By Lorie Parch
It’s one of those happy coincidences: Many of the flavors we love best come from herbs and spices that are also good for our health. And these everyday herbs can affect more than just everyday health problems. Oregano, for example, is an effective bacteria fighter. And turmeric, which adds punch to Indian food, may ease achy joints and asthma.
But the good news only extends so far: A fragrant pizza or a spicy curry is not the best way to take advantage of this nutritional bonanza. For herbs are one area in which the standard advice—to get your nutrients from food instead of pills whenever possible—doesn’t always apply. In most cases, you just can’t get a high enough dose from what’s on your plate to give you the maximum health benefit.
Sometimes an herbal tea can help, but often you may need to go for an actual supplement. Here are the heavy-hitting versions of what’s in your kitchen cabinet—and advice on how best to use them.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
What it’s good for: The pungent and popular bulb is particularly heart-friendly: In several studies, patients with atherosclerosis who took garlic signi-ficantly reduced the plaque in their arteries, says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the Austin, Texas-based American Botanical Council. “Garlic slightly lowers LDL, or bad cholesterol, and raises HDL, the good type,” he explains. “It also lowers blood pressure and reduces the potential for a stroke, because less plaque means there’s less possibility that pieces will break off from the artery walls and lodge in the brain or heart.”
Best form and dosage: For artery health, take 200 to 300 milligrams of standardized garlic powder three times a day.
Caveats: If you regularly take aspirin or warfarin (Coumadin), don’t add supplemental garlic, as it may thin your blood too much. “For the same reason, stop taking garlic one to two weeks before surgery,” says James Snow, chair of the herbal division of the botanical healing program at the Tai Sophia Institute in Laurel, Maryland.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
What it’s good for: As a natural anti- nausea remedy, this flavorful root has few equals. Most of the research shows it to be effective against morning sickness and post-chemotherapy nausea, and in several studies it fared even better than Dramamine in preventing motion sickness.
Best form and dosage: For motion sickness, take 500 mg of the powdered extract 30 minutes before traveling, and then every four hours until the end of your trip. Or prepare an infusion (in which you let the tea steep ten to 15 minutes) by adding 1¼4 to 1 gram of ginger to boiling water; drink up to three times a day.
Caveats: Don’t exceed 2 grams of ginger per day if you’re pregnant, and if you have a tendency toward heartburn, take it with food.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
What it’s good for: Studies show that oregano oil works to fight infections, thanks to two powerful compounds in the plant, thymol and carvacrol. “Oregano can be helpful for traveler’s diarrhea and giardiasisis,” says David Bunting, director of botanical and regulatory affairs at Herb Pharm in Williams, Oregon, “but it’s used primarily for upper respiratory infections. It’s best for short-term, low-grade problems like coughs and colds, but if you don’t feel better after several days, or you develop a high fever, you should definitely see a physician, who may need to prescribe antibiotics.”
Best form and dosage: Oregano essential oil, the most therapeutic form of oregano, is so powerful it can burn your mouth if taken inappropriately, says Glen Nagel, a naturopath and associate professor of botan- ical medicine at Bastyr University, in Seattle. So you’re better off with a product like Herb Pharm’s Oregano Spirits, which combines the essential oil with a liquid extract of oregano. Depending on your weight and the severity of your symptoms, doses range from 20 drops twice a day to 30 drops four times a day, diluted in 4 ounces of water.
Caveats: None, apart from the mouth-burning potential of pure essential oil.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
What it’s good for: Sage has long been thought of in traditional herbal medicine as a brain booster—wisely, it turns out, since research is adding credibility to this age-old use. In a small British study of healthy adults, participants who took Spanish sage oil capsules consistently performed better on a word-recall test than those in a control group. A compound in the plant seems to inhibit the same enzyme that’s targeted by drugs used to treat memory loss in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (though no one’s yet studied the effect of the herb on actual Alzheimer’s patients). Sage is also a classic remedy for sore throats because of its antiseptic action, says Bunting.
Best form and dosage: Alzheimer’s patients should take 30 drops of the liquid extract two to three times a day, Bunting says, as can a healthy person who’s just looking to stay sharp. For sore throats, try some sage tea or gargle with a very diluted solution of the liquid (10 to 20 drops) dissolved in a cup of warm water.
Caveats: In normal doses and in food, there’s no risk. But if you use it long term in amounts much higher than the recommended doses, it can bring on seizures.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)
What it’s good for: You’d be hard-pressed to find a better stomach-calming herb than peppermint (hence after-dinner mints). “It’s really good for any kind of digestive upset,” says Bunting. And peppermint oil, which comes in enteric-coated capsules, is one of the most effective natural treatments for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Because the capsules are coated, they pass through the stomach and open in the intestines, where they have an antispasmodic effect on the muscles that go haywire during IBS, leading to diarrhea and/or constipation, the condition’s main symptoms.
Best form and dosage: For run-of-the-mill upset stomach, plain old peppermint tea can help. To treat IBS, take one capsule containing 0.2 milliliters of peppermint essential oil one to three times a day with water and before meals.
Caveats: “Peppermint will cause heartburn and worsen acid reflux in some people,” says Snow. If you experience either of these problems, stop taking the herb.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
What it’s good for: This staple of Indian cooking is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Some studies suggests it works to ease the pain of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. It may also help with other inflammatory conditions, such as tendinitis, and it may even protect your heart, given what we now know about the role of inflammation in heart disease.
Best form and dosage: Unlike with many spice-rack staples, you can get a therapeutic dose of turmeric from food. A pinch per serving is all you need, says Reenita Malhotra, an Ayurvedic clinician in San Jose, California. In supplement form, take 4 grams of turmeric daily.
Caveats: Because powdered turmeric is a powerful blood-cleansing herb, use it sparingly.