Nutrition Spotlight: What you need to know about herbs, spices, and cancer

Virginia Cancer Specialists Practice Blog

May 28, 2019
Virginia Cancer Specialists » VCS Practice News » Nutrition » Nutrition Spotlight: What you need to know about herbs, spices, and cancer

Celebrating National Herb Week!

It is well known that herbs and spices contain bioactive components for promoting health and there is a growing body of evidence showing that many possess various anti-carcinogenic properties. Similar to other plant-based foods with varying levels of antioxidant potential, some herbs and spices may have greater anticancer effects than others.

What we know:

  • No single food substance can protect against cancer.  Rather, consuming a combination of foods in a predominantly plant-based diet—which includes herbs and spices—can be protective.
  • The scientific evidence does not currently allow us to recommend a “dose” of specific herbs and spices to take to reduce cancer risk.

While research is ongoing, the following herbs and spices along with their main bioactive component have shown potential in either cell, animal, or human studies to inhibit cancer development:

Turmeric – curcumin
Black pepper – piperine
Garlic – allicin
Red Chili – capsacin
Saffron – crocetin
Ginger – gingerol
Black cumin – thymoquinone

Some other spices that have also been studied for their anticancer effects: allspice, basil, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, dill, oregano, parsley, rosemary, and thyme.

We recommend to:

  • Choose herbs in their natural forms, not pills. And, notify your medical team regarding any pills you are taking.  Supplements are not strictly regulated, so the dosage may not be accurate or effective. Also, there’s a possibility that some herbal supplements can change the way chemotherapy drugs are processed, either making them less effective or worsening the toxicity level of the chemotherapeutic agent by slowing down its metabolism. Some supplements can cause excess bleeding and should be discontinued prior to surgery.
  • Use culinary herbs and spices in ordinary food preparation, both dried and fresh.  They have low toxicity and can easily contribute toward the total antioxidant intake in one’s diet. This is especially true when herbs and spices are consumed with each other and other plant-based foods, as this produces a synergistic effect, increasing the absorption of health-promoting compounds. ­­
  • Use herbs and spices to replace less healthy ingredients like salt, sugar, and added fat, and add antioxidants.
  • Inquire about how certain herbs and spices can help in managing nausea, vomiting, and taste changes associated with side effects of cancer treatments.

Here are a few simple ways to enjoy the flavors and benefits of herbs and spices:

  • Use fresh or ground ginger in smoothies, yogurt, salad dressings, and marinades. Add fresh grated ginger to your ginger ale! This may help reduce nausea, dry mouth, and make foods more palatable if taste changes are an issue.
  • Fresh turmeric root and powder can be used in poultry, rice, lentil, and vegetable dishes, as well as in tea and smoothies. Benefits may be seen with ½ tsp of turmeric powder per day.
  • Combine black pepper with turmeric to boost the absorption and effectiveness of curcumin. As little as 1/8 tsp may offer benefits.
  • Crush or chop garlic several minutes before cooking to increase the bioavailability of allyl sulfide compounds.
  • Cinnamon can be added to a wide variety of savory dishes and baked goods and can be used in place of sugar in tea or coffee.
  • Herbs like oregano, thyme, rosemary, and parsley in marinades may help reduce the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are created when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Marinades are useful in augmenting the flavor of foods when taste loss occurs with cancer treatments.

Virginia Cancer Specialists Nutrition Team