Ayurveda considers food to be one of the most important pillars of health. You have heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” Ayurveda takes this one step further—you are what you eat and how you digest what you eat. Digestion is the cornerstone of health and immunity in Ayurveda. This is where the magic of spices comes in.
Spices have immense benefits—they are being studied as potent antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and cancer-fighting superfoods! According to Ayurveda, one of their benefits, in addition to making foods taste flavorful, is serving as excellent digestive aids (or dipana), helping you to avoid gas and bloating. For most spices, this is due to their pungent quality (the quality of heat) that enkindles your agni (digestive fire) for optimal digestion. Some spices are milder (like fennel) than others (think cayenne), but all spices are excellent allies for optimal digestion. (Note: Spicy does not necessarily mean hot.)
While all spices are superstars, here are six picks to get you started on your spice route.
Known as the universal medicine (vishwabeshaja) in Ayurveda, ginger is beneficial for many conditions. Great for digestion, it alleviates gas and bloating, is an excellent anti-nausea remedy, boosts circulation, and relieves respiratory conditions such as a cough or mucus cold.
A cup of ginger tea (1 teaspoon grated ginger in a cup of hot water) along with a meal can help digestion go smoothly. Low appetite? Have a few pieces of grated ginger with some lime juice and salt 10–15 minutes before meals to spark your agni. Fresh ginger is not as pungent (hot) as dry ginger. If you have a sluggish appetite and slow digestion, make a tea with dry ginger powder (1 teaspoon brewed along with 3–4 cups of water) and drink it throughout the day, especially around mealtimes.
Turmeric is ubiquitous in the form of tea, capsules, and even turmeric lattes! According to Dr. Michael Greger, author of How Not to Die, more than 5,000 articles have been published in medical journals about the health benefits of curcumin, the pigment that gives turmeric its bright yellow color. Fresh turmeric is milder than ground turmeric (dry), which is more pungent and drying in its action.
A small piece of turmeric root (1/4 inch) in a smoothie will add an anti-inflammatory punch while aiding the digestion of the smoothie (which are usually cold/cool). Sauté ground turmeric (1/2-3/4 teaspoon for 3–4 servings) in oil along with other spices to serve as the base for veggies, grains, soups, and stews.
Potential Benefits: anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, anti-arthritic
Cumin has been used as a culinary spice for millennia in Indian, Mexican, and Middle Eastern cuisines. It is one of the best spices for sluggish digestion.
According to Ayurvedic Medicine by Sebastian Pole, cumin tea is a good home remedy to alleviate a cold and dry up congestion in the chest. And drinking a cup of cumin tea before bedtime can help you get a good night’s sleep.
Make a tea with 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin brewed with 1 cup of hot water.
Potential Benefits: digestive stimulant, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory
Coriander is also known as cilantro. Both the leaves and the seeds of the plant are used in cooking—the leaves are typically referred to as cilantro, while the seeds discussed here are commonly known as coriander. This popular ingredient in Indian curry powder is a valuable medicine—it can soothe an irritated digestive system. A mild spice, it gently enkindles agni without overheating and aggravating individuals with more fire in their constitution, (Pittas), as noted by Pole in Ayurvedic Medicine.
Make a tea with 1/2 teaspoon whole coriander brewed with 1 cup of hot water.
Potential Benefits: appetite stimulant, antioxidant
You may have eaten fennel seeds after a meal at an Indian restaurant. Also according to Ayurvedic Medicine, one of the best digestives (especially after a heavy meal), helping alleviate gas, bloating, and abdominal pain caused by digestive distress. Fennel water is also used to treat colic in babies.
Researchers found fennel to be effective in the management of post-menopause symptoms such as hot flashes, sleeplessness, vaginal dryness, and anxiety, without serious side effects.
The sweet taste of fennel also makes it a soothing tea to calm the nervous system. The plant extract has been studied and has been found to have anti-stress properties.
Make a tea with 1/2 teaspoon whole fennel brewed with 1 cup of hot water.
Who doesn’t love cinnamon, with its irresistible combination of sweet and spicy tastes? While it has been traditionally used in the West in baked goods and desserts, cinnamon has been used in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking to spice savory dishes like rice dishes (pilafs) and curries (stews).
A 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon is a great addition to smoothies with its mild sweetness. It is especially useful for people with sluggish digestion. On the spectrum of heat, cinnamon is on the warmer end, so individuals with more fire in their constitution (Pitta types) will be wise to limit their intake of this spice.
Potential Benefits: antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, lower cardiovascular disease
Go ahead and spice up your life! Remember your spice cabinet is your medicine cabinet. Here are three easy recipes to get you started on incorporating these wonderful superfoods into your daily diet.
A warm and soothing elixir to have before bedtime or any time of the day.
- 1 cup almond or coconut milk
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
- Pinch black pepper
- Sweetener to taste (maple syrup, raw cane sugar)
Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan. Stir/whisk to mix. Heat over a medium flame until warmed through.
Pour into a mug and enjoy.
Cumin, Coriander, and Fennel (CCF) Tea
Commonly known as CCF tea in Ayurveda, this tea is an excellent all-day elixir and promotes great digestion and circulation while also offering a gentle detox.
- 1 tablespoon each whole coriander, cumin, and fennel seeds
- 4–6 cups of water, depending on desired tea strength
Combine the whole spices with water in a pot. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover, reduce heat, and let simmer for 8–10 minutes.
Remove from heat, strain into a thermos, and sip all day.
Note: You can add more water to the leftover seeds and remake the tea—it will be weaker. Discard spices after use—you can compost them.
Curried Sweet Potatoes with Greens
An antioxidant powerhouse combining the antioxidant riches of sweet potato, leafy greens, and spices.
- 3 cups diced sweet potatoes
- 3 cups chopped greens (spinach, kale, etc.)
- 3 tablespoons coconut oil
- 1 tablespoon sliced ginger
- 1 teaspoon whole coriander
- 1 teaspoon whole cumin
- 1 teaspoon whole fennel
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- Salt to taste
Add the oil to the pan over a medium flame.
When the oil is hot, add the ginger and stir for a few seconds.
Add the whole spices (coriander, cumin, and fennel) and stir for a few seconds (the spices should sizzle).
Add the turmeric and cinnamon and stir.
Add the sweet potatoes; coat with the oil and spice mixture as you stir.
Cover the pan and let the potatoes cook for a couple of minutes.
Add some water (1/4–1/2 cup) and stir.
Cover the pan and let the mixture cook for 15–20 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes, so that the mixture does not stick to the bottom of the pan.
Add more water if necessary.
Add the greens, stir and cook for a few more minutes.
Check for doneness (sweet potatoes and greens).
Add salt and stir.
Optional—garnish with chopped cilantro
Serve with basmati rice or quinoa.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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