The Secret Life of Holiday Herbs

Of all my memorable holiday meals, one stands apart from the rest. It was the year I invited a handful of friends to my mother’s for the holidays—people who otherwise had nowhere else to go due to distance or circumstance.

My mother spent days in preparation, creating a feast with every trimming, from perfectly browned turkey to homemade cranberry sauce.

As we sat down, she plunked a timer in the center of the table. “It’s so I’ll know when to take the pies out of the oven,” she announced. The timer was one of those sturdy white plastic ones, the kind that will outlast Armageddon.

We ate our meal to its cadence: ticking off the seconds, defeating every bite of the turkey’s soothing tryptophan. And in the end we made our way, finally, to a slice of perfect apple pie scented with cinnamon.

We all have our holiday stories. Tucked in with warm memories are the tastes and smells of the food we grew up with and continue to prepare. More often than not, they are aromas and flavors based on herbs and spices that our relatives savored hundreds or even thousands of years ago. They knew then what we’re only beginning to learn. These magical seasonings aren’t just tasty—they’re healing too.

A Pinch of This
Does any scent conjure more than cinnamon? A spice that’s been with us since antiquity, it’s beautifully suited to counteract the effects of gluttony. While you’re polishing off your holiday feast, this delicious medicinal is relieving nausea, fighting diarrhea, and helping you digest, particularly when it comes to those oh-so-seductive fats. It’s no slouch when it comes to sugar, either, stimulating insulin activity, indeed tripling it when combined with clove, bay leaf, and turmeric, according to researchers. This makes it ideal to add to sweet desserts. In fact, when it comes to traditional herbs and spices, the antidote to a meal is often in the meal.

Ginger and peppermint are other effective digestive aids. Ginger’s strong antioxidant qualities help this culinary and medicinal rhizome protect both the liver and stomach. Plus ginger helps quell diarrhea and nausea and improves the passage of food through the intestines. Beyond that, ginger is an excellent source of zinc, which has been called the “intelligence mineral,” so chew on that if smart dinner conversation is required.

A study from Denmark also reports that ginger may be helpful in relieving the pain and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis.

Peppermint, meanwhile, sweetens breath and aids digestion by slightly anesthetizing the GI tract. Clinical studies verify that it soothes smooth-muscle spasms in the intestines and helps with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Choose enteric-coated peppermint oil for intestinal support.

A Dash of That
Among the classic sage, rosemary, and thyme trifecta, it’s impossible to say which is the clear winner. Fortunately, you can include them all and benefit.

Shrubby rosemary was a favorite of students in ancient Greece who wore sprigs on their heads to enhance memory. It seems they were on to something, as a handful of substances in rosemary keep the brain chemical acetylcholine from breaking down; this deficiency has been noted in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition, rosemary fights free radicals, relaxes the stomach, has anticancer properties, and is useful for headaches.

Sage also protects acetylcholine in the brain, plus it stimulates the digestive tract, helps prevent gingivitis, and even, in tea form, makes your hair shine.

Thyme, its culinary companion, lowers cholesterol, eliminates gas, and is good for respiratory problems such as asthma or congestion. Thyme has been studied (along with ginger) for its effects on alcohol toxicity and shows a “highly significant” positive effect on the liver and brain—just in case you hoist one glass too many.

Tasty and good for you, herbs and botanical products make the perfect complement to a healthy holiday season. 

Drink Up!

Cranberries are delicious mashed together with raisins and cinnamon to make a festive sauce, but the juice has long been acknowledged as a therapeutic for urinary tract infections. A recent review of medical literature confirmed that daily consumption “prevents recurrent urinary tract infections,” so let’s toast another traditional remedy!