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Holiday spices can be just what the doctor ordered

December 25, 2004

Parents are apt to smugly congratulate themselves when they sneak

something healthy into their kids' diets under the guise of "fun."

Yet adults have been fooled for centuries by spices used in foods and

drinks to celebrate Christmas and holiday cheer.

Disillusioning as it may be, peppermint, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves,

and ginger were originally not so much about "fun" and flavor as they

were effective medicinal treatments for ailments brought on by the

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winter season.

All one needs is a piece of cinnamon bark to understand why this

spice was highly valued by the ancients. Bite down on the bark, and

you immediately feel an intense and pleasant warming sensation from

deep within the cinnamon. It spreads throughout the body, especially

when taken in a warm drink.

In the days before heating pads and muscle creams, cinnamon in

food and drinks relieved stiffness in joints and muscles, cramping,

and other problems arising from the cold. Its warming powers were

also seen as a benefit to the liver and kidneys.

Although our ancestors couldn't have known it at the time,

cinnamon also killed dangerous bacteria on foods.

Nutmeg was another prized spice, at one time the most valuable in

the world. Taken in excess, nutmeg can cause hallucinations, shock,

and even death, but in small amounts, it can help with a huge variety

of issues. It helps promote sleep and relaxation in insomniacs, can

calm muscle spasms, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol. It is

also said to promote concentration and ease anxiety.

Cloves are another powerful spice, found to contain elements that

kill bacteria and decrease inflammation. Some researchers say cloves

also provide relief for respiratory problems like bronchitis and

asthma, and help with arthritis and rheumatism.

Peppermint, and peppermint oil, was known by the ancients to be a

powerful salve for an ailing digestive tract. Science has since

discovered that peppermint can slow or halt bacteria and fungus

growth. In some people, it also eases sneezing and the congestion

associated with allergies and asthma.

Ginger was used to stimulate circulation and to warm the organs of

the body, such as the stomach, lungs, spleen, heart, and kidney. It

was also used to settle the stomach and facilitate healthy digestion.

Today, mulled wines, ales, and ciders seem like quaint traditions.

In truth, these heated and spiced drinks were exceptionally efficient

at delivering all the health benefits of spices directly into the

body's system.

Any liquid can be mulled -- just add mulling spices and warm it if

it contains alcohol, or bring it to a simmer if it doesn't. Favorite

mulling liquids are wine and apple juice, although most fruit juices,

or even plain water, will do the trick.

You can buy pre-packaged mulling spices or make your own. Enjoy

them with a toast to the season -- and to good health.

--J. Anderson

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