Herbs and spices can add flavor and dimension to even the most insipid plate of vegetables. For thousands of years in various cultures, and in recent decades more scientifically, their surprising health benefits have also been recognized, including their effects on the nervous system and mind.
While we eat only a tiny quantity of these flavorings in each meal, they contain certain nutrients in unbelievably high concentrations.
This yellow, slightly bitter spice has gained superfood status in recent years due to the chemical curcumin it contains. Its proven health benefits include improved cardiovascular function, reduced risk of cancer and, more importantly for your brain, strong anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
The bad news is that clinical studies are often most interested in obtaining a yes/no answer to turmeric’s effectiveness, rather than establishing what dosage works best, and therefore feed their patients amounts you wouldn’t find in most ordinary diets. The good news is that curcumin supplements are available, although it would be a good idea to choose one that is concentrated whole turmeric instead of just the main active component. The spice contains well over a hundred identified chemicals that may work in concert with curcumin, so ingesting the whole spice will magnify its effectiveness. If you choose to use the powdered spice, fry it in oil along with black pepper to help your body absorb the medicinal chemicals.
Goes well with: Use it to give vibrant color to rice, potatoes, or any kind of curry.
You do not need any kind of green thumb to grow this herb in your garden or in a pot on a windowsill. Rosemary helps with depression, nervousness and even insomnia, all of which are common psychological problems, as well as improving overall brain health.
Goes well with: Any kind of roasted meat, or just toss a sprig or two into a soup or stew. You can even make tea with it.
Saffron is unbelievably expensive by weight, but you’ll use no more than a tiny amount in any given dish. Once used to dye the robes of Buddhist priests, the spice consists of the tiny stigmas (threads) of a flower that have to be painstakingly collected by hand.
Like curcumin, saffron has been shown to be as effective as synthetic drugs in treating depression, while also normalizing heart rate and blood pressure.
Goes well with: Rice dishes with seafood or chicken, seafood soups (think bouillabaisse), and eggplant.
Something for the sweet tooth! In fact, sweet dishes and spices don’t need to be strangers: sage goes well with pineapple, while ginger or saffron can find a place in many baked recipes.
You might know about the real estate agent’s trick of burning vanilla-scented candles to put prospective buyers in a receptive frame of mind. As it turns out, this spice actually does have a significant and measurable calming effect, and even just the scent can reduce anxiety, anger and frustration. Synthetic vanilla extract is less effective, and few people who’ve experienced the real deal will tell you there’s no difference.
Goes well with: Halve the pod lengthwise and scrape out the seeds into a creamy rice pudding, or infuse coconut milk with them. Stick the remaining pod into an airtight container with some white sugar for a condiment that will send crème brûlée, or anything else, through the roof.
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While a serious condition such as constant anxiety or depression should probably be treated by counseling or other, more conventional, means, incorporating a couple of spices into your diet is certainly not difficult. None of the above will add much heat to a dish, a month’s supply costs practically nothing and – I tell you truly – a little judicious seasoning will actually make your kids love their vegetables.