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

From the WebMD Archives

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

And don't forget those oranges in your stocking: They're packed with fiber, vitamins C and B-1, potassium, and folic acid. The fiber helps lower cholesterol; potassium protects against salt-induced elevation of blood pressure; folic acid protects against some birth defects and lowers the risk of some cancers. And most important of all during the holiday season -- the vitamin C may reduce the severity and duration of a cold.

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