I’m always telling my patients to embrace herbs in the kitchen. It’s an easy way to get more flavor on your fork, while simultaneously enjoying plenty of unique health benefits.
There is a huge variety of herbs to choose from that can be used in many different ways—minced and cooked within a meal, used as a garnish, sipped as a therapeutic tea, or even incorporated into dishes as an extract—with each one containing special compounds that can aid the body from head to toe.
I notice many wintertime and holiday recipes are bursting with herbaceous plants. Rosemary, peppermint, sage, oregano, and many others pop up more frequently this time of year. Today, I want to share three of my favorites with you, so you can eat them up knowing your body is well supported.
These three herbs are all part of the mint family, also called the Lamiaceae family, which includes other favorites like basil and lavender:
1. Thyme: This is one of the herbs that just tastes like the holidays, due to its frequent appearance in roasted turkey. Thyme contains an active compound called carvacrol, which can inhibit the inflammatory COX-2 enzyme, in a similar way to the resveratrol found in red wine. But by choosing thyme you can avoid the negative associations of alcohol while still reaping those anti-inflammatory benefits. Thyme also contains antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-cancer properties. Check out my Roasted Garlic and Tahini Spread recipe (towards the bottom of the page) for a unique way to use thyme.
2. Spearmint: A refreshing and energizing herb in its own right, spearmint often takes a backseat to its more boisterous relative, peppermint. But many people find they enjoy the more subtle flavor notes of this member of the mint family, which of course comes with some amazing health benefits. Spearmint was found to improve working memory in both men and women with age-related memory decline, and a recent randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial found that it also benefits young, healthy people through enhanced cognition such as increased focus and attention. Use spearmint for a morning pick-me-up in my Spicy Cucumber Mint Smoothie.
3. Rosemary: Used for centuries as a medicinal remedy, rosemary holds up to modern science as effective herbal therapy. It’s known to be a rich source of antioxidants, fights inflammation, and also improves cognitive performance, similar to the effects of spearmint. Using just the aroma of rosemary has been linked to increased speed and accuracy in cognition testing, and also improved mood. The active compound linked to this effect is 1,8-cineole, which can pass the blood-brain barrier and even prevent the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Rosemary is a carminative, a class of herb that supports the digestive system by regulating gut contractions, relieving cramping, and reducing gas, so it’s especially beneficial during large holiday meals! Check out my delicious Grilled Rosemary Chicken Breast for an easy protein-rich recipe.
I hope you’re starting to see why including herbs in your diet is so important. It’s a great way to un-hijack your tastebuds, moving away from refined carbs, sugars, and poor-quality fats and into flavorful, complex taste profiles that will truly serve your health.
Start with the recipes I’ve included here and get adventurous with other herbs in the kitchen—throw them in eggs, smoothies, on salads, or even enjoy in some decadent dark chocolate.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD