SINCE the dawn of civilisation doctors in India have been practising and refining a form of medicine known as ayurveda, which roughly translates into English as “the science of life”. This system of medicine dating from 3000BC comprises four books called the vedas, one of which the atharvaveda has more than 100 formulations for the treatment of diseases, many of which call for spices as a cure.
Another ancient work still relevant today is the Sushruta Samhita. Written by an Indian surgeon in 800BC, it has notes on more than 1,000 illnesses and 700 medicinal plants. In the 21st century scientists still make discoveries upholding ayurvedic principles.
Turmeric, which forms the backbone of ayurvedic medicine and is celebrated as “the spice of life”, has been found to protect the liver, hinder the excessive build-up of lipids, reduce inflammation, inhibit tumours and restrain the action of micro-organisms such as bacteria. Elderly people in India who consume turmeric regularly have the lowest incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in the world and are four times less likely to suffer from it than the average person.
Researchers from King’s College London tested the use of nigella seeds as a treatment for rheumatism and other inflammatory diseases such as asthma. It doesn’t stop there. A study by the University of Texas cancer research unit found phytochemicals derived from spices such as turmeric, chilli, cloves, ginger, cumin, fennel, basil and garlic affect a variety of diseases such as atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, cancers, osteoporosis, psoriasis as well as septic shock and some allergies.
Spices are used in many modern medicines. For example shikimic acid, a product of star anise, is a key ingredient in Tamiflu. Chilli is an essential ingredient in many rubs used in muscle and joint aches, cloves are popular for soothing dental pain and turmeric is an antiseptic ingredient used in plasters in India.
With today’s medical professionals favouring multi-targeted therapies over single drugs, the consumption of spices with antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties are an ideal way to provide the body with supplements.
Indian food traditionally uses spices in just enough quantities to enhance the flavour of the main ingredients. In ayurveda using spices in large amounts to treat illnesses is the norm. However we do not see ayurvedic principles applied to the making of curries and this is a shame because spices become more potent when they are heated and no other cuisine is robust enough to embrace such a vast amount of spices and still deliver a delicious meal.