Herbs have been used for thousands of years to add flavour to meals, as medicine and as a preservative. Fresh herbs are generally delicately flavoured so use them raw or add to cooking right at the end. If making a herbal tisane then add them to off the boil hot waterand leave them to steep and infuse for them to release their essential oils.
I’m going to write about the medicinal health benefits of just a few of them, because so often they are used as a garnish, when we could be growing or buying them as a tasty, nutrient dense food in their own right and adding a big handful! In Vietnam, their salads are more herb than salad leaf.
Herbs contain unique antioxidants, essential oils, vitamins, phytosterols (plant sterols, a family of molecules related to our own cholesterol), which help equip our body to fight germs, toxins and boost immunity level. Herbs are, in fact, medicines in smaller doses!
Herbs are the leaf part of a plant and any other part of the plant, which is usually dried, is referred to as a spice. For example cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, cloves and saffron are spices. Herbs are versatile and can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes.
Consuming herbs may help to prevent and manage heart disease, cancer and diabetes. It may help to reduce blood clots and provide anti-inflammatory and anti-tumour properties. Research is ongoing but studies have shown that:
- Garlic, linseed, fenugreek and lemongrass may help lower cholesterol.
- Garlic is useful for people with mildly elevated blood pressure.
- Fenugreek can help control blood sugar and insulin activity (as can the spices linseed, flaxseed and cinnamon).
- Garlic, onions, chives, leeks, mint, basil, oregano, sage and others can help protect against cancer.
- Herbs are rich in antioxidants, especially sage, oregano and thyme, by helping to reduce low-density lipoproteins (‘bad’ cholesterol).
- The chemical compounds in herbs have been found to be anti-spasmodic, carminative, analgesic, aphrodisiac, deodorant, digestive, antiseptic, lipolytic (fat burning and weight loss action), stimulant and antimicrobial.
Fresh herbs often contain higher antioxidant levels compared to processed and dried herbs so aim to use fresh herbs at the end of cooking to preserve these properties.
Essential oils in herbs have been found to have an anti-inflammatory function by inhibiting an enzyme cyclooxygenase (COX), which mediates inflammatory cascade reaction inside the human body. The enzyme-inhibiting effect of essential oils in herbs makes it a valuable remedy for symptomatic relief with inflammatory health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and inflammatory bowel conditions like ulcerative colitis.
So here’s a quick run-down of 6 herbs you might want to choose as a nutrient remedy for a symptom. I will add here that certain herbs and spices might interfere with any medication being taken so do check with your doctor first if in doubt. I have selected ones commonly available either in a pot, or cut leaves, or easy to grow from seed yourself.
Sometimes called the ‘King of herbs’ and revered as the ‘holy herb’ in many cultures. Basil contains flavonoids like orientin and vicenin which give antioxidant protection.
The leaf composes of essential oils eugenol, citronellol, citral, limonene – all compounds known to have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Basil contains exceptionally high levels of beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin compounds that help act as protective scavengers against oxygen-derived free radicals, that play a role in aging and various disease processes. Lutein and zeaxanthin have eye health benefits for the macula lutea where it is also found to filter harmful UV rays from reaching the retina while protecting against age-related macular disease.
High levels of vitamin A have benefits for maintaining healthy mucosa and skin and can help protect from lung and oral cancer.
Vitamin K in basil is essential for the production of clotting factors in the blood and plays a vital role in bone strengthening and mineralisation.
Basil herb contains good amounts of minerals like potassium, manganese, copper and magnesium and is an excellent source of iron.
No wonder this herb is called the King of Herbs!
There are several cultivars of parsley. The Italian or flat leaf parsley is well known around Mediterranean countries and has a rather more intense flavour than curly leaf parsley. In Japan and China mitsuba is used as an alternative to parsley.
Extremely low-calorie, 100g of fresh leaves contain just 36 calories, additionally it has no cholesterol or fat but is rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. Parsley helps in controlling blood cholesterol and may offer protection against free radical-mediated injury and cancers.
Parsley contains health benefitting volatile essential oils, one of which is eugenol, and has been used in therapeutic application in dentistry and as a local anaesthetic and antiseptic agent for teeth and gum diseases. In addition it has been found to reduce blood sugar levels in diabetics, although further studies are required to fully establish this.
This ‘common’ herb is rich in polyphenolic antioxidants; a good source of potassium; calcium; manganese; iron and magnesium, together with rich levels of vitamins A, beta-carotene, C and E.
Fresh leaves are also rich in vitamin B-5, B-2, B-3, B-6 and B-1. These vitamins all play a vital role in carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism by acting as co-enzymes in the body.
Parsley is perhaps the richest source of vitamin-K which has been found to play a role in bone health promoting osteoblastic activity in the bones. It also has an established role in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease patients by limiting neuronal damage in their brain.
Thyme contains active compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties. The essential oil, thymol, has been found scientifically to have antiseptic and anti-fungal characteristics and has one of the highest antioxidant levels among herbs.
Thyme is packed with all the minerals and vitamins mentioned with the previous two herbs and also a rich source of the same vitamins with the addition of folic acid. The high level of vitamin B-6 or pyridoxine, keeps up GABA (beneficial neurotransmitter in the brain) levels which has a role as a stress buster.
A delightfully pungent leaf when gently rubbed between the fingers, amongst its many culinary and medicinal properties it has a long history of being used in weddings and festivals and as an incense to ward off bad influences.
Rosemary leaves contain many phytochemical (plant derived) compounds that are known to have disease preventing and health promoting properties. The flower tops especially, include phenolic antioxidant rosmarinic acid and other volatile essential oils; whose compounds are known to have rubefacient (counter-irritant), and anti-inflammatory, anti-allergenic, anti-fungal and antiseptic properties.
There are at least 20 species of spearmint of this pleasantly aromatic herb, packed with numerous health benefiting vitamins, antioxidants and phytonutrients. It’s chief essential oil is menthol. Other compounds include alpha-pinene, carvone, linalool, myrcene and limonene which may help with fatigue and stress.
Taken as a herb decoction it is an excellent remedy for headaches, nervous strain and stress, as well as respiratory problems, an aid to relieve asthma, bronchitis and catarrh.
Spearmint is very useful to deal with digestive problems, including nausea, flatulence, and hiccups as it relaxes the stomach muscles.
The essential oil, menthol, has analgesic, local anaesthetic and counter irritant properties. Menthol is found in the preparation of toothpaste and mouth fresheners.
On the skin, when used as a cream or lotion, it may help relieve itching, dermatitis and hives.
Spearmint oil is blended into massage oil to relieve headaches, stress, fatigue and itching.
Sage is often called the ‘Guardian of Herbs’. The three-lobed Greek Sage is commonly used in tea. It composes a flavone called salvigenin which studies have found acts as a vascular relaxant and may offer protection from cardiovascular diseases.
The pineapple sage leaves add flavour to drinks and desserts. The clary sage has strongly aromatic leaves and is generally used as throat gargle infusions and in perfumeries.
Sage has a similar compound properties of the previous herbs as an aid to disease preventing and in health promoting. Of particular note is the compound thujone, which is a GABA and serotonin receptor (5-HT3) antagonist. It improves mental concentration, attention span and quickens the senses; hence sage infusion has long been recognised as a ‘thinker’s tea’.
Sage also had a notably rich source of vitamin-C which helps develop resistance against infections (boosts immunity) and scavenge harmful, free radicals from the body.
Women use sage for several menopausal symptoms including night sweats, hot flushes and mood swings.
There are so many herbs to mention but I hope that if you don’t already use herbs as often as you could, then you might pick up a selection next time you are doing a weekly shop or visiting a nursery or garden centre – and be generous with them. Herbs give a lot of benefits in the same way other vegetables do, but in highly concentrated amounts.
Should you want to grow your own please search www.jekkas.com where our UK authority, Hannah McVicar has been growing herbs (over 440 varieties) on this family run farm for over 30 years. The nursery is situated on the outskirts of Bristol where they hold open days.