Spices are wonder foods, and recent research says that some Indian spices are particularly good for women. At the recently held ninth Asian Congress of Nutrition in New Delhi, several nutritionists extolled the benefits of spices.
"Spices are a rich source of phytochemicals, decreasing the risk of chronic diseases in general and cancer and cardiovascular problems in particular," said Dr Kamala Krishnaswamy, emeritus medical scientist, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, at the Congress.
Some spices are particularly good for women during menstruation. Dr Nathu Singh Adhikari, noted naturopath in New Delhi, says that cinnamon and cloves, if consumed a week before menstruation, help ease cramps. He adds, "Mint is rich in chlorine and fluorine and helps purify blood when taken with vitamin E and also improves scanty periods."
The benefits of some spices like ajwain are well known. Ajwain (willow weed) helps pregnant women digest their food, increases the appetite, controls flatulation and keeps the uterus healthy. The spice also helps in produce milk in the case of lactating mothers. Cumin seeds (jeera) are also known to help lactating women secrete more milk. Similarly, fenugreek seeds (methi) cooked in curries help in bringing back the uterus to its contracted state.
Research abroad is also acknowledging the advantages spices possess. "Eaten regularly in food, in tiny doses, common spices are unique health boosters," states Harry G Preuss, top American researcher in this field.
Eminent Unnani physician Hakeem Hashmi in New Delhi reveals the hidden benefits of spices. "Some communities use cinnamon for natural birth control. It checks the early release of ova after childbirth." He adds, "A piece of cinnamon taken every night for a month after child birth delays menstruation, preventing early conception. It also indirectly helps secretion of breast milk." For headaches, a tea made from cardamom is very valuable, claims Hashmi.
Weight loss consultant in New Delhi, Dr Shikha Sharma has even better news for overweight and post-menopausal women suffering from sinus and breathing problems. For a quick recovery, she recommends the time-tested grandmother's recipe of black pepper, pippali (long pepper) along with ginger and garlic paste. "The problem of water retention among women before or during menstruation can be solved by consuming fenugreek seeds as they are diuretic."
Sharma has also found peppers good for weight loss. Capsaicin, which is the source of heat in hot peppers, appears to increase the metabolic rate so one can burn more calories. Sharma suggests that weight losers keep a bottle of hot pepper sauce handy during their meals.
"The trend for low fat food has also contributed to increase in the usage of hot spices. As both flavor and texture are affected when fat is removed from foods, spices can help compensate for flavor loss," says Sharma. "Even the most calorie-restrictive diets can be enhanced with spicy, low fat recipes. Spices tend to enhance the taste of nutrient-rich but not-so-popular foods such as soya or spinach," she adds.
Indian spices also help combat long-term diseases. Spices like fenugreek and cinnamon are particularly good for diabetics. "Fenugreek is hypoglycaemic - has a significant impact on glucose, decreases the insulin response and is very helpful in treating diabetes," declared Krishnaswamy at the nutrition Congress. Fenugreek is high in saponins and soluble fiber which help decrease the absorption of cholesterol from food and help lower blood glucose levels. It is also hypolipidemic - reduces body triglycerides and serum cholesterol," explains Krishnaswamy.
Recent studies show that cinnamon also enhances the ability of insulin to metabolize glucose, helping to control blood sugar levels. The Unites States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is working on the insulin-like properties of cinnamon. Professor Daniel Fung, food science researcher from Kansas State University, Manhattan, Unites States of America, says, "Cinnamon not only tastes good, but can inhibit or even kill bacteria that cause food poisoning."
Nutrition experts like Krishnaswamy firmly believe that natural spices can go a long way in keeping humans healthy. "Humans are a product of nature, nurture and nutrition. And use of spices is a very cost effective, culturally acceptable and sustainable way of ensuring that 'humans eat well and thus live well.'"