Updated: May 5, 2021
Humanity has used herbs in the preparation of food since antiquity. All cultures of the world recognise the value of herbs to flavour food to cure ailments and promote health.
The Chinese and Indians have used herbs in their medicinal practices for thousands of years. Europeans used herbs long before the advent of modern western medicine, but the use of herbs in many European cultures faded with the advent of modern science-based medicine.
However early modern drugs were developed through analysing efficacious preparations of herbal remedies during the 19th century.
One of the more recent developments in the role of herbs for good health is the recognition of their nutrient value and anti-oxidative properties. Some herbs contain higher levels of micronutrients, phyto-sterols, essential oils and phytonutrients than many fruits and vegetables; helping to combat multiple health conditions. Our knowledge is constantly growing as the scientific world expands its research into these health promoting compounds.
With a typical Western lifestyle, many of our digestive systems suffer from oxidative stress, sluggish activity and toxin build up, which all ultimately affect our overall health. By improving digestion, we are more effective in eliminating waste and promoting nutrient absorption. Many health practitioners are now focussing closely on the link between digestion and overall health, something that has been recognised in other cultures since ancient times.
There are herbs that promote the digestion of foods through breaking down the fats of some of our richer food preferences and this eases the stress on our digestive systems and promotes more efficient absorption of the nutrients from our food. Some herbs ease inflammation in the digestive tract which can inhibit the absorption of nutrients. Others still support liver function to help detoxify the body.
The phytonutrients in herbs play a number of roles including the detoxification of our cells, fighting the ageing process which can help prevent or slow down the degenerative diseases that are associated with ageing. Phytonutrients act as powerful antioxidants, defending our cells from damaging and disease-causing free radicals including age related macular disorder.
Other phytonutrients act as anti-inflammatory agents and can provide a welcome boost to our immune systems, particularly against the many environmental pollutants to which we are subjected. Some of the major benefits of the phytochemicals that are found in herbs and spices are the antibacterial and antiviral properties that support us against illness. Our most popular and commonly used herbs help eliminate parasites from our bodies.
Exciting new research in Australia indicates that not only are herbs and spices packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients, they seem to boost the nutritional values of the fruits and vegetables with which they are prepared.
In general, the fresher the herb, the more nutrient packed it is and there are many fantastic ways in which we can add fresh and raw herbs into our foods. Don’t discard many of the dried herbs and spices such as cloves, cinnamon, turmeric or ginger as these also contain vital compounds that bolster our health.
Green leafy herbs begin to lose their nutritional value within about 20 minutes of being picked, so a great idea is to grow our own. Not only will we benefit from the health promoting properties of these herbs, we will ultimately save money by not having to buy “fresh” herbs from the supermarket. Standard culinary herbs such as thyme, parsley, sage, rosemary, lavender, chives, oregano and marjoram will survive in some pretty hardy conditions.
It may be preferable to grow basil indoors as it is definitely a plant that nature loves to devour. Coriander will need to be replaced on a fairly regular basis as it develops quite rapidly before dying off. The seeds can be harvested both as a flavour in cooking or can be replanted to start off new plants.
So, we’ve explored some of the medicinal benefits of herbs to support optimal health, but what key nutrients do these vital herbs contain?
Chopped fresh herbs can be added to almost any cooked dish to enhance the flavour and to enhance our nutrient intake. The array of herbs that can be added to salads is almost limitless. Try adding herb flowers such as nasturtium, borage or sweet primrose to salads as they look stunning and add to the nutritional value of the dish.
Herbs such as mint, basil, cardamom and lavender can be added to fruit salads to enhance the flavours and excite the taste buds.
One of my favourite recipes is Herby Cheesy Scones. For a quick and easy recipe, make a simple hazelnut and sage pâté. Try a nutritious yet flavourful tzatziki to accompany a Mediterranean alfresco lunch.
If you have grown your own herbs and want to make sure you have them over the winter, then most can be dehydrated in an oven with a really low setting (less than 70°C). Simply wash the herbs and spread in a single layer on a lined baking tray and pop them in the oven for an hour or so.
With all these amazing benefits, what have we got to lose? Nothing! So, go on, zing up your diet with herbs and spices.