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When most people think of nutrition, they might think of macronutrients, or even micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. I think of phytonutrients! Phytonutrients are plant nutrients. Another word for them is phytochemicals, because they are chemicals naturally produced by the plants themselves in their quest to stay healthy… and what keeps them healthy, tends to keep us healthy! As a naturopath and herbalist who has studied nutrition, biochemistry and herbal medicine, I’ve long been intrigued with the chemicals in plants that give them their magical healing properties.
Most people have heard of the wonderful phytonutrients called ‘flavonoids’. Every green plant produces flavonoids, and these potent antioxidants protect the plant from unstable molecules called free radicals, which damage cells. When we consume foods rich in flavonoids, these foods help to the slow aging process and reduce the likelihood of cancer. There are many different kinds of flavonoids, such as flavones, which have the added bonus of being anti-inflammatory, while also working to reduce tension and spasms in the body and helping us fight off infection. Some of the richest sources of flavones are herbs such as thyme, paprika, parsley, oregano and rosemary.
These particular herbs are also rich in antiseptic monoterpenes, which plants produce to ward off bacterial, fungal or viral infection. When we consume plants containing these phytonutrients, we are better able to ward off infection ourselves, which is why I try to grow my own herbs and source spices grown without the use of herbicides and pesticides. Organically grown foods are forced to produce phytochemicals like antiseptic monoterpenes to protect themselves from attack, which makes them our best option when it comes to sourcing plant-foods that support our immune system.
I’ve always thought of food as medicine, and no foods in my kitchen enchant me more than my extensive herb and spice range. Kitchen herbs and spices are particularly potent nutrient-dense powerhouses that are all too often overlooked when it comes to considering a healthy diet. In a research study done by a group of scientists at the Pennysylvania State University, one group of people were given a meal containing a mixture of herbs and spices. The other group’s meal was spice and herb-free. Afterwards, the blood of those who had consumed the meal rich in herbs and spices was found to have double the antioxidant power and 30% less triglycerides compared with the other group. What’s more, their insulin sensitivity had improved!
Paprika is a ground spice made from red, dried capsicum, a plant food that belongs to the family Solanaceae, along with its cousins the potato, the tomato and eggplant. Paprika will forever make me think of my Slovak grandfather, who smothered all of our meals quite liberally with sweet Hungarian paprika and to this day it’s one of my favourite flavours in the kitchen. Like Grandpa, I’m sure it goes with anything and everything and it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if I came up with a recipe for paprika icecream!
A lot of the wonderful phytonutrients in paprika are directly related to its rich, red colour. Plants use pigments called carotenoids in the same way they use flavonoids: to protect themselves from destructive chemicals called free radicals that are created in response to ultraviolet light from the sun. If plants didn’t produce antioxidant substances like carotenoids, free radicals would run riot, damaging the delicate structures that enable photosynthesis, the process by which plants use sunlight to create energy in the form of sugar.
Cell-damaging free radicals are also found in the human body. Some are created during metabolism and inflammation, but they can also be caused by pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke, herbicides and a highly processed diet. Paprika contains some famous carotenoids that are very good at protecting our cell membranes from free radicals. A good example is capsanthin, which accumulates in HDL (high density lipids), protecting us from the oxidation process that is thought to cause artherosclerosis, a thickening and narrowing of the arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Carotenoid nutrients are lipid soluble, which means we get the most out of them when paprika is eaten with healthy fats. For example, I sometimes add paprika to the savory sauces I make using whole nuts and seeds blended with water and lemon juice. I always include paprika in tomato-rich mediterranian-type dishes like lasagna, where it partners perfectly with with coconut milk, and when I’m eating less ‘cleanly’ and including refined oils in my diet, I love to chop an eggplant in half and drizzle a little olive oil and a lot of paprika over the top of each half, before I put them in the oven.
I love sprinkling rosemary over root vegetables before I put them in the oven to bake, and I can never resist picking fresh rosemary from the garden and eating it then and there on the spot, or throwing a sprig into a cup of hot water to make rosemary tea! I don’t, though, add lots of rosemary to an iron-rich meal if I’m working on improving my iron status, because rosemary (like turmeric) hinders irons absorption.
In my naturopathic clinic, rosemary is a magnificent shining star who never lets me down. I often add small doses of Rosemary to client herbal prescriptions when I’m treating low blood pressure, fatigue or depression, or when I’m trying to improve someone’s memory and mental clarity, because rosemary improves circulation. Herbal tinctures might be more concentrated, and therefore stronger than dried or fresh herb, but more isn’t always better and the low doses we get when using rosemary in the kitchen are just right for speeding up memory recall.
Like thyme, oregano and marjoram, rosemary contains ursolic acid, which is active against cancer cells, protects us from the negative effects of chemotherapy, reduces inflammation and protects the liver. Rosemary contains lots of phytonutrients that are beneficial for the liver, making it one of the best liver remedies available. A poorly functioning liver (perhaps due to a history of liver disease, a crappy diet, or alcohol and drug abuse) can result in sluggish digestion, fat intolerance, nausea and chronic constipation. It can also contribute to conditions such as autoimmune disease, allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, and psoriasis.
An amazing antioxidant acid first discovered in rosemary and aptly named rosmarinic acid, has been found to be anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and anti-allergic! This acid was later found in other herbs like thyme, basil and oregano. Rosemary contains many other antioxidants, some of which protect us from cardiovascular disease, like the antioxidants in Paprika. In Roman times, herbs like rosemary not only reduced the indigestion caused during food orgies full of fat-oozing animal products, they also helped delay the inevitable early deaths that came from over-indulgent eating.
Thyme is the herb I reach for when I’m treating infections. Thyme tea makes an excellent gargle for a sore, infected throat, and the more concentrated tincture form is one of the best antimicrobial herbs in my herbal dispensary. It’s perfect for respiratory infections, because it also contains phytochemicals that help clear mucous congestion from the lungs. Thyme is a beautiful herb to grow in the garden and I add fresh thyme quite liberally to many dishes, especially scrambled tofu!
A famous antiseptic phytochemical found in thyme is so effective that it’s often added to mouthwashes, hand sanitizers and acne medications. This ingredient, called thymol, is effective against e. coli, salmonella, and several strains of MRSA, a staph infection that is resistant to many commonly used antibiotics. Thyme is one of a handful of herbs that have enabled me to avoid antibiotics use over the past thirty years. I will always grow thyme in my garden and keep my home-medicine kit stocked with its more concentrated tincture form, because if I ever do need antibiotics and they don’t work due to the ever-increasing incidence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, thyme might just give me an edge that saves my life.
In the days before refrigeration and modern hygiene, when food borne diseases were rife, adding herbs like thyme to ones meals offered at least some protection from illness. And when the Black Death struck in the late 1340s, millions of people wore posies of thyme worn around their necks for protection, and applied poultices containing thyme directly to plague-blistered skin. Later, in the 19th-century, nurses discovered that bathing bandages in a dilution of thyme in water helped to prevent the spread of infection.
Oregano and Marjoram
These gorgeous Mediterranean herbs make perfect additions to any tomato-rich dish, like pizza, lasagna or spaghetti bolognaise. In fact, herbs and spices could be considered a secret weapon in the art of veganising meat-based dishes when transitioning to veganism or cooking for non-vegans: add the right ones and you will definitely get a dish reminiscent of the animal-based original. But what’s the culinary difference between these two herbs, which are so often used interchangeably? I always find it hard to tell them apart in my garden unless I do a taste test: oregano is much stronger, and seems more spicy. Marjoram has a softer, mellow flavor that sits in the background and is less likely to overpower a dish.
Inside the rich essential oils of these herbs, especially oregano, are carvacrol and thymol, which have antifungal and antibacterial properties. The internal use of oregano oil has become a quite popular remedy for heliobacter, candida and other forms of intestinal dysbyosis (overgrowth of unhelpful organisms in the gut). I personally choose not to use essential oils internally because they are too strong. The required doses are so tiny that it’s too easy to overdose and harm the gut lining or make gut flora imbalances even worse. Rather than bomb my gut flora indiscriminately, I prefer a slower, more thorough and holistic approach. This might include, amongst other things, improving stress-management skills and embarking on a whole-foods plant-based diet rich in spices and herbs, such as oregano or marjoram.
In his book How Not to Die, Dr Greger writes about a study done on the use of marjoram tea for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). The women in this study drank two cups of marjoram tea on an empty stomach for a month, and even after this gentle and short period of use, beneficial effects were observed on hormone levels, so it’s perhaps not surprising that marjoram was known to the Greeks and Romans as a symbol for happiness.
Fenugreek is an ingredient in the spice blend garam masala, a truly incredible blend of spices with potent healing properties. I use this powdered spice blend in a lot of my Indian dishes, but I also enjoy using whole fenugreek seeds and leaves. Most of the research we have available on fenugreek has been done on the seeds, which seems to significantly improve muscle strength and weight-lifting power output. As Dr Greger describes in his book How Not to Die, men consuming fenugreek seeds were able to “leg press an extra eighty pounds compared to those ingesting a placebo.”
I encourage my clients to include fenugreek seeds and leaves in their diet when they have diabetes, because they have shown hypoglycemic activity in clinical trials. So which phytochemical in fenugreek is responsible for this action? As with all plant-foods, rather than a single ‘active ingredient’, there are many ingredients working together in tandem that are responsible for specific therapeutic actions. In fenugreek, one of the most potent anti-diabetic phytochemicals in fenugreek is most likely to be plain old fibre. This unsung hero of the nutrition world is responsible for a truly breath-taking array of health benefits, and is only found in plant foods.
Fenugreek is an excellent spice to add to your foods if you want to prevent heart attacks and strokes, because it helps to keep your blood vessels healthy, due in part to two phytonutrients: saponins and mucilages. Together, they help reduce cholesterol levels. William C. Roberts, the editor in chief of the American Journal of Cardiology, says there is only one true risk factor for coronary heart disease, and it’s cholesterol. He advises we get our LDL cholesterol down to under 70 mg/dL if we want to become virtually heart-attack proof, and to do this we have two options: either commit to a lifetime of medication or eat a diet centred around whole plant foods.
As my mother taught me when I was a child, parsley is one of the most nutrient-dense plants on the planet. If I look a bit pale or tired, mum reminds me to eat parsley. “It’s not just rich in iron,” she says. “It’s rich in vitamin C too!” Vitamin C’s ability to enhance iron absorption is a good example of something called synergism. Some phytonutrients boost or block the absorption of others. Many have similar actions and team up together to create stronger effects. And some phytonutrients provide a moderating, balancing effect on other phytonutrients. As Lisa Ganora points out in her book Herbal Constituents, Foundations of Phytochemistry, synergism describes the “activities of multiple constituents working together within a single herb.”
This concept is used to explain why a whole herb or traditional extract like a tincture can be safer or more effective than an isolated constituent or a single-molecule pharmaceutical. Synergy is also evoked to explain why, even though the concentration of a particular constituent would seem to be too low to account for the activity of a plant, that activity nonetheless has been observed to occur… (or) why a plant, as used in traditional herbal medicine, is considered to be non-toxic even though it contains a constituent which is toxic in isolation…
Herbalist refer to plants like parsley as ‘nutritive herbs’. If you offered me a choice between parsley and a multivitamin I’d toss the tablets and eat the parsley without hesitation. In a tablet, you might get twenty or thirty nutrients, in unusually large doses. I’m sure, when the body receives this clumsy pseudo-nutrition, that it scratches its head in a puzzled manner, wondering where the rest of the many hundreds of ingredients have gone. It would be like taking someone’s wardrobe away and handing them a piece of string to get dressed in.
My mother and I both grow parsley as a staple in our gardens and if we could grow no other herb, this would be our herb of choice. The stand-out phytonutrient in parsley that I find intriguing is vitamin K, which helps our blood to clot and regulates calcium, helping with bone building and repair. Studies have shown that taking 200mcg of vitamin K (equivalent to 7-8 springs of parsley) daily, significantly reduces the risk of bone fracture. If you are on a blood-thinning medication like warfarin, rather than avoiding greens altogether, consider talking to your doctor about eating moderate, consistent amounts and adjusting your warfarin intake.