Spices and Longevity

This landmark study, comparing the ability of different spices to suppress inflammation, also compared their ability to protect DNA. Cloves, ginger, rosemary, and turmeric were able to significantly stifle the inflammatory response. But, what about DNA protection?

If you take a tissue sample from some random person, about 7% of their cells may show evidence of DNA damage—actual breaks in the strands of their DNA. And, if you blast those cells with free radicals, you can bring that number up to 10%. But, if the person had been eating ginger for a week, that drops to just 8%. This is from a tissue sample taken from someone who hadn’t been eating any herbs and spices. And, as a result, their cells were vulnerable to DNA damage from oxidative stress. But, just including ginger in our diet may cut that damage 25%—and, same with rosemary.

But, check out turmeric. DNA damage cut in half. Again, this is not just mixing turmeric with cells in some petri dish. This is comparing what happens when you expose the cells of spice-eaters versus the cells of non-spice-eaters to free radicals, and just sit back and count DNA fracture rates.

And, not only did the turmeric work significantly better, but at a significantly smaller dose. This is comparing about one-and-a-third teaspoons a day of ginger or rosemary to practically just a pinch of turmeric—about an eighth of a teaspoon a day. That’s how powerful the stuff is. So, I encourage everyone to cook with this wonderful spice. Tastes great, and may protect our cells in our body— with or without the added stress. If you just count DNA breaks in people’s cells before and after a week of spices, without the free radical blast, we see no significant intrinsic protection in the ginger or rosemary groups. But, the turmeric group still appeared to reduce DNA damage by half.

This may be because curcumin is not just itself an antioxidant, but boosts the activity of our own antioxidant enzymes. Catalase is one of the most active enzymes of the body. Each one can detoxify millions of free radicals—per second. And, if you consume the equivalent of about three-quarters of a teaspoon of turmeric a day, the activity of this enzyme in our bloodstream gets boosted 75%!

Now, why do I suggest cooking with it, rather than just like throwing it in a smoothie? Well, this effect was found specifically for heat-treated turmeric. Because, in practice, “many herbs and spices are…only consumed after cooking,” they tested both turmeric and oregano in both raw and cooked forms, and in terms of DNA damage, the results from raw turmeric did not reach statistical significance—though the opposite was found for the anti-inflammatory effects. So, maybe we should eat it both ways.

Practical recommendations for obtaining curcumin in the diet might be to add turmeric to sweet dishes containing cinnamon and ginger. I add it to my pumpkin pie smoothies, which are otherwise just a can of pumpkin, frozen cranberries, pitted dates, pumpkin pie spice, and some nondairy milk. And also, cook with curry powder, or turmeric itself. They also suggest something called “turmeric milk,” which is evidently “a traditional Indian elixir made with milk, turmeric powder, and…sugar.”

I’d suggest substituting a healthier sweetener and a healthier milk. Soy milk, for example, might have a double benefit. If you’re taking the turmeric to combat inflammation, compared to dairy protein, osteoarthritis sufferers randomized to soy protein ended up with significantly improved joint range of motion.

A. Hutchins-Wolfbrandt, A. M. Mistry. Dietary turmeric potentially reduces the risk of cancer. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2011 12:3169 – 3173.

S. S. Percival, J. P. V. Heuvel, C. J. Nieves, C. Montero, A. J. Migliaccio, J. Meadors. Bioavailability of Herbs and Spices in Humans as Determined by ex vivo Inflammatory Suppression and DNA Strand Breaks. J Am Coll Nutr. 2012 31(4):288 – 294.

B. B. Aggarwal, S. C. Gupta, B. Sung. Curcumin: An orally bioavailable blocker of TNF and other pro-inflammatory biomarkers. Br. J. Pharmacol. 2013 169(8):1672 – 1692.

R. A. DiSilvestro, E. Joseph, S. Zhao, B. Joshua. Diverse effects of a low dose supplement of lipidated curcumin in healthy middle aged people. Nutr J. 2012 11(1):79.

B. H. Arjmandi, D. A. Khalil, E. A. Lucas, B. J. Smith, N. Sinichi, S. B. Hodges, S. Juma, M. E. Munson, M. E. Payton, R. D. Tivis, A. Svanborg. Soy protein may alleviate osteoarthritis symptoms. Phytomedicine 2004 11(7 – 8):567 – 575.



Once in a while, I come across a study that’s so juicy, I do an entire video about it. It’s like my “Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better?” video, or the “Best Cooking Method” one, or that one comparing thousands of foods. Well, this is one such study.

A group of researchers at U of F Gainesville and Penn State set up an elegant experiment. We’ve known, ounce per ounce, herbs and spices have some of the greatest antioxidant activities known—but, that’s in a test tube. Before we can ask if an herb or spice has health benefits, it’s first necessary to determine whether it’s bioavailable. This has never been done, until now.

They could have [gone] the easy route, and just measured the change in antioxidant level in one’s bloodstream before and after consumption. But, the assumption that the appearance of antioxidant activity in the blood is an indication of bioavailability has a weakness. Maybe more gets absorbed than we think, but doesn’t show up on antioxidant tests, because it gets bound to proteins or cells. So, they attempted to measure physiological changes in the blood. They were interested in “whether absorbed compounds would be able to protect [white blood cells] from an oxidative or inflammatory injury”—whether it would protect the strands of our DNA from breaking when confronted by free radicals. They also wondered if the consumption of herbs and spices “might alter…cellular inflammatory response[s] in the presence of a physiologically relevant inflammatory insult.” What does that all mean?

Well, what they did was take a bunch of people, and had each of them eat different types of spices for a week. There are so many really unique things about this study, but one was that the quantity that study subjects consumed was based on the usual levels of consumption in actual food. Like, the oregano group was given a half-teaspoon a day—the kinds of practical quantities people might actually eat once in a while. Then, at the end of the week, they drew blood from the dozen or so people they had adding black pepper to their diets that week, and compared the effects of their blood to the effects of the blood of the dozen on cayenne, or cinnamon, or cloves, or cumin. They had about ten different groups of people eating about ten different spices.

Then, they dripped their plasma (the liquid fraction of their blood) onto human white blood cells in a petri dish that had been exposed to an inflammatory insult. They wanted to pick something really inflammatory, so they chose oxidized cholesterol, which is like what you’d get in your bloodstream after eating something like fried chicken. So, they jabbed the white blood cells with oxidized cholesterol, and then measured how much TNF they produced in response.

Tumor necrosis factor is a powerful inflammatory cytokine, infamous for the role it plays in autoimmune attacks, like inflammatory bowel disease. Compared to the blood of those who ate no spices for a week, was the blood of those eating black pepper able to significantly dampen the inflammatory response? No. What about any of these other spices? Cloves, ginger, rosemary, and turmeric were able to significantly stifle the inflammatory response. And, remember, they weren’t dripping the spices themselves on these human white blood cells, but the blood of those who ate the spices. So, it represents what might happen when cells in our body are exposed to the levels of spices that circulate in our bloodstream after normal daily consumption. Not megadoses in some pill—just the amount that makes our spaghetti sauce taste good, or our pumpkin pie, or curry sauce.

There are drugs that can do the same thing. Tumor necrosis factors are such “major mediators of inflammation and inflammation-related diseases” that there are these TNF-blocking drugs on the market for the treatment of inflammatory diseases—like osteoarthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, ankylosing spondylitis—which rake in, collectively, more than $20 billion a year, because drug companies charge people $15,000 to $20,000 a year for the drug. At that price, the side effects better be hugs and rainbows. But, no, these drugs carry a black label warning because they can cause things like cancer and heart failure. If only there were a cheaper, safer solution.

Curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric, is a spice that’s a tad cheaper, and safer. But, does it work outside of a test tube? There’s evidence that it may help in all the diseases for which TNF blockers are currently being used. And so, with health care costs and safety being such major issues, this golden spice, turmeric, may help provide the solution.

S. S. Percival, J. P. V. Heuvel, C. J. Nieves, C. Montero, A. J. Migliaccio, J. Meadors. Bioavailability of herbs and spices in humans as determined by ex vivo inflammatory suppression and DNA strand breaks. J Am Coll Nutr. 2012 31(4):288 – 294.

B. B. Aggarwal, S. C. Gupta, B. Sung. Curcumin: An orally bioavailable blocker of TNF and other pro-inflammatory biomarkers. Br. J. Pharmacol. 2013 169(8):1672 – 1692.

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