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Gerald Lopez

Spices - Medicines in the Kitchen

by Gerald Lopez, LLB; Dip.Ayurvedic Medicine

Ayurvedic medicine has used spices for thousands of years, and recognised their value long before the Europeans sailed the oceans for spice trading.

Spices are medinal powerhouses

Spices are medicinal powerhouses, containing hundreds of volatile oils and other potent ingredients. For example, the essential oil of clove is the strongest antioxidant known, and the oils of some spices are more powerful than most man-made disinfectants.

While westerners generally assumed that spices were just for making food taste better - no doubt an important factor in optimising digestion - science is now showing what ayurvedics have known all along: that every spice has a multitude of properties valuable for maintaining health.

By becoming familiar with spices and their properties, you can use them wisely to alleviate mild illnesses and boost health. In very small doses, spices are especially useful for common children's ailments.


Called the "Universal Medicine" in Sanskrit, ginger is a pungent, warming spice that commonly gives delicious flavour to Indian cooking. It stimulates digestion, alleviates nausea and clears wind. It stimulates circulation and helps clear the lungs and sinuses. For colds and coughs, drink ginger tea with some honey. It is an anti-inflammatory and used for arthritic conditions, cramps and pain.

Black pepper

A more commonly used spice in western cooking, black pepper is hot and pungent. It is one of the most powerful digestive stimulants, and works well with ginger. By activating digestion, it helps alleviate sluggishness and boosts metabolism. Black pepper helps clear nasal, sinus and lung congestion - liquefying sticky phlegm and then drying it up. Use very sparingly, especially with children and individuals with "hot" (Pitta) body types.


A milder, cooler spice that balances digestion without over-stimulation. Slows food transport time in the intestines, increasing nutritional absorption and reducing loose stools. Cumin is the main ayurvedic spice for all sorts of digestive problems, and excellent for kids.


Another mild and cooling spice, coriander is often indicated for digestive problems. The leaf, called cilantro, helps balance the heating, over-stimulating effects of tomatoes, onions and other pungent vegetables and spices. Coriander is a diuretic and helps with urinary problems; and coriander tea is helpful to flush out toxins quickly, e.g. in allergic reactions.


A sweet, cooling spice that is often combined with cumin and coriander as a digestive mix. A mild tea can be made for colic in babies and children. Is combined with coriander for urinary problems. Great for helping digest dessert! Used for menstrual cramps and for promoting lactation in nursing mothers.


Sweet and warming, cinnamon is used in desserts and winter drinks. Helps moderate blood sugar and supports the liver. It increases circulation, has a clearing effect in colds, cough and flu's, and is a powerful antioxidant. Cinnamon is a good tonic for children, and a pinch can be easily added to warm milk, porridge, rice pudding, etc.


Another sweet, warm digestive spice, cardamom is often given in combination with cinnamon, especially for respiratory problems. Helps reduce the mucus-forming properties of milk, and reduce the toxic effects of caffeine. Helps reduce nausea and vomiting, and combines well with fennel as a digestive mix for children.


This amazing root produces a bright yellow powder with pungent and astringent properties. Turmeric aids digestion of proteins, supports the liver, and balances cell metabolism, especially in the fatty tissues. It is recommended in obesity and diabetes. It is an antibacterial, internally and also when applied externally on wounds; while helping improve the good bacteria in the gut. It is used, again both internally and externally, to improve skin and complexion. The potent anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric have been studied and verified, as well as its anti-cancer properties. Turmeric is an important spice that has so many health-promoting qualities, that it should be taken regularly, if not daily - just as the Indians have done for ages.

Taking spices

For best effects, spices should be taken in small quantities - a pinchful per person - but often, such as in daily cooking, in herbal teas, or in warm milk. Explore the different ways spices can be combined to make food appetising and healthy.

A good method in cooking is to throw spice seeds or powders in your cooking oil or fat as it heats up. The moment the fragrances are released, add the main ingredients, so that the valuable essential oils are not burned.

Experiment with spices in puddings and desserts, morning porridge, hot beverages, or on their own as teas. Sprinkle in salad dressings and sauces. Cook your grains in them - for example, rice can be boiled with turmeric, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, and/or coriander seeds to make a wonderfully-fragrant bed for your other dishes.

Involve the children in identifying the different spices, while explaining their properties - they will love the smells and colours! By familiarising with spices, they will then be more open to having them in their foods and drinks. This, I believe, will help tremendously in alleviating the recent increases in food intolerances and allergies.

Ayurveda says that digestion is the key to good health. Spices are important keys to good digestion. In the west, science is only just discovering what spices can do for us. Learn about these kitchen medicines, and use them with wisdom.

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In the next issue we will look at how the principles of ayurveda and yoga can be used for achieving our ideal weight.

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Spice photos courtesy of Gerald Lopez

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