Everyone knows that herbs are a vital part of cooking flavorful foods, but did you also know they can play a vital part in your health? Botanical and herbal medicine is now a well-researched field, and many of the herbs that we use tend to be commonly used herbs for cooking as well. It stands to reason that they can be powerful medicinal foods, as their typically dark green colors signal that they are full of bioflavonoids such anthocyanins. Increasing them in your diet can be a great way to improve your energy, health, immunity, and more. Furthermore, herbs are generally easy to grow, so even if you don’t have the space or green thumb for a full garden, you could likely find a place to procure typically hardy (and thus easy to grow) herbs.
Two common garden herbs, sage and rosemary, are not only easy to grow, but show in study to be supportive for memory and cognitive function. At least part of the memory disturbance associated with Alzheimer’s disease is due to a decrease in the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Sage has been shown to decrease the rate of breakdown of acetylcholine, allowing it to remain more active and thus improving function. Rosemary and sage, in addition to aiding in memory support, are considered warming and drying herbs, and as such can be helpful in headcolds and flus. Members of the mint family, these herbs are also known to be nervines, meaning that they contain properties that can soothe and calm the nerves. These properties can lead to decreased anxiety and better sleep. This calming property can also be useful in the digestive tract to decrease spasm —rosemary has been shown to be beneficial in mal-digestion.
Like rosemary and sage, many of our herbs that provide medicinal benefit are aromatic members of the mint family. Perhaps this is nature’s way of enticing us to consume them. One of the mints, a very easy one to use because of its pleasant taste, is peppermint. Peppermint shows benefit in the digestive system and is an anxiolytic. Also an anti-spasmodic, many studies have shown that peppermint can improve pain management in irritable bowel syndrome. Mints can also help to stimulate the production of bile, which can improve fat digestion and further decrease lower digestive disturbance. This can be helpful for those who have sluggish gall bladder function or those who have had their gallbladders removed. As anxiolytics, all mints can lead to relaxation and better sleep. Traditionally, peppermint has also been used to decrease nausea. Peppermint is often found in tea form, in herbal supplement combinations, or even as in aromatic in aromatherapy.
Thyme is a useful herb as an anti-septic and expectorant, which makes it a good choice in maladies such as upper respiratory infections. In medicinal form, usually alcohol extractions known as tinctures, thyme is commonly used for sore throats or coughs such as bronchitis or whooping cough. Its value as an anti-septic is still used in many natural creams and ointments as topical antimicrobials. It is also traditionally thought to offer topical antifungal properties.
You are more likely to accidentally grow too much basil rather than have trouble growing it, but don’t let that decrease your respect for it as a powerful medicinal herb. Basil has been studied fairly extensively as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It is such a valuable protector against radical damage that it is thought in Ayurvedic medicine to be a vital anti-aging medicine. Basil has also been studied relative to inflammation in both joint pain and irritable bowel syndrome, showing in both presentations to be beneficial in decreasing symptoms. Basil is also thought to be an adaptogen, a classification for a nutrient or herb signifying its benefit in helping the body to adapt to stress and protect against its harmful effects on the body. A review published in 2013 concluded that due to the phytochemicals present in basil it likely holds anti-carcinogenic properties, protecting against certain types of skin, liver, and lung cancers.
There are a handful of herbs that you are less likely to grow in your home herb garden, but I would be remiss to not at least include some of their great benefits here. Cinnamon is also a warming mint with great anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. Cinnamon has also been shown to decrease insulin resistance and thus improve blood sugar levels. Lavender, one of the most aromatic of the mints, is a powerful calming or sleep aide agent often used alone or in combination with other antianxiety nervine herbs. Melissa, or lemonbalm, is another calming herb often included in these combinations.
The power of nature never ceases to amaze. The fact is you can grow remarkable medicinal plants right in your backyard or even in a pot on your deck. Nature threw in soothing and pleasant aromas to encourage you even more to take advantage of what these herbs have to offer. Here’s to delicious cooking, with a little healing on the side.
Stay healthy & be well!
-Amy Whittington, NMD