I enjoy cooking with herbs and spices that are great for my health and make my food taste fantastic at the same time—it is a win/win.
Several herbs provide both of these benefits, and these are flavors that you should use more often.
For centuries, rosemary has been known as “the herb of remembrance”. In various cultures, people have worn rosemary crowns on their heads when studying.
In a study presented at the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference, researchers showed that even the smell of rosemary essential oil can improve the prospective memory of those over 65. This study examined 150 people over 65 and divided them into three groups: one group was put in a lavender-scented room, another in a rosemary-scented room, and the last, a room with no scent at all. Researchers found that people sniffing rosemary experienced enhanced prospective memory, along with increased alertness, compared with those in the lavender and unscented rooms.
Along with being one of our favorite culinary herbs, regions of Italy that eat the most rosemary also happen to have some of the lowest rates of memory loss on the planet.
I have been able to grow rosemary in my garden in both Washington State and Florida—and I use it often when cooking. I encourage you to do the same.
Thyme and Parsley
A recent study from Brazil found that a flavonoid in these 2 herbs called apigenin, enhances connections between our brain neurons. Many researchers believe that a diet rich in apigenin might influence brain cell formation and communication, and help prevent memory loss. Further studies are needed to confirm these hypotheses, yet thyme and parsley are fantastic cooking herbs, so I am happy to use them more often.
As its name suggests, sage is associated with knowledge (better memory). In two small studies, capsules of sage extract improved young adult performance on memory tests, compared with a placebo. Researchers noted improved word recall nearly immediately (within 1-2 hours) and for up to 6 hours after exposure to sage oil extract.
Italian Herb Seasoning
I hope that you have noticed that you can get several of these essential herbs by cooking with Italian Herb Seasoning, one of my favorite cooking herbs. The classic combination includes: rosemary, thyme, and sage, plus oregano, marjoram, and basil.
Turmeric root looks like a ginger root and is the yellow powdered spice commonly blended with Indian curry dishes. Cultures that ingest large quantities of turmeric have some of the lowest rates of dementia and memory loss in the world. Many of the other spices in curry spice mixtures (cumin, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon) have potent anti-inflammatory and other healing properties, making curry spices one of the healthiest spice combinations in cooking.
Not only does turmeric have potent anti-inflammatory properties, but it is being studied as a way to stop or slow memory loss, decrease joint pain from arthritis, and prevent or treat cancer as well. It’s potential as a healing agent is enormous.
However, the challenge is the actual amount you need to consume. The most active and studied compound in turmeric spice is called curcumin. Curcumin is poorly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. You would likely need to eat about three heaping tablespoons of turmeric spice daily to reach the same levels in your bloodstream that can be achieved with a single 500 mg high-quality curcumin capsule (the dosage commonly used in scientific studies). By “high quality,” I mean a form that has been proven to be well-absorbed and is not contaminated with heavy metals, which are commonly found in turmeric supplements that come from India.
Because my parents have arthritis, and I have noted early signs myself, I concluded I should be taking this compound too. Optimistically, since I like curry-flavored foods, I spooned a heaping tablespoon into a ½ cup of plain yogurt one morning and stirred, thinking I could easily get three tablespoons daily. After a brief taste—I realized that I was not going to get this quantity from the spice alone, so I set out to find the best-absorbed form of clean curcumin in capsule form for myself and my patients.
Now I take a 1000 mg curcumin supplement daily, plus, I aim to cook with curry spices including turmeric several times per week. I have even learned to grow turmeric in my garden in Florida. Click here for the link to the curcumin supplement I take daily.
A commonly used herb that has not been shown to work—at least not yet.
An herb that is commonly reported to help memory is Ginkgo biloba. Ginkgo is a very cool tree, which manages to grow well in cities with terrible pollution. Ginkgo trees thrived on this planet millions of years ago when volcanos blackened the skies. They were also the only life forms know to survive the nuclear bomb explosion in Hiroshima.
Ginkgo has amazing anti-oxidant properties, and in theory it has fascinating healing potential. Some initial small studies years ago suggested that a ginkgo biloba extract might help prevent memory loss, yet larger randomized clinical studies have thus far been disappointing, showing no benefit when compared to placebo.
It might be that ginkgo requires other agents to work synergistically for maximum benefit. It might require special processing. For now, there is not any solid evidence that using ginkgo biloba by itself is effective in preventing memory loss. Stay tuned, as I anticipate that someday soon they will find an effective way to use this plant.
I hope this blog has helped you identify herbs that you should use more often!
I wish you the best of health,
Steven Masley, MD