The principal pathology underlying the occurrence of cardiovascular disease is atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Initially this process causes blood vessel narrowing but the subsequent rupture of an atheromatous deposit into the lumen of a coronary or cerebral artery usually results in a heart attack or thrombotic stroke respectively.
Although the precise mechanisms associated with plaque development have not been fully elucidated some of these processes, and their associated risk factors, are well understood. Central to the atherosclerotic process are two principal factors:
1) The oxidation and deposition of lipids in the endothelial lining of blood vessels
2) An insidious inflammatory process that leads to calcification of the atheromatous deposits and the eventual rupture of these plaques into the lumens of blood vessels.
Specific factors known to accelerate atherosclerosis are generally well-known and include smoking, a diet rich in saturated fats, obesity, lack of exercise and a minimal intake of appropriate phytonutrients. Unfortunately the last factor has not really received the attention that it deserves as we are often (quite rightly) too busy eliminating the adverse factors from our diet to focus on the foods that can help to negate many of the environmental risk factors to which we are exposed.
Apart from food-derived substances such as omega-3 fatty acids, other unsaturated fats and dietary fibre there are a number of compounds found in plant foods that are potent inhibitors of atherosclerosis. There are also several categories of phytonutrients that inhibit platelet aggregation – the abnormal clotting process that aggravates thrombus formation in heart attacks and thrombotic strokes.
Culinary herbs and spices probably contain the widest, most effective cardiovascular-protective compounds of all food categories – their specific actions are summarized here:
Blood pressure control: Garlic, fenugreek
Lower LDL (bad) cholesterol: Caper, coriander, cinnamon, fenugreek, garlic, ginger
Raise HDL (good) cholesterol): Fenugreek
Lower homocysteine levels: Mustard, wasabi, horseradish
Anti-inflammatory: Bay leaf, garlic, ginger, oregano, rosemary, thyme, turmeric
Inhibit platelet aggregation: Clove, ginger, onion, oregano, rosemary, thyme
One can see that the above list includes at least 10 different culinary herbs and spices – some of which have more than one action. That is why it is important to eat as many of them as possible. Many people make the mistake of assuming that, by eating large quantities of a single spice (garlic, quite rightly, is well-known as a heart-friendly spice), they will protect themselves against cardiovascular disease. While this is true up to a point it is far more important to eat a range of spices as their actions often complement one another through the synergistic relationships that often exist between these valuable foods.
To benefit from the cardio-protective effects of herbs and spices we should eat as many of those mentioned in this article as possible. In addition it would be wise for us to include a range of other herbs and spice in our recipes.
Safety note: Although spices are very safe, if you are planning to substantially increase your intake of these foods and are on medications such as coumadin (warfarin) and others, it is important to check with your health care provider before doing so.