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Herbs and Spices Make for a Historical -- and Healthy -- Holiday


WebMD Health News

Dec. 25, 2000 -- The holidays are associated with endless trappings, including herbs and spices to tickle the senses and heal the soul. Unlike aluminum Christmas trees, these herbs have a long running spot in holiday tradition stretching back to biblical times. Even then, people may have been clued into the medical benefits of myrrh, incense, and various spices and foods associated with the holidays.

Today, researchers are investigating whether some of these spices do indeed offer precious gifts for our health. Even that candy cane and orange in your stocking may affect your well being, say experts.

In their studies, scientists believe that they have found both positive and negative effects of cinnamon, ginger, peppermint, myrrh, cranberries, oranges, garlic, and even gold.

Myrrh is a tall spiny tree found in the Middle East, northeastern Africa, and India. In ancient Egypt, it was used for embalming and treating leprosy and syphilis. It was even used as a cosmetic. In India, it has been used for 2,000 years for treating hardening of the arteries - a cause of heart disease.

Now Phillippe Szapary, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, is studying whether a gummy resin from the myrrh bush can lower cholesterol. In one study, the alternative medicine specialist and his team are using capsules containing gugulipid, an extract of the resin, to test 90 people for their reaction to the substance.

He became interested in myrrh during his studies of alternative medicine treatments for heart disease. "We discovered that in India, the myrrh had a long history of use for cholesterol lowering but it had never been reproduced in the United States," Szapary tells WebMD.

He is using an extract from a bush in the same family of trees that produced the gift the Three Wise Men brought to the baby Jesus. In fact, its manufacturers have filed a new drug application with the FDA. Szapary says that though it's too early to draw conclusions as to the effectiveness of myrrh, preliminary results indicate that it really might help some people cut life-threatening cholesterol levels.

Ancient people used frankincense to carry their prayers to heaven, for rejuvenating facemasks, and for treating depression and claustrophobia. Now many U.S. hospitals incorporate aromatherapy -- using incense in various forms -- into programs to relieve pain and anxiety of those facing surgery, dealing with recovery, facing terminal illness, or long-term treatments.

One such program is at the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. "There is not much basis for this in medical research," says Edward Agura, MD, medical director of the center's blood and bone marrow transplant program. But using aromatherapy -- liquid scent dabbed behind the ear or put in the outer ear -- helps cancer patients overcome pain and nausea. "It's very relaxing, and it helps their attitudes," says Agura.

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