While spices are prized for their wonderful flavors, many ancient cultures also used spices for their health-promoting properties. Research has now found that many spices are, indeed, health-promoting.
Research has found that many spices are valuable sources of phytonutrients. (Phytonutrients are plant-derived chemicals that have health-promoting properties.)
Why are spices such powerful skin-saving agents? First, because they're potent sources of antioxidants. And second, because they help protect against collagen damage.
Spices such as turmeric are potent sources of antioxidants
We hear a lot about the antioxidants in foods, because they protect so many of our organ systems. In the skin, triggers such as UV radiation and pollution can result in free radicals, which damage our skin on a cellular level. Antioxidants act to quench free radicals. That's one of the reasons that foods rich in antioxidants are a cornerstone of a skin-saving diet. And while fruits, vegetables, and green tea are well-known sources of antioxidants, spices are right up there. In fact, many spices and herbs are potent, concentrated sources of antioxidants. Turmeric, a spice commonly used in Indian cuisine, is one of the best known, and has been studied extensively. Research has suggested that it may help in cancer prevention as well as prevention of dementia. (Rates of Alzheimer's are markedly lower in India than the United States, and consumption of turmeric, used in many curries, has been hypothesized to be one of the reasons.) Turmeric may also help protect our skin from sun damage. Researchers have studied the effects of curcumin (one of the components of turmeric) and have found strong antioxidant effects.
One laboratory study looked at the effects of UV radiation on human skin cells, and found that treating the cells with curcumin significantly reduced the harmful effects of UV radiation.
Among other effects, UV radiation can lead to increased free radicals, which may then result in DNA damage in the skin. Treatment of these skin cells with curcumin resulted in a significant reduction of DNA damage. The curcumin even helped promote DNA repair activity.
Many other spices contain high levels of antioxidants, and may also protect against free radical damage.
And spices not only protect against sun damage--research has suggested that they may help protect against collagen damage resulting from blood sugar spikes, a topic I'll review in a later post.
The take away message: Adding a dose of spice to every meal does more than just add flavor--it also boosts your intake of skin-saving nutrients.
Dr. Rajani Katta is the author of Glow: The Dermatologist's Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet. To receive future updates on preventive dermatology and the role of diet, sign up here.