority of our client are given their own specific tea formulas — and while there are numerous herbs and spices contained within their own unique formula, which is based on their own particular problems within their physiology, most of these patients will have whole coriander seeds used in their recipes. This is because coriander can remove toxins while keeping the liver cool.
In this day and age everyone’s liver is extremely hot from the overuse of pharmaceuticals combined with the chemicals in their highly processed diet. So we need to introduce detox, but keep the liver cool in the process, to prevent rashes and digestive upset as we clean out these very hot toxins. Not only that, many people will develop a rash as they start their cleansing protocols, but a tea made with coriander seeds can direct those toxins away from the skin and into the urine, thereby preventing a flare-up of the skin.
This was one of the things Vaidya Mishra, my teacher and Ayurvedic mentor noticed when he came to America. Whenever he tried to put a person on a detox program, they would invariably break out in a rash as the very hot toxins would come out through the pores in the skin. It didn’t take him too long to realize he had to give the patient a tea with coriander to sip throughout the day to prevent those rashes.
In addition to all these healing capabilities, spices are also used in the majority of the Ayurvedic herbal formulas because they are catalysts to help create transformations. In other words, they can help you to absorb the herbs in the formula deep into the cells. For example, now we know that black pepper increases the absorption of turmeric into the cells by around 2,000%. That’s quite a lot! This is why you’ll notice many of the Ayurvedic formulas contain spices used along with the herbs in the formula.
I remember Vaidya Mishra was always worried about the American clients who did not know how to cook with the dozens upon dozens of spices like their Indian counterparts. They were never taught the healing properties of the spices. And even in India, sometimes they just handed down the use of spices in cooking or in boiling milk, without themselves understanding exactly why they were putting the cardamom in the milk or the cumin and fenugreek seeds in the heavier dishes.
But now that we have modern science, we can research all the medicinal values of these amazing spices so that it gives us incentives to have more tools to heal ourselves with, outside of the realms of just herbal teas and tablets.
So hopefully you’ll learn how to use more spices in cooking, which could go a long way to help your digestion, in healing your mind and body, and to enhance your detoxification protocols. Don’t just think of spices as something only used to make food taste good.
I hope that you found this information useful as you try to learn more ways to keep yourself as healthy as possible.
This is an article by Dr. Marianne Teitelbaum, US Ayurvedic Practitioner. Posted with her permission. Riim Lagerwerf consults Dr. Marianne Teitelbaum for her own clients and applies her clinical experience and knowledge within Sankalpa Holistic Health. In addition, Riim also uses herbal formulas from Vaidya Mishra where possible. In the late 1990s, Marianne Teitelbaum began a 17-year one-on-one apprenticeship with Vaidya Rama Kant Mishra, an award-winning herbal formulator who hails from a 5,000-year-old family lineage of Raj Vaidyas, who treat the royal family of India. During her internship, Vaidya Mishra taught her how to treat practically any disease, making over 500 herbal formulas for all the problems they treated together.