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

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Also gold is not just a precious adornment. In recent years it has been used in injections to treat arthritis. Though it's not a cure, it does help some people. However, it can cause a rash, stomach upset, protein in the urine, and a low blood count.

Doctors at the University of Cincinnati are using a byproduct of the gold-based arthritis drugs as an AIDS treatment. They believe that in the right dose, patients would be able to tolerate it without side effects that come with many of the current treatments.

Even those small red cranberries that your mother and grandmother strung on the Christmas tree or used in a fruit relish have health benefits. But experts say to avoid those drinks labeled "cocktail;" they're full of sugar, which can be harmful to diabetics and ruin dieters' dreams of weight loss. It's best to use pure cranberry juice, cranberry capsules, or cranberry relish or sauce.

"Studies show that cranberry juice has compounds that lower urinary track infections," says Donna Preston, MS, RD, LD, a clinical dietitian for the Presbyterian Hospital Senior Medical Centers in Dallas. Theory has it that cranberries make it more difficult for bacteria to grow and attach to the bladder wall, making it more easily washed out of the system.

But Preston says some other holiday treats will make the time not so jolly. Peppermint can set off heartburn if you overindulge. And licorice can raise some people's blood pressure.

On the other hand, ginger, which is used in Middle Eastern, Asian, and Japanese foods, almost sounds like a miracle drug. "There are findings in folk medicine going back hundreds of years that steeping ginger in tea takes the edge off nausea," Preston tells WebMD. "It gives a wonderful flavor to vegetables; you can spice up the flavor without turning the salt shaker upside down."

You may remember mom recommending ginger ale for an upset stomach. Recent studies have also shown that powdered ginger can relieve the morning sickness of pregnant women and prevent motion sickness.

And don't forget to use lots of garlic, onion, and herbs like thyme. They're loaded with chemicals that keep your cells working smoothly and help prevent numerous diseases, including some forms of cancer.

"Some of the mainstream seasonings such as onions and garlic are important," says Preston. "Onions are thought to protect against stomach cancer and garlic to lower cholesterol." However, she says that how garlic is prepared -- chopped, ground, whole -- determines just how strong the health benefits will be.

A warning: Experts also say that some supplements, including garlic and ginger, may interfere with prescription drugs, so patients need to tell their doctors about everything in their medicine chests.

The important thing, Preston says, is to eat the balanced meal and use as many different kinds of vegetables, fruits, and spices as possible. Preston says she looks forward "with relish" to further research of the medical benefits of such foods.

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