It’s basic cooking knowledge that herbs impart flavor onto food. But one lesser-known fact is that herbs also have the capacity to make food healthier. “Herbs have more antioxidants per weight than most fruits and veggies,” says nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction. “We’ve all heard the saying, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ That honor should really go to herbs: Many of them contain at least 50 times more antioxidants than an apple.”
Of course, anyone with a spice rack knows that herbs come in endless varieties, so I asked Friedman to help me rank the most common ones by how healthy they are — from super, extra healthy to still healthy, but also kinda whatever.
Here’s what we came up with…
1) Basil: “The many health benefits that come with basil include immune-enhancing, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which make it my number one pick,” Friedman explains. “It’s a great remedy for arthritis: Research shows that concentrated basil extract reduces joint swelling by up to 73 percent within only 24 hours — it’s just as effective as many artificial drugs that have nasty side effects.”
As for those immune-enhancing effects, Friedman says, “Basil contains powerful phytochemicals, which can help prevent cancer and kill many strains of bacteria, including E. coli.” He also mentions that basil can protect our organs and tissues against the chemical stressors produced by industrial plants and heavy metals. “Basil is a natural adaptogenic herb, which means it helps protect our bodies against physical, mental and emotional stress by strengthening the immune system,” Friedman continues. “In other words, basil can help the body better handle stress — something we could all use.”
There are several different kinds of basil, and while most are fairly similar, Friedman is particularly fond of holy basil, more commonly known as tulsi. “Holy basil is considered to be a sacred herb in India, and it’s been used in more than 300 different Ayurvedic herbal treatments for thousands of years,” he explains. “Often referred to as the ‘Elixir of Life,’ holy basil is believed to increase libido and promote healthy sexual function.”
Basil-induced boners, FTW.
2) Rosemary: “Rosemary is often added to olive oil and fish oil supplements to prevent oxidation,” Friedman says (oxidation creates free radicals, which cause cancer, among other bad things). “The herb is rich in carnosol, which inhibits the formation of the carcinogen compound heterocyclic aromatic amines that forms when grilling meat.” Rosemary can also stave off bacterial infections.
Friedman mentions, too, that studies show simply smelling rosemary can improve our memory. “Students, keep some rosemary in your pockets during exams so you can sniff your way to better grades,” he suggests.
Similarly: “Rosemary can help prevent beta-amyloid plaques and suppress acetylcholinesterase, which are some of the primary causes of Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Friedman continues. “This herb can also have a calming effect on those who suffer from chronic anxiety and depression.”
Friedman specifically says, in his office, he recommends rosemary to patients who suffer from chronic pain. “Research suggests that rosemary may be more effective than acetaminophen,” he explains. “When used in tea or soup, rosmarinic acid, the active ingredient in rosemary, helps to clear out nasal congestion and allergy symptoms as well.”
3) Sage: “Sage contains more than 150 distinct polyphenols, plant-based antioxidant compounds,” Friedman says. “Several studies show that sage possesses antimicrobial properties, anti-diabetic properties, anti-allergy properties, anti-inflammatory properties, liver and kidney protective agents, as well as beneficial healing effects for skin afflictions.”
Friedman also mentions that sage is particularly helpful at reducing menopause symptoms and lowering cholesterol. “Drinking a cup of sage tea twice a day can lower both your total cholesterol and the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol — it also raises ‘good’ HDL cholesterol,” he explains.
Sage is especially diabetic-friendly, too. “It may help lower blood sugar levels by removing excess free fatty acids in the blood, which in turn improves insulin sensitivity,” Friedman says. “In 2010, the British Journal of Nutrition, published research showing that sage tea acts like metformin, a diabetic drug prescribed to manage blood sugar. Last year, researchers also discovered that sage leaf extract can lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity similar to rosiglitazone, another anti-diabetes drug.”
Similar to rosemary, sage may help people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s as well. “Sage has shown great promise as a treatment for cognitive decline,” says Friedman. “But perhaps the greatest medicinal attribute is that preliminary studies demonstrate that sage may help combat colon cancer, liver cancer, cervix cancer and breast cancer.”
4) Thyme: Besides being good on roasted salmon, thyme is a potent germ slayer. “The active ingredient in thyme, which is called thymol, is used in Listerine mouthwash, Vicks VapoRub and soaps due to its antibacterial and antifungal properties,” Friedman explains. “Thymol is also used in toothpastes, since it kills germs that cause bad breath, protects the gums from infection and helps prevent tooth decay.”
Thyme is good for reducing nasty respiratory ailments as well. “It’s a great remedy if you’re suffering from a cold, the flu, bronchitis, asthma or seasonal allergies,” Friedman says. “It also eliminates phlegm and mucus from the respiratory tract and prevents microbial development that can lead to illness.”
Further, much like sage, thyme can reduce “bad” cholesterol and increase “good” cholesterol. “A study published in Anticancer Drugs also found that carvacrol, an ingredient in thyme, has the therapeutic potential for both the prevention and treatment of colon cancer,” says Friedman. “Oh, and if you’re feeling down in the dumps, maybe it’s because you don’t have enough thyme on your hands — carvacrol has positive mood-boosting effects and has been shown to increase both dopamine and serotonin (mood-boosting neurotransmitters) levels in the brain. In fact, research shows consuming thyme in low concentrations can improve feelings of well-being and happiness.”
5) Oregano: “Research shows that oregano has powerful antibacterial properties and can help destroy 41 strains of food pathogens,” Friedman says. “Oregano and its components may also protect against some viruses, including herpes.”
Similar to several other herbs on this list, oregano has strong anti-cancer properties. “Research published in the journal PLoS ONE shows that oregano exhibits anticancer activity and may help prevent and treat breast cancer by slowing or preventing its progression,” Friedman explains. “Oregano is also rich in vitamin K, which is important for bone growth, maintaining bone density and the production of blood-clotting proteins.”
Even better, oregano is another diabetic-friendly herb. “It contains compounds that may have the potential to manage type 2 diabetes in a similar way to some prescribed drugs,” says Friedman.
6) Parsley: “The amazing health properties of parsley are often ignored thanks to its popular role as a table garnish,” Friedman says. “Parsley is a nutritional powerhouse containing vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C and vitamin K, as well as the minerals iron and potassium.” Vitamin A supports vision, vitamin B helps the body in several ways, vitamin C bolsters the immune system, iron improves blood clotting and potassium regulates fluid in the body.
“This popular herb is a secret weapon for models who want to quickly drop extra weight before a photo shoot,” Friedman adds. “Parsley helps reduce water retention and bloating due to its natural diuretic properties.”
Parsley also contains the tumor-reducing compound myristicin. “Myristicin activates the enzyme glutathione-S-transferase, which helps attach the molecule glutathione to oxidized molecules that would otherwise do damage in the body,” explains Friedman. “Parsley is chock-full of carotenoids, too, which have been found to improve heart health, lower chronic inflammation, lower high blood pressure and lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels. Three carotenoids in parsley — lutein, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin — specifically help to promote healthy eyes and offer protection from macular degeneration.”
Finally, parsley is particularly good for bone health. “Parsley is rich in calcium, magnesium, vitamin K and potassium, all of which are essential to bone health,” Friedman says.
7) Cilantro: “Cilantro is an herb that you either love or loathe: Approximately 10 percent of the population thinks cilantro tastes like soap, and science has shown that this is due to a person’s genetic makeup,” Friedman explains, adding that he’s glad to be among the other 90 percent.
Cilantro contains a hefty spattering of vitamins and minerals that compares to those in parsley. “Cilantro has antiseptic, antifungal, antioxidant and antibacterial properties, too” Friedman says. “A compound found in the leaves and seeds of cilantro, dodecanal, has been found to have an antibacterial effect against salmonella: In laboratory tests, dodecanal was twice as efficient at killing salmonella than the commonly used medicinal antibiotic gentamicin.”
Cilantro also has the capacity to remove toxic heavy metals from the body. “Heavy metals in the body can lead to heart disease, hormonal imbalances, neurological conditions and infertility,” Friedman warns. Similarly beneficial: “A study published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology found that cilantro is protective against food poisoning: Listeria, a bacterium that causes food poisoning, was neutralized after ingesting cilantro.”
Friedman mentions that cilantro may help you sleep as well. “Research shows that consuming high levels of cilantro extract produces the same levels of anti-anxiety effects as Valium,” he explains. Plus, with summer coming closer, cilantro may help prevent sun damage to the skin, according to one study Friedman cited.
8) Chives: “One of the most important organic compounds found in chives is allicin, which has been shown to reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels and improve cardiovascular health,” Friedman explains. “Allicin has also been shown to help lower blood pressure.
Chives have anti-cancer properties, too. “In a study published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers investigated the relationship between allium vegetable intake and prostate cancer, and they found that men with the highest intake of allium vegetables [like chives] had the lowest risk for prostate cancer. Frequent consumption of chives may also lower the risk of esophageal and stomach cancer.”
Similarly good: “If you’re pregnant, make sure and add chives to your diet,” Friedman explains. “They’re a rich source of folate, which helps in the brain development of the fetus. Plus, folic acid can specifically help prevent birth defects, especially in the baby’s brain and spinal cord.”
9) Mint: “People suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome may benefit from ingesting mint, since it contains a compound called menthol, which has a relaxing effect on the digestive tract,” Friedman explains. “The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology published research on over 700 patients with IBS and found that those who ingested oil from the mint leaf showed significant improvement.”
In fact, mint can help any kind of stomach ailment, including an upset stomach or indigestion. “Research shows that mint helps food pass through the intestines quicker, which may also have a positive effect if you suffer from constipation,” Friedman says.
“In addition to ingesting mint, smelling it can have positive effects on brain function,” Friedman continues. “Students that smell the aroma of peppermint prior to a test have shown marked improvements in memory.”
Finally, as you probably already know, mint can reduce bad breath, which Friedman says, “You’ll need after eating all those chives.”
10) Cannabis (aka, the OG herb): “This herb has been used to treat ailments for over 3,000 years,” Friedman says. “If you live in a state where medical or recreational marijuana is legal, this herb has many health benefits.”
The first is the ability to balance blood sugar. “Research published in the British Medical Journal found that cannabis consumers have lower risks of diabetes,” says Friedman. “In fact, according to research published by the American Journal of Medicine, cannabis consumers had 16 percent lower fasting insulin levels than non-consumers.”
Surprisingly, cannabis may help you lose weight, too, despite the incessant munchies. “Cannabis has been shown to promote a healthy gut microbiome, which may help you lose weight,” Friedman explains. “An American Journal of Medicine study found that cannabis consumers have smaller waist circumferences than non-consumers. This is important, since overall waist circumference can raise your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke.”
Cannabis can be used to treat an assortment of ailments as well. “Research shows that cannabis may help those suffering from glaucoma, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, arthritis, PTSD and cancer,” says Friedman.
Not to mention: “Unlike smoking tobacco products, which have been proven to cause lung cancer, smoking marijuana may actually improve the health of the lungs,” Friedman continues. “A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, not only does marijuana not impair lung function, it may even increase lung capacity. In this study, researchers tested the lung function of 5,115 young adults over the course of 20 years. Tobacco smokers lost lung function over time, but pot users actually showed an increase in lung capacity.”
As for the downsides that come with cannabis, “During the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers showed abnormalities in brain function and structure of long-term marijuana users with MRI techniques,” Friedman explains. “Their findings showed chronic marijuana users have smaller brain volume than those who don’t use the substance. That means long-term use of cannabis may shrink the brain.”
“Maybe sniffing memory-boosting peppermint leaves while toking a joint could help counteract this,” Friedman laughs.
Hey, that’s not a bad idea…