’Tis the season to stock up on spices that make your whole house smell amazing — and offer some amazing health benefits to boot! Nothing can get you into the holiday spirit faster than the smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other seasonal spices wafting through the kitchen. But beyond their comforting aromas and delicious flavors, these holiday spices can also boost your health. For thousands of years, culinary spices have been a staple in traditional medicine. Now, their incredible health benefits are also backed by modern-day science. Here we share 6 holiday spices to add to your menu this season and reveal how they improve your health.
1. Star anise fends off germs
Wish your could sail through cold and flu season sniffle-free? Star anise can help you do just that. This licorice-flavored spice is a popular ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine thanks to its antiviral, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties. “Star anise has a lot of health benefits, but it is mostly known for its immune system support,” says Catherine Gervacio, registered nutritionist-dietitian and certified exercise nutrition coach at EH Project.
It’s serves as the plant source of shikimic acid, which is used to make the antiviral medicine Tamiflu that’s used to treat and prevent the flu. What’s more, research suggests star anise may even be effective at wiping out antibiotic-resistant infections. To tap into the immunity-boosting benefits, simmer star anise in a hearty stew or soup. Once the flavor is infused, remove the spiky pods and enjoy! (Click through for more benefits of star anise.)
Bonus: Star anise eases PMS, too
If you’re prone to experiencing bloating, irritability, breast tenderness and other symptoms in the days leading up to your period, star anise can help. A study in the Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine found that women who took capsules containing 110 mg of star anise three times a day in the week leading up to their period had significantly less intense PMS symptoms then than those who didn’t take the spice.
2. Cardamom soothes GI upset
If hearty holiday fare doesn’t always agree with your stomach, savor this mildly spicy seasoning after you dig into a second helping of turkey or glass of wine. Cardamom is an age-old remedy for soothing indigestion, especially when sipped in a cozy cup of tea. And research suggests it may offer additional digestive benefits, too, like warding off foodborne illnesses and reducing the risk of stomach ulcers. “Cardamom may improve gut health by encouraging the release of digestive enzymes and helping promote better digestion,” says Chrissy Arsenault, a registered dietitian at Trainer Academy.
Bonus: Cardamom helps you breathe easier, too
A study in the Journal of Health and Allied Sciences found that breathing in cardamom essential oil for 15 minutes before exercising helped folks use oxygen more efficiently. When your body is better able to use oxygen, that makes physically taxing tasks seem less draining. The holiday spice is also a boon when it comes to easing congestion from a cold by improving your airflow, says Gervacio.
3. Clove blocks fat formation + heals the gut
The warmly-spiced cloves you add to cider or seasoned ham can help to keep weight gain at bay during the holiday season. Research in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine suggests this antioxidant-rich spice inhibits the formation of fat cells and helps ward off weight gain. And eugenol — the key compound in clove oil — may help to balance the gut microbiome, reduce body fat, and lower blood glucose levels, all of which keep unwanted pounds at bay.
Want to take gut healing to the next level? Pair cloves with green tea and prebiotic fiber. The eugenol found in cloves, catechins found in green tea, and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) found in a sweet-tasting fiber known as inulin, have a powerful ability to heal and strengthen the gut lining, according to William Davis, MD, author of Super Gut. To get maximum benefits, Dr. Davis recommends enjoying two cups of tasty clove tea (which smells like gingerbread cookies!) daily.
To Do: In a small saucepan, combine 2 cups of water and 1 tablespoon of whole cloves and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cover, maintaining a low simmer for 10 minutes. Add one green tea bag in the last one to two minutes of simmering, then remove from heat and discard tea bag. Stir in 1 teaspoon of FOS powder (such as Jarrow Formulas Prebiotic Inulin-FOS — available at iHerb, $9.07), an additional sweetener of your choice, and one cinnamon stick. Enjoy.
Bonus: Clove soothes a toothache, too
Ouch! When a toothache makes it hard to enjoy your favorite fare, dab on a bit of clove oil. “Cloves have natural antibacterial properties, so they can be used to relieve a toothache and promote oral health,” Gervacio says. In fact, a study in the Journal of Dentistry suggests clove oil relieves toothaches even better than the over-the-counter anesthetic Orajel.
4. Cinnamon lifts your spirits
Here’s a great excuse to make a batch of snickerdoodles or simmer some holiday mulling spices on the stove: The smell of cinnamon can help you stay merry and bright. “Cinnamon’s spicy and warm scent can help promote relaxation and reduce stress,” Arsenault says. How? A University of Toledo review suggests the cozy holiday spice encourages your body to churn out more joy-boosting beta brain waves. (Click through for a super-simple air fryer cinnamon roll recipe.)
Bonus: Cinnamon boosts heart health, too
“Cinnamon is not just a great spice for enhancing the flavor of your dishes, but it also has some serious heart health benefits,” says Alyssa Pacheco, registered dietitian at The PCOS Nutritionist. “Cinnamon has been shown to lower blood sugar and insulin levels, which can lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Research also shows that it lowers cholesterol levels.” Credit goes to the cinnemaldehyde in the spice, which blocks blood sugar spikes that trigger an uptick in “bad” LDL cholesterol. Proof it works: A study in the Annals of Family Medicine found enjoying 1/2 tsp. daily lowers LDL by nearly 10 points in 18 weeks.
5. Ginger alleviates joint aches
The spice that gives gingerbread cookies their distinctive flavor is also a powerful anti-inflammatory. “Ginger is now also being recognized for the anti-inflammatory effects of the bioactive compounds it contains,” says Kristi Ruth, registered dietitian nutritionist at Carrots & Cookies.
Three bioactive compounds in particular — 6-shogaol, zingerone, and 8-shogaol — have shown promise for reducing symptoms of inflammatory diseases like arthritis. “In fact, ginger extract has been specifically shown to help improve osteoarthritis of the knee, a common cause of joint pain,” Ruth adds. And a study in Osteoarthritis and Cartilage found gingerol in the spice reduces joint swelling and stiffness by 36%.
Even if you don’t love the flavor of ginger, you can still enjoy the benefits. Create a warm ginger compress by soaking a washcloth in brewed ginger tea, then draping it over achy areas. A study in the Journal of Holistic Nursing found that this may reduce pain by 57%.
Bonus: Ginger settles your stomach, too
Of course, we can’t overlook ginger’s stomach-soothing benefits. Since 400 BC, ginger has been using in herbal medicine for treating digestive issues like constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, and bloating. And simply taking a whiff of the spicy scent calms nausea for 65% of folks, according to research in Complementary Therapies in Medicine. (Click through to discover the benefits of ginger shots.)
6. Nutmeg eases insomnia
If you’re having trouble powering down after late-night holiday festivities, this warming spice — which is used as a natural sleep aid in Ayurvedic medicine — can help you beat insomnia. Research in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology suggests nutmeg may improve the quality and duration of sleep. That’s thanks to a compound called trimyristin, which acts as a mild sedative, Arsenault explains.
To improve your Zzz’s even more, mix nutmeg into warm milk before bed to make an Ayurvedic sleep tonic. Dairy milk and soy milk both contain tryptophan, an amino acid that plays a role in the production of serotonin (the “feel-good” hormone) and melatonin (the sleep hormone), which can help you feel relaxed and sleepy.
Note: Too much nutmeg (even just 2 tsp.) can cause nausea or vomiting. A pinch or two is all you need to enjoy the benefits without the potential side effects.
Bonus: Nutmeg fends off stress and brain fog, too
Nutmeg can help you stay clear-headed when the holiday season gets hectic. “Nutmeg contains essential nutrients like magnesium to contribute to brain function,” Gervacio says. The magnesium in nutmeg can also help reduce fatigue and improve your body’s response to stress, making it easier to shake off little worries.
Toast to your good health with holiday spices
All of these holiday spices are staples in pies, cookies, and cakes. But how can you get the healthy benefits without overdoing it on baked goods all season long? Whip up a mulled spice drink! The hot sipper will keep you warm and cozy on cold nights. Plus it’s a tasty way to get the benefits of several different spices at once.
Citrus-pomegranate mulled wine made with holiday spices
“This holiday favorite is perfect for sipping by the fire,” says Woman’s World associate food editor Emily Boyette. And it couldn’t be easier to make!
- 1 (750 ml.) bottle red wine
- 2 cups pomegranate juice
- 1 orange, halved, sliced
- ¼ cup sugar
- ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp. ground allspice
- 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
- Cinnamon sticks (optional)
- In pot, combine 1 cup wine, pomegranate juice, half of orange slices, sugar and ground spices; over medium heat, cook until sugar dissolves and flavors blend, about 10 minutes.
- Add remaining wine; simmer until warm. Remove orange slices. Divide wine among mugs (serves 6). Garnish with remaining orange slices and, if desired, cinnamon sticks.
For more healing (and delicious!) spices:
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
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