In their recent lecture at Commonweal, The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, Dr Jeanne Wallace and chef Rebecca Katz talked about foods and spices that have special relevance in cancer prevention. Wallace spoke about the ability of diet and lifestyle changes to modulate gene expression, changing the probability of getting a disease and also surviving after a diagnosis. She described Nuclear Factor Kappa B (NF-kB) as a master switch for genes involved in tumor growth and invasion. NF-kB is a protein complex that controls DNA transcription, and regulates various steps in cancer cell growth. NF-kB also controls many genes involved in inflammation. While drug companies are researching new medicines to inhibit NF-kB, herbs and dietary plants have been found to inhibit NF-kB activation.
Wallace showed a slide of spices that inhibit NF-kB, and here is the list: anise, basil, black pepper, caraway, cardamom, chili pepper, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, flaxseed, garlic, ginger, Holy basil, lemongrass, licorice, mint, mustard seed, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, rosemary, saffron, tamarind, turmeric. Note that spices in this list are used in many ethnic foods. Each one has unexpected properties as well as distinctive tastes. I will write about many of them in future articles; today I want to focus on cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, as these are so commonly used in the winter holidays - for baking, mulled wine, chai, spiced apple juice and eggnog.
Cinnamon: In addition to NF-kB inhibition, cinnamon has been shown to control blood sugar in people with type 2 Diabetes. Subjects using ¼ to ½ teaspoon daily were found to lower their fasting blood sugar, their hemoglobin A1C as well as their triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. Blood sugar spikes after a meal were lessened. Healthy people without diabetes had showed improvement in their glucose tolerance tests after daily cinnamon intake. Cinnamon has also been found to inhibit vaginal yeast infections and the bacterium Helicobacter pylori infection in the stomach.
Cloves: In addition to NF-kB inhibition, cloves have a long history as pain relievers in dentistry. Oil of clove is a mild topical anesthetic, and also has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties in the mouth for teeth and gums. Eugenol, the scientific name for oil of clove, is used in India for stopping the growth of H. pylori in the stomach. Cloves are used in Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine and western herbalism. They can increase hydrochloric acid in the stomach, and improve intestinal action,. Cloves should be use sparingly, as the taste is strong, and high doses can be toxic to the liver. Following a tried and true recipe should yield good results
Nutmeg: In addition to NF-kB inhibition, nutmeg has been used by herbalists as a brain stimulant, and for its ability to kill rotaviruses, a common cause of diarrhea. Used in very large quantities, nutmeg can cause intoxication and hallucinations. This use in dangerous, but will not occur with the amounts used in everyday cooking. Some cooks use nutmeg in savory dishes as well as sweet ones, such as bean soups, stews, and vegetable casseroles.
Before closing, I wish all readers a good holiday season, with an emphasis on seasoning, and a suggestion that you look at the book Healing Spices, by B.B. Aggarwal, a prominent cancer researcher at the University of Texas M.D.Anderson Cancer Center . One of his sayings is: Put more spice in your life, to prolong your life.
Sadja Greenwood, M.D. past issues on this blog