Just as there is no clear dividing line between food and medicine, there’s also no dividing line between cooking spices and medicinal herbs. The astute herbalist must be resourceful and versatile, and ready to use whatever is at his disposal in the service of healing.
Traditionally, herbs and spices were equally important in both cuisine and healing. Any household with any arable land tried to cultivate an herb garden, from which they would spice up their food and put together home remedies.
According to traditional herbal medicine, the medicinal properties of many, if not most, herbs and spices are manifest in their taste:
Pungent or spicy herbs and spices are either hot or very warming in temperament, as well as drying. They strongly stimulate digestion, circulation and metabolism, disperse obstructions, and remove or cut through phlegm and other cold, wet humors. Examples are Ginger and Black Pepper.
Fragrant or aromatic herbs and spices mediate, balance and harmonize, and smooth and regulate the flow of the vital energies throughout the body; many improve digestion. Others contain essential oils with an antiseptic or diaphoretic effects. Examples are Marjoram, Cardamoms and Peppermint.
Sweet tasting herbs and spices mollify, mediate and harmonize, and smooth out harsh effects of other medicines. Examples are Fennel and Anise seeds.
Natural Medicines in Your Spice Rack
Within your kitchen spice rack are many excellent remedies for common ailments. Below is an alphabetical listing of culinary herbs and spices and their common medicinal uses:
Anise(Pimpinella anisum): Anise seed is a carminative and stomachic whose warming stimulant properties reduce or eliminate accumulations of excess phlegm. And so, anise is good for gas, stomachaches and indigestion, as well as runny nose, coughing and lung congestion. Anise can also relieve premenstrual pains and cramping in women, and can increase milk production in nursing mothers. For phlegm congestion, drink the hot tea; for other purposes, use either the tea or chew the seeds.
Asafoetida(Ferula foetida): Asafoetida is a potent resin that smells like garlic and onions. It is very heating and drying, and should be avoided or used very sparingly by Choleric types, or those with aggravations of heat and choler. Because it is often used as a cooking spice instead of garlic and onions in India and the Middle East, it can often be found in their supermarkets. Asafoetida is one of the strongest digestive stimulants known. Cooked into food and consumed daily, it will strengthen the stomach and bowels and eliminate gas and dyspepsia. It’s one of the best remedies I know of for diarrhea, intestinal infections and putrefactions, and is even effective against dysentery. Asafoetida also eliminates phlegm congestion in coughs, catarrhs and asthma. and also acts as a nervine and sedative in convulsions and spasms. In those suffering from weight loss and emaciation due to a cold, weak, deficient digestion, Asafoetida strengthens the digestion and helps them gain weight.
Basil(Ocimum basilicum): Fresh Basil, eaten raw or cooked in with food, is excellent for soothing nervous, colicky Melancholic digestive complaints. A hot tea made from the dried herb will warm and expand the heart and chest, and help the lungs to expectorate phlegm, in addition to treating digestive complaints. Whether in East or West, Basil also enjoys a reputation as a holy or sacred herb. A Greek Orthodox priest will bless a house by dipping a sprig of Basil into some holy water and flicking the water about the rooms of the house. In India, potted Basil plants grow indoors to uplift the vibrations in the house and provide a spiritual atmosphere; they also have a special species of Basil, called Tulsi, or Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum). Drinking Basil tea helps clear the mind and spirit.
Bay Laurel(Laurus nobilis): Called Daphne by the ancient Greeks, Laurel was sacred to the Sun god Apollo. The leaves are stomachic and carminative, and excellent for expelling gas and flatulence, whether upwards from the stomach by belching, or downwards from the bowels. The warming action of the leaves also stimulates liver metabolism in the production of the humors, and so Bay leaves are recommended for those suffering from consumption and weight loss. A hot tea made from the leaves and drunk is great for dispersing cold, damp, rheumatic humors from the body, improving the circulation, relieving rheumatic and arthritic pains, and dispelling accumulations of cold, watery phlegm, whether they be in the head and sinuses, in the throat and pharynx, or in the lungs and chest. A tea of the leaves will speed up childbirth and delivery, and promote the flow of suppressed menses; taking large doses of Laurel is generally not recommended in pregnancy. Laurel tea also relieves the stoppage of urine due to either wind or cold. In classical Greek Medicine, Laurel berries were often used; their properties are similar to the leaves, but their aromatic properties as a stomachic and digestive stimulant are stronger.
Black Pepper(Piper nigrum): Black pepper is very heating and drying – in the Third Degree. It warms and stimulates the stomach and digestion and relieves gas, or flatulence. For this reason, it is put on salads, whose lettuce and other greens tend to be quite cooling. As a digestive stimulant, Black Pepper is also used to spice heavy red meats like beef, to aid in their digestion and to neutralize toxins.
A great remedy for colds, coughs and lung congestion is to take a quarter to a half teaspoon of Black Pepper and mix it with honey to make a paste. Eat this paste, washing it down with warm herb tea. It is like a fire, which will burn the cold, with all its phlegm, out of the body.
Caraway(Carum carvi): Caraway is a stomachic and carminative that expels gas or flatulence; it is also good for provoking urination in water retention, and improves fluid metabolism. Chewing the seed also relaxes menstrual pains and cramping, and improves lactation in nursing mothers.
Cardamom(Eleteria cardamomum): An excellent stomachic. Chewed regularly after meals, Cardamoms will strengthen the stomach and improve digestion. They also counteract putrefactions and turbid phlegm and dampness in the stomach and intestines, and act as a breath freshener.
Cayenne(Capsicum annuum): One of the most powerful stimulants for the whole organism in the entire herbal kingdom. Administering Cayenne has been known to revive someone who has had a heart attack, so powerful are its stimulant properties to the heart and circulation. Can also stimulate a cold, weak, atonic stomach and digestion in small amounts, but excessive use and dosage can irritate the GI tract, aggravating ulcers and irritable bowel, especially in those of a Melancholic constitution. Used externally, mixed with vinegar as a liniment, can be used as a rubefacient and counterirritant to relieve arthritic and rheumatic aches and pains. Strictly speakiing, Cayenne is not a traditional Greek medicinal herb, since it is indigenous to the New World.
Celery seed(Petroselinum hortense): Useful to stimulate the digestion as a stomachic, and to relieve excess gas or flatulence. Regular use also relieves rheumatic aches and pains and warms the body. In the Middle East and India, Ajwain seeds(Ptychotis ajowan), a botanical relative of celery, is used for these same complaints, and is stronger.
Cinnamon(Cinnamomum zeylanicum): Also called Canela, this is the thin, delicate, aromatic Spanish Cinnamon that Galen preferred over the thicker, heavier Asian variety. As a diaphoretic remedy to break a sweat and relieve a cold, make a tea from this Spanish Cinnamon and drink it hot, sweetened with a little honey and lemon. For added effectiveness, throw in a couple of slices of fresh Ginger. It’s also good at relieving cold, rheumatic aches and pains.
Cloves(Eugenia caryophyllata): Will stimulate the stomach to relieve gas, indigestion, hiccups and nausea. Chewing on a Clove bud will clear cold phlegm from the throat and also relieve the pain of toothache if chewed on the affected tooth. Oil of cloves and its essence, Eugenol, are common analgesics and disinfectants in dentistry. Also stimulates the overall circulation and metabolism.
Coriander(Coriandrum sativum): Will gently soothe the stomach and digestion, relieving gas, distension and bloating. Also is a mild diuretic which improves the fluid metabolism if drunk as a tea. Make a delicious tea for colic and other digestive complaints by mixing with equal parts of Cumin and Fennel.
Cumin(Cuminum cyminum): Stomachic, carminative. One of the best spices to cook in with beans to counteract gas formation. Chew Cumin seeds after a meal to relieve gas, colic, distension and bloating. Cumin seeds are one of the finest digestive aids in the herbal kingdom.
Dill(Anethum graveolens): The seeds are a stomachic and carminative that can be chewed after meals as a digestive aid, much like Cumin. Dill seeds provide relief for flatulent colic, hiccup, and for digestive bloating due to gas and water retention. Besides a mild diuretic effect that improves fluid metabolism, Dill seeds also have a sedative effect on the nerves in nervous stomach conditions. Dill seeds are helpful in relieving menstrual pains and cramping, and in improving lactation in nursing mothers. Ancient Greek physicians used a decoction of the seeds as an eyewash, to protect against diseases of the cornea.
Fennel(Foeniculum vulgare): The seeds have a very soothing, harmonizing effect upon digestion, and are very good at relieving colic and griping in the GI tract, as well as nausea and poor appetite. Fennel seeds are also very good at resolving and thinning out accumulations of excess phlegm in the digestive and respiratory tracts. As a woman’s medicine, Fennel seeds relieve menstrual cramps and spasms, promote the menstrual flow if suppressed, and increase lactation in nursing mothers.
Garlic(Allium sativum): Garlic is one of the most potent adaptogens and stimulant tonics in your kitchen. It is also the poor man’s antibiotic. Its strong heating and drying effects are very good at getting rid of excess phlegm and coughing and congestion in the lungs; for this purpose, you can make a syrup by macerating Garlic in honey with a little lemon joice or apple cider vinegar. A tincture or alcoholic extract of Garlic taken in spoonful doses will stimulate the heart and circulation and balance the blood pressure. Garlic tea enemas are good for expelling worms and parasites from the bowels, and in correcting imbalances of intestinal flora. Or, simply cook Garlic into your food to enjoy all these health benefits. Drinking milk with your Garlic or chewing on some Parsley afterwards helps to kill the Garlic odor.
Ginger(Zingiber officinale): Fresh Ginger has the ability to open the pores and expel a cold or chill through sweating, while at the same time guarding and protecting the pores so that no new pathogenic influences may enter. This makes it the ideal preventive and remedy for colds and respiratory infections. Just boil a few slices of the fresh root in a cup of water for about 10 minutes and sweeten with honey and lemon, and drink hot. Adding some Canela, or Spanish Cinnamon to the brew increases the warming, diaphoretic and antirheumatic properties. Cooking lots of fresh Ginger into your food in the fall, when the weather is changing, protects against colds and flu. Either fresh or dried Ginger will harmonize the stomach, and is a good remedy for nausea and motion sickness. Ginger both stimulates and soothes the GI tract and enhances digestion. This makes Ginger one of the best and most balanced of all the stimulants.
Horseradish(Amoracia rusticana): Horseradish is best eaten in small doses in the winter months to expel excess phlegm from the lungs and respiratory tract, as well as from the head and sinuses. Horseradish is eaten as a condiment with beef and other red meats to improve their digestibility and neutralize the toxic residues generated.
Juniper berries(Juniperus comunis): Juniper berries are often cooked in with red meats to enhance their digestibility and neutralize toxins, as Greek Medicine recognizes Juniper as an herb that resists poison. A tea made from Juniper berries has an antiseptic action on the kidneys and urinary tract if drunk at room temperature, and a diaphoretic and antirheumatic action in colds, chills and rheumatism. Taken powdered in capsule form, Juniper berries stimulate the digestion and metabolism and gently cleanse the liver, making it a valuable tonic in digestive atony and type 2 diabetes.
Marjoram(Origanum marjorana): Marjoram is a great stomachic and digestive tonic that’s very effective against candidiasis and intestinal putrefactions. The essential oils of all species of Oregano have strong antiseptic and antimicrobial properties. A hot tea of Marjoram is also very good as a diaphoretic remedy to sweat out colds and other respiratory infections.
Mustard seed(Sinapis alba, Brassica nigra): The seeds of both the white (S. alba) and black (B. nigra) Mustard are great at stimulating the metabolic fire and resolving or eliminating phlegm. The White Mustard seed is hotter and stronger, and focuses its effects on the lungs and chest to eliminate phlegm and improve the circulation of the Vital Force through the respiratory tract to improve breathing, especially in convalescents and the elderly with chronic lung congestion. The Black Mustard seed is milder, and focuses its action on stoking the digestive fire and resolving phlegm in the stomach and GI tract. Pastes made from the white mustard seed and vinegar have been applied topically as vesicant plasters to form blisters and abcesses to draw out toxins.
Nutmeg(Myristica fragrans): Nutmeg is usually used to spice sweets, starches or rich creamy foods to enhance their digestibility and resolve the excessive phlegm they tend to generate. It can also be taken in doses of half a teaspoonful or so, washed down with water or warm herb tea, to counteract the cold, atonic, Phlegmatic diarrhea that is often the result of eating too many cold, wet, phlegm forming foods, like those Nutmeg is often used to spice. The essential oil of Nutmeg is often used in aromatherapy for its calming, sedating properties; rub some into the temples to relieve the pain and tension of a migraine headache.
Oregano(Origanum vulgare): The hot, spicy Greek Oregano is the best. If your digestion is sluggish after a big, heavy meal, chewing and swallowing a pinch or two of Oregano should make things a lot better. Or, if excess phlegm is congesting the digestive and/or respiratory tracts, chewing on a bit of Oregano should do a lot to relieve it. The essential oil of Oregano has strong antiseptic properties for combatting digestive putrefactions.
Peppermint(Mentha piperita): Drinking Peppermint tea after meals settles the tummy; it also benefits the skin by inducing a mild sweating in which its antiseptic essential oils cleanse the pores. Of course, the hot tea can also be taken to break a sweat to relieve colds. Drinking Peppermint tea sweetened with a little lemon and honey will do a lot to soothe a sore, inflamed throat.
Sage(Salvia officinalis): Drinking hot Sage tea with lemon and honey will soothe a sore throat, clear the voice and relieve hoarseness; this is a great boon to all singers and public speakers! Sage, through its mild astringent action, is also an anhydrotic, or an herb that stops sweating. This anhydrotic property, plus Sage’s mild sedative action, makes it a good tea to drink for the hot flashes of menopause. Sage is also a stimulant to the stomach and digestion, and also has a beneficial effect on the liver. We have been talking about the European or Dalmatian Sage, also known as cooking or garden Sage, but the Native American White Sage(Salvia apiana) also appears to have quite similar properties; in addition, it is good for helping the lungs and respiratory tract to expectorate phlegm, and for relieving skin rashes and eruptions. White Sage is often burned in smudging rituals for spiritual protection.
Tamarind(Tamarindus indica): Tamarind paste is often sold in Middle Eastern and Oriental supermarkets. Besides adding a tangy flavor to soups and sauces, Tamarind is also made into a cooling summer beverage that can bring down fevers and exerts a mild laxative action. Tamarind is often mixed with other harsh stimulant laxatives as a corrective and buffering agent to soften their action and to relieve griping in the bowels.
Tarragon(Artemisia dracunculus): Drunk as a tea, or eaten with or after food, Tarragon is an effective stomachic, carminative and antispasmodic to relieve colicky pains in the stomach, duodenum and gall bladder. In addtion to Cumin and Wormseed, or Epazote, Tarragon is one of the best herbs to use for cooking beans, to relieve the gas and bloating. Tarragon also exerts a mild sedative effect.
Thyme(Thymus vulgaris): Used as a cooking spice, or eaten after food, Thyme is a powerful stimulant to the stomach and digestion. Its essental oil is one of the most powerful natural antimicrobial and immune stimulating agents known. Thymol, or the essence of the essential oil, is available in drugstores for topical application to relieve fungal nail infections. It’s powerful, and it really works!
Turmeric(Curcuma longa): Turmeric is what gives curry powder its yellow color. It is antifungal, antirheumatic, hepatoprotector, choleretic, cholagogue, antispasmodic, carminative and alterative. Boil in a quarter to a half teaspoon with milk and drink hot to either treat skin conditions and eruptions; to relieve arthritic and rheumatic aches and pains, especially in the upper extremities and upper body; or to improve healing and regeneration from excessive muscular strain, wear and tear, or trauma. A paste that’s applied topically to arthritic joints can be made with equal parts of powdered Turmeric, grated fresh Ginger and Olive oil. A half teaspoon of Turmeric powder washed down with warm water or tea is an excellent remedy for gall bladder spasm and colic. Because of the very heating and drying nature of Turmeric, it’s generally not recommended for Cholerics, or those with aggravations of heat and choler.