Ayurvedic Uses of Spices: Incredible Powerhouses of Medicinal Benefits!

Why are spices important? What are their benefits?

At the 3rd Annual Sivananda Ayurveda Conference, Dr. Manisha Kshirsagar, BAMS, gave a very inspiring workshop entitled “Spices For Life.” Dr. Manisha explained that spices not only give food flavor, but they have tremendous medicinal power, and can be very potent in their effects. Below are highlights from this fascinating lecture.

In ancient times, spices were used to preserve as well as flavor foods, and during the middle ages women often embroidered a sprig of thyme into scarfs to protect their children against illness. Even today in India, garlands of cardamom are often worn as a preventative against disease.

Spices are packed with healing power! Think of how much spice is used in cooking compared to the quantity of foods that we eat; this is because they are so powerful.

One of the most important uses for spices is to kindle our agni (digestive fire) – which is imperative for proper digestion.  And proper digestion is critical for optimal health, since everything we eat will either become the tissues of the body or toxins called “ama” – and the determining factor is the strength of our agni. Spices help to regulate agni, and thus help to ensure that we properly digest the foods that we eat. So use them liberally in your cooking! Food should never be bland, because bland food is hard to digest. Enjoy delicious spices and know that you’re giving your digestive fire an important boost!

According to Ayurveda, each dosha (vata, pitta, and kapha) benefit from different spices. So which spices are best for each dosha?

The best spices for vata include saffron, basil, fresh ginger, cumin, black pepper, fennel. For pitta, choose cinnamon, mint, coriander, turmeric, fennel, fresh cilantro, cardamom. And for kapha, clove, turmeric, black pepper, mustard seeds, chili peppers, fenugreek seeds (best to soak fenugreek seeds overnight so that it slightly sprouts) are best.

If you aren’t sure which dosha you are, and if your family consists of different doshas, you can always use spices that are good for everyone. These include cumin, fenugreek, ginger (fresh), coriander, mustard seeds (black and white), turmeric (important to use in cooking everyday!), asafoetida (also called hing. This spice is good for gas and bloating; use a tiny pinch in cooking especially when cooking beans).

So how to use spices in cooking? As a general rule, add fresh spices near the end of cooking or just before serving, because prolonged heat can cause loss of flavor and aroma. Dried spices can generally be added earlier in the cooking process.  it is better to cook with the spices rather than to take them in capsules – this way the benefits are released and you are able to absorb them better. So cook away with these spices, enhance the flavor of your food, and bring so many healing benefits!

Freshly ground spices (such as black pepper, clove, fennel, cardamom, cinnamon, etc.) provide more flavor and are more potent than buying the spices already ground. Store dried spices away from sources of heat and moisture (away from the dishwasher, microwave, stove, refrigerator, sink or heating vent).  As a general rule, herbs and ground spices will last for one year. Two years for whole spices.

The following is a delicious, classic Ayurvedic mixture of spices to stoke your agni (digestive fire). This mixture contains all of the six tastes described in Ayurveda. It is also beneficial for restoring loss of taste and increasing appetite, and helps to relieve morning sickness, migraines and nausea.

Pachaka Digestive Aid
2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp honey
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp mineral salt

Mix the above ingredients together and store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to a month. Take a small amount before each meal.

Other interesting notes about the use of spices:

Best spices for weight loss include turmeric, cayenne, ginger, black pepper, cinnamon, mustard, cumin.

Best spices for gas and bloating; Cinnamon, cardamom, bay, fennel, dill, mint, chamomile.

Best spices to cool excess digestive fire (overheated digestion such as acid indigestion): cumin, coriander, fennel, cilantro, aloe vera, licorice.

Reduce or eliminate sugar in your diet by the use of these sweet tasting spices:  Anise, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel.

Chew on clove or cardamom to freshen your breath. This is a great alternative to chewing gum!

Spices can also be utilized topically. To reduce pain, swelling and inflammation: make a paste of ginger powder and turmeric powder. You can use water or, for pitta inflammation, rose water. Apply directly to areas of pain.

Lots of research is underway on the use of spices for treating various conditions. A great example of this is eugenol, contained in cloves, which is being researched as a possible treatment for colon cancer.

We live in a beautiful world filled with countless natural ways to balance health, restore digestion, boost immunity, treat colds and fever, aid in weight loss, reduce pain and inflammation – the list goes on and on. Open up your cupboards and learn how to use what is in there. Make a trip to your local health food store and stock up on spices that are new to you. Explore their uses, and have fun. Allow your kitchen to be your pharmacy!

Dr. Manisha Kshirsagar is the author of Ayurveda: The Quick Reference Handbook, and the newly released book Enchanting Beauty: Ancient Secrets to Inner, Outer and Lasting Beauty.

By Dr. Marisa Jackson-Kinman, C.A.S., P.K.S., A.Y.T., Faculty at the California College of Ayurveda