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Research suggests that one secret to improving our mental health may be found on the spice rack. Spices have been used in medicine for thousands of years, but only recently has modern research has been able to explain why they are effective. Including these spices as part of a healthy diet is an easy way to contribute to positive mental health, improve cognition, and maybe even help fight Alzheimer's disease.

Saffron

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, and recent research suggests it might just be worth it for more reasons than its labor-intensive harvesting process. Studies have shown that saffron could be beneficial to people with depression and Alzheimer's disease.

This is because the floral spice can help prevent the build-up of protein that contributes to Alzheimer’s. It can also mimic the effects of drugs that treat the disease. Saffron also has protective antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may be beneficial for overall brain health. Saffron is easy to include in many recipes and is also available as a supplement if you're not a fan of the taste.

saffron threads with spice shovel on wooden background orinoco-art / Getty Images

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Turmeric

Turmeric contains a polyphenol called curcumin, which has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown to be helpful in treating depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

One problem with curcumin as a treatment is that it’s hard for the body to absorb. A compound found in black pepper can help, so it’s best to cook with these ingredients together or pair it with a supplement containing black pepper or piperine.

turmeric powder and roots alexander ruiz / Getty Images

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Black Pepper

The humble black pepper, an ingredient most people use every day, could be beneficial for mental health. A great source of vitamins and minerals, black pepper has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, as well, and contains a compound called piperine, which has been shown to effectively treat depression.

Research suggests that piperine may also have a role to play in treating Alzheimer’s disease. Piperine is available as a supplement on its own or in combination with other extracts, most commonly turmeric or curcumin.

Ground Black Pepper and Peppercorns with wooden spoon and scoop khouwes / Getty Images

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Cloves

Cloves promote brain health by helping prevent blood clots, but the real reason they might help mental health is their antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are vital for protecting cells from oxidative stress—damage that causes cells to break down—and research suggests that they may also have a role to play in reducing anxiety.

Clove supplements are available but it’s easiest to consume cloves through food or as an oil.

Close up of clove in a wooden spoon on old table deeaf / Getty Images

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Nutmeg

Like cloves, nutmeg also has an antioxidant effect, protecting cells from damage. In addition, it has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties and may help control blood pressure and cholesterol.

Research into the effect of nutmeg on mental health is limited, but one study found that nutmeg has significant antidepressant properties. Supplements are not widely available so it’s best to consume nutmeg in food or as an oil.

Ground nutmeg oksix / Getty Images

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Cayenne Pepper

The tingling sensation we get when we eat chilies is caused by a compound called capsaicin, which may be beneficial to mental health, among its many other health uses. Usually found in pain relief creams, capsaicin has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that could help protect the brain from damage.

One study found that capsaicin can produce antidepressant-like effects, and may be useful in treating Alzheimer's disease. Capsaicin is found in fresh and dried chilies or can be taken as a supplement.

cayenne pepper

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Cinnamon

Cinnamon has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and has been used for thousands of years to treat common ailments like colds, stomach cramps, and nausea. Recent research suggests that cinnamon may also have an effect on blood sugar and cholesterol, and may promote positive mental health. This is because cinnamon is a powerful antioxidant that protects the brain from oxidative stress that can lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Cinnamon is a delicious addition to many recipes and is also available as a supplement.

Cinnamon sticks and powder Derkien / Getty Images

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Ginger

Ginger contains a compound called gingerol which aids digestion, reduces inflammation, provides pain relief, and protects cells from damage. Studies have shown that ginger also has a positive effect on mental health, and may improve cognitive function in healthy adults.

Further research is needed, but it's possible that ginger could also be helpful in the treatment of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Ginger is easy to find in fresh, dried, or supplement form.

Dry and fresh ginger on light grey table

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Cardamom

Cardamom is a relative of ginger and turmeric and shares many of the same properties. The spice contributes to brain health by relaxing the muscles of the heart, which helps normalize blood pressure and reduces the risk of stroke. It also has antibacterial and antioxidant properties, protecting the cells from damage.

Cardamom is easiest to consume through diet as supplements are not widely available.

Angled view of cardamom spices in wooden bowl s-a-m / Getty Images

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Adaptogens

In addition to spices, there is another group of plants that may be helpful for combating stress and improving mental health: adaptogens. Adaptogens protect cells by helping maintain balance in the body during times of stress. Studies have shown that they have a positive effect on fatigue, depression, and anxiety.

The most popular adaptogens taken for mental well-being include ashwagandha, Rhodiola, and ginseng. Adaptogens are commonly found in capsule or powder form and can often also be consumed as teas or tinctures.

Ashwagandha superfood powder and root on cutting board on wooden table from above eskymaks / Getty Images

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.