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As the snow falls outside, imagine sitting by the fireplace, sipping on a glass of mulled cider and enjoying a gingerbread cookie. The room is warm and cozy and the enjoyable scents of spices perfume the air. Yes, the winter holidays are upon us once again and as we take some time off to relax with family and friends or escape on a winter retreat, we can’t avoid indulging in the holiday treats such as cookies, cakes, eggnog and cider. Before we worry about eating too much, gaining a few pounds and other holiday stresses, let’s look at the brighter side of these sweet temptations. Did you know that many holiday treats are filled with spices that have therapeutic health benefits?
Common holiday spices include cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. Other holiday spices used in meals include sage, thyme, mint, rosemary and tarragon. Many of these spices produce a warming, calming effect. They also act as a natural digestive aid and provide an overall sense of well-being. These spices are ideal to use in various dishes and drinks during the winter season as they may be beneficial when we indulge in the tasty treats at holiday parties.
Of all the spices, cinnamon (Cinnamomum Cassiae) is one of the more popular seasonings. It is used in a myriad of dishes and drinks, from the ever-popular cinnamon bun to the simple sprinkle over hot drinks. Originally from the bark of evergreen trees, cinnamon is available in many forms – oil, powder or even sticks of bark.
Traditionally, cinnamon was used for a wide variety of complaints including indigestion (gas and stomach upset), heartburn, menstrual problems, colic and for treating type 2 diabetes. Similar to the action of most spices, the medicinal properties stem from ingredients called volatile oils. Cinnamaldehyde and eugenol are the specific volatile oil components that give cinnamon not only its powerful scent, but also its therapeutic action. Both cinnamaldehyde and its oil vapors have been shown to have potent anti-fungal and anti-bacterial action. More importantly, current research is underway on the impacts of cinnamon with respect to blood sugar levels. Studies on both humans and animals suggest that cinnamon extract has the ability to significantly reduce blood sugar levels and lipids levels. Researchers found that cinnamon exerts a blood glucose-suppressing effect by improving the body’s response to insulin (hormone necessary for lowering blood glucose) or slowing absorption of carbohydrates in the small intestine. Other known therapeutic benefits of cinnamon include relieving symptoms of allergies, reducing development of ulcers, supporting digestive function and relieving pain and stiffness in muscles and joints.
Nice as Nutmeg
Centuries ago, nutmeg (seed of Myristica Fragrans) was used in incense preparations to elate an individual, sharpen the mind and to increase psychic abilities through magic potions. Its main active ingredient, phenol myristcin, is very potent that it even has mild hallucinogen properties when taken in large quantities. Until the nineteenth century, nutmeg was thought to be effective against every known ailment including insomnia, indigestion, anxiety and headaches and was found to improve concentration and circulation.
Like many other spices, nutmeg is full of rich ingredients such as carbohydrates, protein and slight amounts of vitamins A, B1, B2, niacin, sodium, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium, zinc and has no cholesterol. One teaspoon of nutmeg contains a mere 12 calories. This sweet and warm spice has been used for years in numerous desserts, side dishes and main dishes during the holidays.
Cloves (Syzygium Aromaticum) have a variety of healing properties and have been frequently used as a treatment for tooth and gum pain. The oil of cloves also exhibit other health benefits such as the ability to fight off bacteria and other micro-organisms such as fungi and parasites. Cloves have antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory action and aid in muscle aches and pains. A recent study used a mixture of clove oil and cinnamon oil and assessed its effects against the growth of various parasites and bacteria. Inhibition of certain strains of these bugs was evident when the volatile oil combination was used. Not only are cloves sweet, spicy and aromatic spices, they are also the most pungent of spices and are a vital part of holiday cooking and gift giving.
Got to Get Some Ginger
Served regularly on its own in tea form and in many Asian dishes, ginger (Zingiber Officinale) combines both medicinal and culinary properties. Strong evidence supports its ability to help treat nausea (caused by motion sickness, chemotherapy treatment, anaesthesia from surgery, vertigo or pregnancy). Ginger also benefits those with indigestion and other digestive ailments as it lessens irritation of the intestinal wall. Ginger may also be beneficial for osteoarthritis and cardiovascular support. Once again, strong volatile oils (gingerols and zingiberene) are the medically active agents in ginger responsible for its therapeutic action, fragrant odour and taste.
Spice up you Life
Remember, the next time you sip some mulled cider or eggnog and nibble on a gingerbread cookie, many of the aromatic spices contained in these special treats have unique health benefits that will not only add great taste to your holiday dishes, but also provide a health boost. Spices are pleasantly aromatic and are used in a wide range of dishes during the holidays and all year long. So, stock up your kitchen with aromatic products, add zest to your dishes and spice up your health and life in the process.
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