Herbs and Spices are Effective in Reducing Oxidative Stress (Especially in the Neurological System)

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Oxidative stress occurs when the amount of free radicals, including reactive oxygen and nitrogen species (ROS, RNS), exceed the abilities of the body’s genetically coded defenses (antioxidants) to maintain a balanced state. 

Oxidative stress impairs the normal function of bodily systems, including, in particular, the nervous system.

The brain consumes roughly 20% of the oxygen used by the entire body and  contains high concentrations of phospholipids.  Because of these two important factors, the brain is highly prone to oxidative stress.  1

In the aging brain, as well as in the case of several neurodegenerative diseases, there is a decline in the normal antioxidant defense mechanisms, which increases the vulnerability of the brain to the deleterious effects of oxidative damage.   2  3

This results in a significant and progressive increase in the level of oxidatively damaged DNA and lipids in the brain during the aging process which can lead to the death of neurons.  4

Oxidative stress increases blood-brain barrier permeability which can result in neuroinflammation.  5

Oxidative stress is suspected to be important in neurodegenerative diseases including Lou Gehrig’s disease (aka MND or ALS), Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Multiple Sclerosis.  6 7

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Figure 1:  Diseases related to oxidative stress

Certain herbs and spices have been studied for their ability to act as antioxidants and quench free radicals.  8  Herbs and spices have some of the highest antioxidant content (other than some fruits and berries) of any foods.

An antioxidant is essentially a molecule that inhibits the oxidation of other molecules. Antioxidants terminate oxidation chain reactions by removing free radical intermediates, and inhibiting other oxidation reactions. 

The Table below lists certain herbs and spices that have been identified to have antioxidant capabilities:

Antioxidant Capacity of Herbs and Spices

Herbs and SpicesReference
Allspice1
Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)2
Black Cardamom (Alpinia Oxyphylla Fruit, Fructus Alpiniae Oxyphyllae)3
Black pepper (Piper nigrum)4
Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)5
Cinnamon (True, Ceylon)6
Cloves7
Cumin8
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)9
Ginger10
Holy Basil11
Laurel (Laurus nobilis)12
Marjoram13
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)14
Oregeno15
Rosemary16
Saffron17
Salvia hydrangea 18
Salvia macilenta19
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)20
Sumac (Rhus coriaria)21
Tarragon22
Thyme23
Tumeric24
White mustard (Sinapis alba)25


Two very well researched studies on the antioxidant content in spices and herbs were published in 2003 and 2010. 

The first study from 2003 was written by S. Dragland, et. Al.  The research study evaluated the antioxidant content in commercial herbs.  The results of this study are illustrated in the Table below.  Cloves showed the highest level of antioxidant content of all spices.

Total antioxidants in commercial spices and herbs

Commercial spices and herbsTotal antioxidants
mmol/100 g
Clove (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)465.3
Allspice/pimento (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)101.5
Cinnamon (Santa Maria, Mölndal, Sweden)98.4
Rosemary (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)66.9
Thyme (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)63.7
Marjoram (Santa Maria, Mölndal, Sweden)53.9
Cinnamon (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)53
Saffron, red (Gaea, Agrinion, Greece)47.8
Oregano (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)45
Tarragon (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)43.3
Common basil (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)30.9
Bayberry leaves (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)24.3
Ginger (Santa Maria, Mölndal, Sweden)22.5
Nutmeg (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)20.3
Dill (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)15.9
Curry (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)13
Mustard (Colman’s, Carrow, England)10.4
Curcuma (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)10.3
Vanilla (Santa Maria, Mölndal, Sweden)10.1
Juniper berry (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)9.3
Pepper, black (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)8.7
Chilipepper (Santa Maria, Mölndal, Sweden)8.5
Jalapeno pepper (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)8.2
Vanilla (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)7.2
Chives (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)7.1
Cumin (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)6.8
Red pepper (Santa Maria, Mölndal, Sweden)6.1
Piri Piri (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)6
Cayenne (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)5.9
Red pepper (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)5.6
Caraway seeds (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)4.5
Parsley (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)3.6
Coriander (Santa Maria, Mölndal, Sweden)2.8
Vanilla seeds (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)2.6
Garlic (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)2.1
Coriander (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)2.1
Cardamom (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)0.5
Poppy seeds (Black Boy, Elverum, Norway)0.3

(Source:  Dragland S, Senoo H, Wake K, Holte K, Blomhoff R. Several culinary and medicinal herbs are important sources of dietary antioxidants. J Nutr. 2003;133:1286-1290.)

The second study from 2010 is written by MH Carlsen et.al. The results of this research is illustrated in the Table below which lists the antioxidant content in spices and herbs.  Again, Cloves clearly have the highest antioxidant content of all spices.

Antioxidant capacity of herbs and spices

Spices and HerbsAntioxidant content mmol/100gnMinMax
Allspice, dried ground100.4299.28100.4
Basil, dried19.959.8630.86
Bay leaves, dried27.8224.2931.29
Cinnamon sticks and whole bark26.536.8440.14
Cinnamon, dried ground77717.65139.89
Clove, dried, whole and ground277.36175.31465.32
Dill, dried ground20.2315.9424.47
Estragon, dried ground43.8343.2244.75
Ginger, dried20.3511.3124.37
Mint leaves, dried116.4271.95160.82
Nutmeg, dried ground26.4515.8343.52
Oregano, dried ground63.2940.396.64
Rosemary, dried ground44.8524.3466.92
Saffron, dried ground44.5323.8361.72
Saffron, dried whole stigma17.537.0224.83
Sage, dried ground44.3334.8858.8
Thyme, dried ground56.334263.75
a) mean value when n > 1

(Source:  Carlsen MH, Halvorsen BL, Holte K, et al. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutr J. 2010;9:3.)


Informational References:

The Antioxidant Food Table, Carlsen et al. 2010. 


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