Around the world, traditional cooking involves many different styles and mixes of herbs and spices, including lowering the risk of many chronic diseases. Eating a diet rich in whole, mostly plant-based and natural foods is still important to lowering disease risk, but eating the spicy version of these healthy dishes lowers risk even more.

Here is a list of the top benefits of herbs and spices and how to maximize them in your diet:

Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Almost all spices and herbs have anti-inflammatory properties, which might be their primary mechanism of reducing chronic disease risk. Bodily inflammation is associated with an increase in blood pressure, blood sugar levels, fat storage, cancer risk and subjective feelings of stress. Fortunately, herbs and spices may be able to help reduce inflammation by boosting antioxidants in the blood, while regulating inflammatory markers in the immune system. Some of the top spices for reducing inflammation include ginger, turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, cayenne, black pepper and cloves.

Lowering Blood Pressure

Research has linked a few common herbs and spices—such as turmeric and cayenne—to a reduction in blood pressure. One new study analyzed whether adding spices to common dinner dishes would increase this effect. Over the course of 4 weeks, subjects at high risk of heart disease ate typical dinner meals cooked with spices purchased from the supermarket. Every 4 weeks they would rotate through a “low-spice,” “medium-spice,” and “high-spice” version of each dish cooked the same way. The high-spice versions of the dishes offered the greatest average reduction in blood pressure over 24 hours, suggesting that cooking with more herbs and spices might have protective effects on cardiovascular health.

Lowering “Bad” Cholesterol

Lipid profiles are important risk factors for cardiovascular health, and some studies have linked eating spicier food with lowering LDL-cholesterol—aka “bad” cholesterol. One new study found that adding spice supplements to the diets of people who have type 2 diabetes lowered LDL cholesterol counts in the blood. The spice supplements studied were ginger, turmeric, curcumin—derived from turmeric—and cinnamon. While this study looked at concentrated supplements and not the typical amounts of spice used in cooking, it did suggest that adding more spices might benefit your blood lipids. These spice-based supplements can also be purchased over-the-counter, but it’s wise to talk to your medical provider before starting to take them regularly.

Reducing Cancer Risk

Over the years, quite a few herbs and spices have been associated with lowering cancer risk. This is likely because of their richness in antioxidant compounds, which are known to lower cancer risk of all types. Studies have shown specific restriction to tumor growth from a few spices. Black pepper and turmeric have both been shown to stifle the growth of breast cancer tumors. Capsaicin—the “spice” molecule found in cayenne pepper and other hot peppers—has been shown to stifle the growth of prostate cancer tumors and regulate blood sugar. The anti-inflammatory properties of most spices can carry over into lowering the risk of almost all types of cancer and chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease. 

Herbs and spices can add a delicious kick to your home cooking, and fight inflammation with their antioxidant properties. One more way to get an extra benefit from your herbs and spices is to use them in place of adding more salt.