Cancer Prevention Through Spices

Herbs and spices are an important part of the human diet. Not only do they enhance the taste and flavor of foods, they also increase their shelf life by being both antimicrobial and anti-oxidant. Herbs and spices also exhibit a wide range of physiological and pharmacological properties.

Dietary factors play an important role in human health and in the development of certain diseases, especially cancer. In particular, many Phenolic compounds are attracting the attention of food and medicinal scientists because of their anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic and anti-carcinogenic properties and their capacity to modulate some key cellular enzyme functions.

Several commonly used herbs have been identified by the US National Cancer Institute as possessing cancer-preventive properties. These herbs include members of the Allium sp. (e.g. garlic); members of the Labiatae family (e.g. oregano, rosemary, and thyme); members of the Zingiberaceae family (e.g. turmeric and ginger); and members of the Umbelliferae family (e.g. cumin)

Cumin, (garlic,) oregano, rosemary, thyme, turmeric, and others herbs and spices have remarkably effective anti-oxidant activities and are one of the most important targets to search for natural anti-oxidants from the point of view of safety. It is expected that natural antioxidants will lead to chemo-prevention of inflammation, cancer and aging. (Source:

Garlic & Onion – Many of us know about garlic and onions, each of which contains allyl sulfides, powerful and helpful antioxidants, and substances shown to lower cholesterol and thin the blood. The same group of compounds has anticancer properties.

Garlic is a natural antibiotic and immune system enhancer, a free radical attacker, and it increases the enzymes that break down carcinogens in the body. Ample research has shown garlic to be one of the best foods to eat for cancer prevention, linking its consumption with slowing or stopping the growth of tumors in prostate, bladder, and stomach tissue, and preventing cancers of the skin and lung. The evidence is particularly compelling for garlic as a preventative agent against prostate and stomach cancers. The Iowa Women’s Health Study found that women who regularly ate garlic had a lower risk for colon cancer. Eat as much of this mighty food as you can stand!

Thyme – Thyme contains an essential oil that is rich in thymol, a powerful antiseptic, antibacterial, and a strong antioxidant. The oil of thyme is used in mouthwashes to treat inflammations of the mouth, and throat infections. It is a common component of cough drops.

Because of its essential oil, thyme possesses expectorant and bronchial antispasmodic properties, making it useful in the treatment of acute and chronic bronchitis, whooping cough, and inflammation of the upper respiratory tract. Thyme enhances the action of the cilia in the bronchi and directly acts on the bronchial mucosa. The terpenoids are responsible for the expectorant activity of thyme while a variety of flavonoids are responsible for the spasmolytic effect of thyme on the bronchioles.

All the members of the mint family, including thyme, possess terpenoids which are recognized for their cancer preventive properties. Rosmarinic and ursolic acids are major terpenoids in thyme that possess anti-cancer properties.

Ginger – Ginger works wonders in the treatment of everything from cancer to migraines. Ginger is a rhizome that is related to turmeric. Gingerol, the main component of ginger and responsible for its distinctive taste. Have anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor powers.

In some studies, gingerol inhibited tumor angiogenesis (formation of blood vessels leading to the tumor), and seemed to reduce metastasis of cancer cells. Gingerol also acts as an antioxidant, scavenging free radicals that might otherwise cause cell damage.

Turmeric – The medicinal properties of this spice have been slowly revealing themselves over the centuries. Long known for its anti-inflammatory properties, recent research has revealed that turmeric is a natural wonder, proving beneficial in the treatment of many different health conditions from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease.

Turmeric is the spice most often used in curry powder. It has an active ingredient called curcuminthat may prevent metastases from occurring in many different forms of cancer.

Cumin, Dill, Fennel, Parsley – The parsley family (parsley family of herbs and spices, the same family that contains anise, caraway, coriander, dill, fennel, and parsley) contains some unique phytochemicals, such as phthalides and polyacetylenes which show cancer-protective activity andanti-inflammatory properties.

Cumin has been seen to effectively decrease the incidence of chemically-induced tumors of the stomach, colon, and cervix. Its cancer-preventive activity can be explained by its significantantioxidant activity and the ability of cumin to modulate the metabolism of carcinogens. Cumin seeds are known to induce the activity of glutathione-S-transferase, a protective enzyme that helps eliminate cancer causing substances.

Cumin has a significant level of caffeic, chlorogenic, ferulic and other phenolics acids that have anti-inflammatory activity, as well as the phytoestrogen, genistein.

The activation of nuclear transcription factor kappa B has now been linked with a variety of inflammatory diseases, including cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes, allergies, asthma, arthritis, and psoriasis. The pathway that activates this transcription factor can be interrupted by phytochemicals derived from spices such as cumin, turmeric, and garlic.

Basil – One of the several herbs known to have anti-carcinogenic effects has been shown in studies to help in prevention of early stages of cancer development.

Cayenne pepper – Capsaicin is the main ingredient of cayenne pepper and is used topically to treat everything from osteoarthritis to cancer.  Capsaicin promotes the natural cycle of programmed cell death, called apoptosis. Cancerous cells attempt to resist apoptosis and, if successful, eventually overtake the body with cancer. When cancer cells were treated with capsaicin, the chili pepper compound attacked the tumor cells’ mitochondria — which generate ATP, the chemical that creates energy within the body. Capsaicin also bound to certain proteins within the cancer cells and triggered apoptosis — natural cell death.

About NutriFit

Dedicated to a healthier body and mind, nutrition and wellness coach, educator and culinary expert, Jackie Keller, is the Founding Director of NutriFit, LLC, author of Body After Baby, A Simple, Healthy Plan to Lose Your Baby Weight Fast (Avery/Penguin Group; May 2007), and Cooking, Eating & Living Well, a cookbook and guide to nutrition-related lifestyle change.