A bowl of soup containing healing herbs

A healing, herb soup

In preparation for cooking a big holiday meal, many people pull out spices they haven’t used all year.

What would Thanksgiving or Christmas be without turkey and stuffing and the flavors of sage, thyme, rosemary and marjoram?

It seems Early European explorers were on to something when they brought exotic seeds, herbs and spices with them to the New World to flavor foods and use for medicinal purposes. One benefit for today’s home cooks and bakers is the availability of these delicious seasonings, whether homegrown in an herb garden and used fresh, or dried and preserved for later use or purchased at the store.

Even better, many ordinary kitchen seasonings can work together to bring out the best flavor in foods while eliminating common symptoms associated with a heavy holiday meal. Who knew indigestion, gas and bloating, fatigue and body aches could be avoided by cooking with the right herbs and spices. Fresh is best for the most health benefits.

But that’s not all. Herbs and spices have been prized for centuries and used to address a host of ailments. With high antioxidant capacities, they pack major flavor into a meal while cutting down on sodium intake.

Don’t just use them to dress this year’s holiday turkey or let them sit around to expire – start sprinkling them on everyday culinary dishes.

Black pepper: This spice is a kitchen staple, with at least a pinch added to most recipes – and for good reason. Since ancient times it was used as currency and presented to the gods as a sacred offering. Native to India, and extensively cultivated there and other tropical regions, black pepper is often referred to as “king of spice” and has been used for centuries for its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-flatulent properties. It helps alleviate indigestion, improve gut mobility and the absorption of nutrients thanks to volatile oils such as piperine and by increasing hydrochloric acid secretion. Peppercorns contain an impressive list of plant-derived chemical compounds and minerals that have disease preventing and health promoting benefits, including manganese, vitamin A, C and K, calcium, chromium, iron, potassium and zinc and B-complex vitamins including niacin, riboflavin and thiamin. This savory seasoning does double duty, adding flavor while promoting the health of the digestive tract.

Celery: While fresh celery stalks and leaves are best, and often called for in stuffing, soups and snacks, celery seeds have a strongly aromatic flavor. And celery salt is a healthier alternative for table salt. Its seeds and root have diuretic, galactogogue, stimulant, and tonic properties. But incorporating fresh celery into your holiday cooking is the best bet. Celery leaves are rich source of flavonoid antioxidants such as zeaxanthin, lutein, and beta-carotene, which have been anti-oxidant, cancer protective and immune-boosting functions. It also has anti-inflammatory health benefits, including protecting against inflammation in the digestive tract itself. It’s high in vitamins A, C and K, fiber, folic acid, riboflavin and niacin, which are essential for optimum metabolism. Celery is high in magnesium, a mineral essential to more than 300 enzyme systems in the body and the production of energy, and helps relieve the pain of rheumatic arthritis and gout. It’s used medicinally for indigestion, to reduce blood pressure, and as a diuretic and anti-inflammatory. So go ahead and add generous amounts to the stuffing or serve celery sticks with peanut butter or ranch dip for a healthy appetizer.

A collection of various herbs commonly used for healing

Various herbs commonly used for healing

Fresh garlic: Although this potent plant in the Allium (onion) family is closely related to onions, shallots and leeks and more commonly used for cooking in the Western world, garlic was used as medicine throughout ancient history by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese. It is high in a sulfur compound called allicin, formed when a garlic clove is chopped, crushed or chewed, which is believed to bring most of the health benefits. It’s also high in manganese, vitamins B6 and C, selenium and fiber, plus trace amounts of other nutrients. Garlic supplementation is known to boost the immune system. High consumption of garlic also lowered rates of ovarian, colorectal, and other cancers in several studies. Garlic’s sulfur compounds ward off cancer, especially stomach and colorectal cancer, by flushing out carcinogens before they can damage cell DNA. It provides cardiovascular benefits and may help prevent strokes by slowing arterial blockages. It moderately reduces cholesterol levels, thins the blood and protects against dangerous clots. Garlic acts as an antioxidant, protects against free radicals and detoxifies heavy metals. It contains more than 70 active phytochemicals, including allicin, which many studies have shown decreases high blood pressure. It may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and help you live longer. It’s most beneficial taken chopped or crushed. Strongly antibacterial and antifungal, garlic can help with yeast infections, some sinus infections, and the common cold. It can even repel ticks.

Marjoram: To the ancients, marjoram was a symbol of happiness. An aromatic herb in the mint family, which originated in Egypt and Arabia, marjoram is a relative of the more strongly flavored oregano. Mild and sweet to the taste, this herb has a slightly floral aroma and is packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and other nutrients. This herb is often used in soups, sauces or to perk up potato salads and meat dishes. Whether used as an essential oil, powder, fresh leaves, or dried leaves, marjoram has many uses with numerous health benefits. Notably, it enhances digestive system performance, including increasing digestive enzymes and saliva, calming the stomach, improving appetite, relieving nausea and flatulence, preventing intestinal infections, soothing stomach cramps, and relieving diarrhea and constipation. Marjoram is a great antiseptic, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral agent and fights a host of common illnesses: Food poisoning, influenza, common cold and other viruses. It also has heart healthy benefits, anti-inflammatory effects, and emotional and neurological benefits. This herb is a must to help digest a big holiday meal and combat all the germs and stress that accompany large holiday gatherings.

Rosemary: A must-have herb for every kitchen, rosemary tastes good in chicken, lamb and other meat dishes plus soups, sauces and potato recipes. This fragrant, needle-shaped evergreen herb native to the Mediterranean is also a good source of iron, calcium, and vitamin B6. This herb has cancer-protective potential, including prohibiting tumor formation by helping prevent carcinogens that enter the body from binding with DNA. It contains carnosic and rosemarinic acid, two powerful antioxidants that destroy heterocyclic amines (HCAs), cancer-causing agents that can develop during cooking. Rosemary, in the mint family, has been a prized seasoning and natural medicine for thousands of years. It was traditionally used to help alleviate muscle pain, stimulate digestion, improve memory, boost the immune and circulatory system, and promote hair growth. It’s believed to improve brain health by increasing blood flow to the head and brain. Rosemary is rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, helping to fight off free radical damage.

Sage: Dating back to the Greeks and Romans, sage has one of the longest histories of use of any medicinal herb. The soft, yet sweet savory flavor of sage goes well on a variety of dishes, from poultry and pork to pizza, salads and omelets. Historical medicinal uses ranging from mental disorders to gastrointestinal discomfort. A known memory enhancer, sage has been shown in some lab studies to protect the brain against certain processes that lead to Alzheimer’s disease. It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, along with antiseptic, antibiotic and anticancer actions. Sage shows promise as a natural alternative to prevent and control diabetes; it appears to boost the action of insulin and reduce blood sugar. Some researchers suggest sage supplements may help prevent Type 2 diabetes. Also native to the Mediterranean, sage is in the mint family along with oregano, lavender, rosemary, thyme and basil. Like rosemary, it contains a variety of volatile oils, flavonoids (including apigenin, diosmetin, and luteolin), and phenolic acids. These help protect the body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals, which leads to impaired immunity and chronic disease. Sage is recommended for inflammatory conditions (like rheumatoid arthritis), bronchial asthma, and atherosclerosis.

Thyme: Another herb native to the Mediterranean, thyme, in combination with fresh sprigs of parsley and bay leaves, is included in the French combination of herbs called bouquet garni used to season stock, stews and soups. Thyme looks delicate with very small, narrow grayish-green leaves, but it has a penetrating fragrance and adds flavor to fish, poultry, bean, egg and vegetable dishes. It’s another herb with a long history of use in natural medicine – the Egyptians used it as an embalming agent and the Greeks burned it as incense in sacred temples. It’s traditionally been used for its antiseptic properties, both as mouthwash and a topical application, as well to relax respiratory muscles and ease chest and respiratory illnesses including coughs, bronchitis and chest congestion. Other benefits: Lower blood pressure, boost immunity and uplift mood. Recently studies have linked the healing benefits to the volatile oil components of thyme which include carvacolo, borneol, geraniol, but most importantly, thymol. This volatile oil, named after the herb and responsible for its pungent sharpness, offers significant antioxidant protection. Thyme contains the nutrients vitamins A and C, iron, manganese, fiber and copper and a variety of flavonoids, apigenin, naringenin, luteolin, and thymonin, which increase thyme’s antioxidant capacity. It’s also antimicrobial, antibacterial and research shows it helps prevent contamination of foods – the essential oil also can be used in a mixture to wash and decontaminate fresh produce. So go ahead and toss fresh thyme on greens or add to vinaigrette; this herb is a safe and tasty bet to spice up the blandest foods.