Food As Medicine

Savor the Season: Exploring the Surprising Health Benefits of Pumpkin Spice and other seasonal spices

Autumn is known for its colorful foliage and crisp, cool air. There’s more to enjoy, though, than just the scenery and change in temperature. As the seasons change, so do our tastes, and pumpkin spice is front and center during this time of year. Aside from the delightful aroma and the
comfort it adds to some our favorite dishes, pumpkin spice has a surprising array of nutritional benefits. This article explores the vitamins, antioxidants, and health-promoting characteristics that make this flavor more than just a seasonal treat. 

Pumpkin spice
Pumpkin spice is an American spice mix commonly used as a flavoring for pumpkin pie. It is generally a blend of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and sometimes allspice. Even though pumpkin spice originated as a pie flavoring, these days you can find it in coffee, cookies,
cakes, breads, candles, and so much more. Although the flavor of pumpkin spice is well known to most Americans, the health benefits are not. Interestingly, these spices are typically a part of Asian and African chai and curry blends. People from those continents are well aware of their medicinal qualities.

There are two main types of cinnamon: Ceylon cinnamon and cassia cinnamon. In the United States, anything labeled “cinnamon” is likely cassia. The distinctive smell and flavor of cinnamon derive from the essential oils contained in the bark. Many studies show the anti-inflammatory activity of cinnamon and its essential oils. Compounds found in cinnamon bark suppress various enzymes and prevent the buildup of proteins that play a role in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s (1). Cinnamon and its oils are also antimicrobial against bacterial, fungal, and yeast species (2). Finally, compounds within cinnamon can help reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. For example, cassia cinnamon has shown promising results in lowering blood sugar levels just as much as metformin, one of the leading diabetes medications.  

One caveat to watch out for is that cassia cinnamon contains coumarin, which can be toxic to the liver at high doses. Switching to Ceylon cinnamon will allow you to avoid this toxin. Ceylon cinnamon may not have as potent an effect on lowering blood sugar. However, it is still a great
source of antioxidants (3).

Nutmeg is the seed of Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree originally grown in Indonesia (4). This spice has many health-promoting properties. 

      • Nutmeg can help manage depression and anxiety. Myristicin and elemicin are two compounds found in nutmeg. They have been shown to activate the “feel good” neurotransmitters serotonin  and dopamine, providing sedative and anti-anxiety effects. 

      • Nutmeg can act as a natural sleep aid. Since nutmeg contains magnesium, it can help eliminate nerve tension and stimulate serotonin release, enabling you to fall asleep. 

      • Nutmeg is beneficial for the digestive system. It helps to increase the secretion of gastric and intestinal juices that break down your food. Since nutmeg contains fiber, it also helps move food through the intestine, preventing constipation (5).

    Be cautious not to use too much nutmeg, though! Nutmeg can form “amphetamine-like compounds” in the body and lead to symptoms such as agitation, hallucinations, drowsiness, dizziness, and confusion. Stick to no more than half a teaspoon daily to avoid these symptoms (6,7).

    Ginger, as we know it, is the root of a flowering root plant. Originating in Southeast Asia, it is a staple of Asian, Indian, and Caribbean cuisines. Ginger has been used in Eastern medicine since the 9th century and has multiple health benefits. Fresh ginger contains a potent compound called gingerol, which has antioxidant properties and reduces inflammation. Therefore, it benefits various inflammatory conditions and helps with pain relief (8). Ginger also suppresses an enzyme in the body called cyclooxygenase-2, which triggers inflammation. Many pain
    medications can suppress this enzyme, but they also suppress cyclooxygenase-1, leading to the unfortunate symptoms of gastrointestinal irritation. Fortunately, ginger can suppress inflammation without those adverse side effects. Unlike over-the-counter and prescription pain
    medications, ginger may provide more long-term pain relief rather than immediate relief (9). 

    Fresh ginger can also relieve some forms of nausea, including morning sickness, motion sickness, and side effects of some chemotherapy regimens. Ginger helps increase the movement of food through your digestive system. It also blocks serotonin receptors in your gut lining,
    which can help calm the nerves that trigger your vomiting reflex (8).

    A little bit of ginger can go a long way! While small amounts of ginger can reduce nausea, large quantities can have the opposite effect and cause nausea and heartburn. Therefore, stick to small amounts of fresh, dried, or powdered ginger for the most benefit (8).  

    Cloves are the aromatic flower buds of an evergreen tree called Syzygium aromaticum, originating in China. It is well-known in the culinary and medical worlds (10). This fragrant spice comes in powdered or whole form. Just like cinnamon, cloves are packed with antioxidants. They contain more antioxidants than any other spice (11). Clove is rich in eugenol, a natural antioxidant that is five times more potent than any other antioxidant. Eugenol is also responsible for the cancer-fighting properties of cloves. It can kill cancer cells and slow tumor growth. Cloves have these effects on esophageal and cervical cancers primarily (12). 

    Compounds found in cloves can be beneficial in treating and preventing stomach ulcers. Stress and infection are two leading causes of ulcers. They result from the depletion of the stomach’s mucus layer, which helps protect the stomach wall from the highly acidic environment. Cloves
    contain compounds that thicken these mucus layers and, in turn, treat and prevent ulcers (12). 

    Finally, cloves contain antimicrobial properties. In particular, compounds from cloves stop the growth of bacteria that contribute to gum disease. Therefore, using mouthwash or toothpaste that has clove essential oil or even incorporating cloves in your diet in addition to your typical oral hygiene routine can promote oral health (12). 

    These are just a few health benefits of some of the most common spices. When you think about pumpkin spice this fall, I hope it conjures up more than just the comforting aromas characteristic of the season. These spices have so many health benefits individually; imagine their power if
    combined in one mixture! Try making your own mix at home with the following recipe:

    Homemade Pumpkin Pie Spice – Loving It Vegan
    3 Tbsp cinnamon
    2 Tsp ground ginger
    2 Tsp nutmeg
    1 1/2 Tsp ground allspice
    1 1/2 Tsp ground cloves

    Add all ingredients to a Mason jar, put on the lid, and shake it up. Enjoy!

    1.) Peterson, D. W., George, R. C., Scaramozzino, F., LaPointe, N. E., Anderson, R. A., Graves, D. J., & Lew, J. (2009). Cinnamon extract inhibits tau aggregation associated with Alzheimer’s disease in vitro. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD, 17(3), 585–597.
    2.) Rao, P. V., & Gan, S. H. (2014). Cinnamon: a multifaceted medicinal plant. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2014, 642942.
    3.) Greger, M. (2013, April 17). Update on Cinnamon for Blood Sugar Control.
    4.) Augustyn, A. (2023, August 28). Nutmeg Tree. Encyclopædia Britannica.
    5.) Voltolina LaBlue, V. (2022, December 24). 9 reasons why nutmeg is good for your health. eMediHealth.
    6.) Rothman, L. (2022, March 3). The surprising effect too much nutmeg can have on you. Tasting Table.
    7.) Greger, M. (2013b, April 19). Don’t eat too much nutmeg.
    8.) Cleveland Clinic. (2023, January 31). Health benefits of ginger. Cleveland Clinic.
    9.) Greger, M. (2018, July 27). Ground ginger to reduce muscle pain.
    10.) Sarode Chandrashekara, A. (2022, August 1). 11 health benefits of Cloves. Breathe Well-being.
    11.) Greger, M., & Stone, G. (2018). Herbs and Spices. In How not to die: Discover the foods scientifically proven to prevent and reverse disease (pp. 350–368). essay, Pan Books.
    12.) Ajmera, R. (2023, March 8). 8 surprising health benefits of Cloves. Healthline.

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