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Spicy alternatives to preventive medicine

Being healthy is not always about deprivation and working out. Simpler ways exist, and among the easiest path to health is the spice route. British researchers are the latest to add to growing scientific evidence that popular Indian spices and tubers such as garlic, turmeric, onions and ginger protect against a clutch of diseases. Sanchita Sharma writes.

health and fitness Updated: Dec 19, 2010 02:58 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Being healthy is not always about deprivation and working out. Simpler ways exist, and among the easiest path to health is the spice route. British researchers are the latest to add to growing scientific evidence that popular Indian spices and tubers such as garlic, turmeric, onions and ginger protect against a clutch of diseases.

The newest scientific validation came on Friday from researchers at King's College London, who report that garlic, onions and leeks protect against osteoarthritis, or age-related degeneration of the joints. The findings, published in the British Medical Journal Musculoskeletal Disorders journal, said a compound called diallyl disulphide found in smelly bulbs lowered cartilage-damaging enzymes in the body. So effective ws it that they recommend diallyl disulphide be made part of the treatments to manage osteoarthritis, which is so far managed with pain relief or joint replacement, when all else fails.

Garlic has long been touted as a health booster, with several studies — including a seminal one in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2007 — showing it protected against heart disease and several cancers, including those of the breast, prostate and colon. Although garlic has not consistently been shown to lower artery-blocking cholesterol levels in the blood, research from New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine found it lowered clot formation and prevented damage to heart muscle caused by heart attacks.

Garlic is also reduces infection as it has around 1% the strength of penicillin, which helps check bacterial infections before they flare up and cause symptoms. You need to have two cloves of garlic a day to get the health edge. To maximise benefits, don't cook the garlic immediately after crushing or chopping it. Instead, crush it at room temperature and allow it to sit for about 15 minutes to trigger an enzyme reaction that boosts the healthy compounds.

The jury is still out on whether garlic-powder pills are as healthy as its unclear whether the beneficial compounds remain as potent after it has been processed into a pill.

Turmeric — or curry powder — is the other spice has lately got a lot of attention from researchers. Modern research has identified curcumin, a compound that makes up about 10 % of turmeric by weight, as the wonder ingredient that protects the liver, inhibits cancerous tumours and fight infections because of its anti-inflammatory properties that make it effective against asthma, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease and inflammatory bowel disease.

Earlier this year, Clinical Cancer Research reported that curcumin blocked the activity of a gastrointestinal hormone linked with the development of colorectal cancer, bringing it down in Indians — who eat 2-3 grams of turmeric a day (200-300 milligrams of curcumin) — to one-eighth that of the West.

International studies have also shown it suppresses cancer tumours and skin cancer cells even though curcumin loses its anti-cancer attributes after being eaten. Animal studies show curcumin halves the build-up of knots in the brain called amyloid plaques, which have been linked to Alzheimer's disease.

It increases the flow of bile, which breaks down fats, aids digestion and protects against liver damage that leads to cirrhosis by reducing inflammation that causes cell damage. It also strengthens bones by blocking the pathway that affects bone re-absorption, preventing osteoporosis associated with ageing.

The only problem, as I see it, is the stink of garlic and the stain turmeric leaves behind. But with the wonders of modern dry-cleaning and efforts on to produce odorless garlic and onions in the US, these concerns will disappear, along with a host of diseases.