Special spices show up in everything from baked goods to scented candles during the holiday season. In addition to their sweet and savory tastes and scents, the five favorite holiday spices – peppermint, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and clove – can also provide natural health benefits.
Peppermint Mentha piperita
Perhaps the most popular of the holiday spices, peppermint has been used therapeutically for centuries. Native to the Mediterranean but now grown in many areas of the world, peppermint is a perennial herb that yields a spicy oil, as well as leaves that can be used fresh or dried. Advocates use peppermint to relieve colds, sore throats and congestion; along with its main active agent, menthol, peppermint acts as a decongestant to help loosen coughs and stuffy noses. Holiday spices like peppermint can be soothing when steeped in hot tea.
Peppermint can also help reduce headache symptoms and relieve muscle and nerve pain. In addition, a 2007 study concluded that peppermint might work to lessen the pain of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other types of gastrointestinal distress. (A good way to calm the discomfort of holiday over-eating).
Nutmeg, Myristica fragrans
Nutmeg is more than a visual, aromatic and tasty holiday spice topping the eggnog. It also has a long history as a health aid. Used as an anti-inflammatory in Chinese medicine, nutmeg is thought to help ease the pain of arthritis and muscle aches. This holiday spice’s antibacterial properties make it a natural remedy for bad breath; it’s also good for relieving toothaches and gum problems. As a topical treatment, nutmeg can be effective in fighting acne, and it’s often an ingredient in skin balms.
The essential oil of the nutmeg can calm the symptoms of excess gas and stomachaches, and it may work to stimulate the appetite. Nutmeg oil is an ingredient in some commercial cough syrups, and is considered an aid for asthma.
For centuries, nutmeg has been prized as an aphrodisiac and for its ability to enhance male virility. One last word about this favorite holiday spice: it has a narcotic effect in large doses, so use caution.
Cinnamon, from the Cinnamomum tree
Cinnamon captures the essence of the holiday spices. Native to India and other corners of Asia, its spicy flavor and unique aroma find their way into coffee and tea, sweet potato dishes, candies, pumpkin pie, and other foods at this time of year.
Interestingly, the scent of cinnamon is one of its natural benefits. A 2004 study demonstrated that chewing cinnamon gum or just smelling cinnamon helped improve brain function.
Like other plants in its class, cinnamon has been found to have antioxidant properties. It’s also an excellent source of dietary fiber, calcium and iron (fiber and calcium help remove bile, which can damage colon cells). Like nutmeg and cloves, cinnamon is a natural anti-inflammatory.
Ginger, from the Zingiber officinale plant
Ginger’s reputation as a health booster goes back a long way. Technically an herb but known as a spice, ginger has a centuries-old legacy from Chinese medicine to the days of the Roman Empire. Perhaps best known for quelling nausea, ginger may also fight inflammation and be effective against the pain of arthritis. It has strong antioxidant benefits and acts as a natural antibiotic.
Taken from the stem or rhizome of the Zingiber officinale plant, ginger root tea can help reduce a fever, calm an upset stomach and work as a natural decongestant. Ginger’s volatile oils, gingerols and shogaols, which give this holiday “spice” its sharp and pungent taste, stimulate production of digestive enzymes and help neutralize stomach acids
Clove, syzgium aromaticum
Cloves are one of the holiday spices that are often used whole, and are known by their distinctive shape and color. Like other holiday spices, it’s used for dental pain relief, thanks to its natural anesthetic component, eugenol oil. Topical application warms the surface, and dulls the pain of a toothache. Because of its antiseptic properties, clove also tends to reduce dental infection. The clove is one of the richest sources of antioxidants available, and is thought to enhance the action of two of the body’s natural antioxidants, superoxide dismutase and catalase. Cloves are a good source of fiber, vitamins C and K, manganese, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. The spice also helps promote healthy digestion.
Besides providing direct health benefits, cloves can repel mosquitoes and moths. During the holidays, clove-studded oranges (used during Renaissance days as air fresheners) are natural decorations – a spicy sign of the holiday season.