One of the easiest ways to transform your kitchen into a playground is to experiment with fresh and dried herbs and spices. Don’t dismiss these flavour additions as merely for taste, they are actually powerful performance aids!
Aside from performance benefits, I also advocate the use of fresh and dried spices and herbs to flavour and season meals as a means of reducing the reliance on food additives. However, a golden rule of improving any diet should be that when one “thing” is reduced or removed from the diet, something else (more health promoting) can, and should be added in its place. This is in order to avoid deprivation and relapse. Here, we’re adding spices and herbs, and we gain the added benefits for our sport performance.
A recent study at Laval University, Canada, tested the affect of 5 different spices (all of which are included in the recommended list below), on endothelial function. Endothelium is the tissue lining various organs and cavities of the body, including the heart. Combined with previous studies from the USDA, documented improvements in blood lipid profiles and antioxidant potential have been made with herbs such as oregano and bay leaves to name a few.
The empirical science world is in support of what Herbologists and ancient healers (such as Chinese and Auyervedic medicine practitioners) have long advocated: allowing the energetic properties of natural plants to promote vitality. For example, in Traditional Chinese Medicine’s “Five Element” theory, the heart and lungs are linked with the bitter and pungent flavors, both of which are aligned with the sense organs of the tongue and nose. It seems the cardiovascular system is suited to be in harmony with a well-seasoned diet!
The High Performers:
- Oregano: Through a USDA study, gram for gram, Oregano has the highest antioxidant activity of 27 tested herbs. Also beneficial as a digestive aid. If you buy fresh oregano but find you don’t use it up fast enough, snip off the tips (like you would fresh flowers) and store the stalks upright in a glass of shallow water.
- Basil: contains anti-inflammatory properties from its oil, eugenol, which can block enzymes in the body that cause swelling (1), and also known to be anti bacterial, making it a great breath freshener when paired with garlic. Add towards the end of cooking, as it browns easily with heat. Great addition to homemade dips (blend with legumes, nuts and seeds for a pesto), smoothies (with blueberries!), or salads.
- Parsley: A brain-protector due to the compound quercetin, a chemical found in the herb that helps protect brain cells from free radical damage (2), so you can maintain focus and motivation in your sport for years to come. Parsley’s polyphenols and carotenoids may also help protect from sun damage, great for sunny weather running.
- Rosemary: Rosemary contains a number of volatile oils which are traditionally used to reduce airway constriction. This constriction is induced by histamine – a trigger for asthma and other allergy symptoms. A great herb to have on hand in patio or window pots, especially if you suffer from asthma. Be sure to remove the leaves from the stem prior to cooking with rosemary.
- Ginger: Boosts circulation which can speed nutrient delivery to your working muscles, and support accelerated recovery. Also traditionally used as a digestive aid, which can be helpful for runners with nervous and anxious stomach’s pre-race. Try slices of the fresh root in your recovery smoothie, or steep with hot water and green tea in the morning before your long run.
- Cayenne: Supports circulation, which helps bring oxygen and nutrients to soft tissue, speeding recovery (3), and is diaphoretic (which promotes detoxification through sweating).
- Turmeric: The compound “curcumin” that gives turmeric it’s intense color, has been demonstrated to have a cholesterol lowering property, and is used in traditional herbal medicine to help reduce inflammation (4). Try adding Turmeric to your mustards, to double the nutrient density.
- Mustard: Boosts respiratory capacity by reducing mucous. Has anti-inflammatory properties, and is high in selenium, a key antioxidant.
- Cinnamon: The potent essential oils found in cinnamon are great for regulating blood sugar, boosting metabolism and harmonizing the stomach. Herbalists also believe in cinnamon’s ability to help the body regulate the effects of stress and anxiety.
- Garlic: Much of garlic’s therapeutic effect comes from its sulfur-containing compounds, such as allicin. Research has revealed that as allicin digests in your body, it produces sulfenic acid, a compound that reacts with dangerous free radicals faster than any other known compound (5). This same compound has been shown to support a reduction in arthritis/joint inflammation symptoms (6). Use with parsley or basil to counteract the residual breath effects!
- Dill: Kaempferol and other flavonoids found in the essential oils of dill weed are anticongestive and act as an antihistamine, clearing congestion in the respiratory system. Dill also has digestive supporting properties, and is anti microbial, making it a great addition to your diet if you just can’t seem to shake an upset stomach in time for race-day.
Check out these herb based salad dressings for a few new ways to include some of the herbs above in your weekly menu.
1. Eugenol enhances the chemotherapeutic potential of gemcitabine and induces anticarcinogenic and anti-inflammatory activity in human cervical cancer cells. Hussain, A., Brahmbhatt, K., Priyani, A., et al., Department of Biotechnology, Manipal University, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Cancer Biotherapy Radiopharmaceuticals, 2011 Oct;26(5):519-27
2. Polychlorinated Biphenyls-Induced Oxidative Stress on Rat Hippocampus: A Neuroprotective Role of Quercetin. Selvakumar, K., Bavithra, S., Krishnamoorthy, G., et al. Department of Endocrinology, Dr. ALM Post Graduate Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Madras, Chennai 600113, India. Scientific World Journal, 2012
3. Health Canada.(2013) Natural Health Products Monograph: Cayenne. Accessed 7/2/13 from http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/atReq.do?atid=cayenne&lang=eng
4. ESCOP (2003): ESCOP Monographs: The Scientific Foundation for Herbal Medicinal Products, 2nd edition. Exeter (Great Britian).
6. Garlic could protect against osteoarthritis. Medical News Today, accessed July 9th 2014. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/211915.php