Take Two Curries and Call Me in the Morning #1

Nutritious Curry

One of the food-related trends in modern society is that of nutraceuticals, that is, people seeking foods that will enhance some physical characteristic or another that they value. From foods to boost brain power to foods to aid weight loss, or foods to boost immunity. The quest goes on for the quick food fix, usually as an alternative to a healthy lifestyle.

Some of the popularly published articles touting the benfits of various foodstuffs have no scientific support at all, and simply invoke “scientific evidence” like some sort of magic to support their claims. Others cite the tangible biochemical properties of the fruit, vegetable or substance and hypothesize the benefit that these chemicals will have on a person. Worst of all are self-reported, long-term studies that often confuse coincidence with causality and draw sometimes ridiculous conclusions from analysis of their constituent surveys, such as ‘high peanut butter consumption linked to longevity in nurses’.

In truth, rigorous trials with living animals or people are the only way to really see if any of these foods or their constituent chemicals have any affect whatsoever on immune response, healing or other characteristic in a living system. The reason for this is because living systems are very complex. Just because a food is rich in phytochemicals or some other property doesn’t mean that it will help your overall health when eaten. This is because of the complicated picture of overall health, metabolism, bioavailability and competing factors.

That bit of skepticism voiced, there is a growing body of scientific evidence, largely coming out of Asia, that lends support to the claims that some Asian spices and ingredients have anti-inflammatory effects and will function as immune modulators or that they prevent injury or even speed healing in response to direct injury.

Very roughly speaking immunity is modulated in part by a large selection of chemicals call cytokines. Some of these substances are “pro-inflammatory” that is they increase the number of cells that engulf foreign particles (phagocytes) or increase the fluid content of tissues to help stop the spread of injury. Others are “anti-inflammatory” and have to opposite effect. Others are fibrogenic and help speed tissue replacement (however imperfect) of damaged tissues. Still others have other functions.

In addition to cytokines, we’ve all heard that antioxidants are good things that bind with “free radicals” produced by an over abundance of reactive oxygen and nitrogen chemical compounds and thus reduce the oxidative stress on tissues. Well, another way that Asian spices are shown to have specific health benefits on living systems is in their function as antioxidants.


Turmeric, the lovely root, originating on the Indian Subcontinent, which when ground and dried forms the bright orangey-yellow powder that is used to color curries and stews and to offer a thick blanket of flavor that calms the extremes of other spices and unites them into a gentler whole. Also known as curcumin, systemic turmeric has been found to reduce both acute and chronic radiation-induced skin injury in animals after they received a single 50 Gray exposure to the hind leg. This reduction of injury comes about because the curcumin downregulates both inflammatory and fibrogenic cytokines. The coolest part of this testing, which began in China and is now being continued with US-NIAID funds, is that similar effects were noted when the curcumin was administered both before and after exposure. This means that this experimentation could lead to preventatives AND treatments for radiation-induced skin injury. (Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2006; 65(3):890-898.)


Marigold petals, also known as Calendula officinalis, originated in western Asia and are still widely used in Black Sea and Caspian regions as well as in Southern Russia. The spice that is used to color foods and unite straining flavors in a way similar to the southern Asian use of turmeric, is also used as an ingredient in many teas. Used for centuries as a medicinal herb, modern science is just beginning to find that marigold is also a powerful antioxidant in concentrations as low as .20 micrograms per milliliter.

Additionally, marigold flower extract acts to prevent deliberately induced chemical damage to the liver and kidneys in a dose-dependent manner when given before the insulting injection in doses of 100 and 250 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. The mechanism of this protection is still being studied in India, but is believed to be due to marigold’s inherent antioxidant activity. (Pharmacology. 2009;83(6):348-55; Indian J Exp Biol. 2009 Mar;47(3):163-8.)


The spice that is ubiquitous in Asian cooking – whether as a seed, a powder, fresh leaves or roots – coriander or Coriandrum sativum seems to have a multitude of benefits on specific systems. Like marigold, its antioxidant properties help to protect against oxidative injury to the liver when administered in doses of 100 to 200 milligrams per kilogram of body weight in animals. Additionally, when studied in India in living animals, coriander has a strong diuretic effect which may make it useful in the treatment of hypertension. (Food Chem Toxicol. 2009 Apr;47(4):702-8. Epub 2008 Dec 29; J Ethnopharmacol. 2009 Feb 25;122(1):123-30.)

Black Cumin

The tiny scimitar shaped seed with the smoky bite that hails from the northernmost reaches of the Indian subcontinent or possibly Central Asia has recently been shown to protect animals against lung injury. Administration of black cumin – Bunium persicum – in the form of volatile oil was shown to decrease the amount of fibrotic tissue, granuloma and necrosis in the lung after injury. The mechanism of this protection is still under investigation, but might be related to suppression of inducible nitric oxide synthase and an increase in surfactant protein D in the lungs. (Acta Histochem. 2009 May 8.)

Bay Leaves

Here’s a spice with real wow factor! Laurel nobilis, bay leaves, which hail from Asia Minor, are now found widely all around the Mediterranean and were associated with the God Apollo by the Greeks also seem to have some fantastic effects on glucose and lipid profiles in people with type 2 diabetes. Pakistani researchers mounted a small, placebo controlled, clinical trial in which they administered 1, 2 or 3 grams of ground bay leaves per day to diabetics for 30 days. They found that all three doses reduced serum glucose from 21 to 26%; total cholesterol decreased, 20 to 24%; and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol fell 32 to 40%. High density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol increased 29 and 20%, and triglycerides also decreased 34 and 25% after 30 days. These results need to be repeated in larger trials and examined carefully for toxicity profiles etc, but as a first shot across the bow, modern science seems to have found a real winner in bay leaves. (J Clin Biochem Nutr. 2009 Jan;44(1):52-6.)

As you can see, modern science is beginning to confirm the facts that subcontinetal cooks have known for millenia – many of the spices in your average curry are really quite good for you. So, as the lines between food and medicine continues to blur – the next time you are feeling a bit peaked, take two curries and call me in the morning. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Nutritious Curry © Mayangsari | Dreamstime.com)

A Silent Passage: the Wandering Life

Christmas Tree

The overcast sky moved quickly over the frozen earth as the end of another year slipped silently away. Films were run, one-by-one; the kids played with their new games and toys; and we all read lots of books. The past few days have been a delight of relaxing by the multi-colored fire of the decorated tree as our ambitious plans for entertaining and visiting local museums evaporated into a happily ensconced domesticity. I smiled foolishly at my gift of an autographed photo of David Tennant – the best Dr. Who ever; gazed at some nature prints I received – one a beautiful, old Persian hunting scene; cooked a wonderful Moroccan meal featuring lemon and cumin meatballs over caraway-flavored couscous with baba-ganoush, home-baked bread and a tomato and cucumber salad with an olive and lemon dressing. I also reread the travelogues of the great medieval travelers Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta yesterday, simply because I love them. Those are two of the books that I return to every five or ten years or so. And each time I revisit them, I learn something new.

This time, I was struck by the fact that Battuta managed to avoid the Black Death, not once, not twice, but at least three times during his travels. Furthermore, fear of the plague quite directly determined the route of his journey several times. The first time he encountered the plague, he was kicking around in Southeastern India in 1341 after a disastrous failed coup attempt in the Maldives and trying to find passage to China. The epidemic was sweeping though Tamil villages and killing people within a matter of one to five days. Although Battuta falls ill at this time, he describes malaria-like symptoms and not those caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

The second time he encountered the plague was on his journey home from China through Syria in 1348. From travelers from the south he hears of the disease raging in Gaza and Egypt. Going south to Damascus he walks head on into the advancing epidemic. He eloquently records the chaos that the massive numbers of deaths were bringing. People fleeing the pestilence in the cities often dropped dead on the road if they were infected. Mosques were closed because the clerics and caretakers had died. Cairo’s pre-plague population was about half a million. After the plague, the city was reduced to slightly more than 200,000. Likewise, Damascus was reduced from almost 100,000 to about 50,000.

Skulls and Bones

He avoided plague in Damascus and left sometime after July 1348 and moved southward though one depopulated village after another into Palestine and Jerusalem and eventually to Alexandria where the plague was finally subsiding. He moved though Cairo which was still in the grips of the epidemic, then up the Nile to Upper Egypt and across the Red Sea to Jeddah and on to Mecca where he performed the ceremony of the tawaf around the Holy Ka’ba in late 1348 and praised God that he has been spared.

The third time he avoids the plague, was after he had returned home first to Fez and then to Tangier and took a short trip into Muslim Spain. Plague was still raging in Gibraltar area. Although he fell ill during his sojourn to Spain, it was with another bout of the malaria that had been making him periodically ill for many years.

Battuta never mentions what – other than God’s grace – protected him from contracting plague, but it could be that he followed the advice of Muslim physicians. Now, to be sure, Muslim doctors were at this time in history, some of the best doctors in the western world. They had inherited the Galenic tradition of medicine from the Greeks and advised their charges to clean their homes with vinegar and rosewater and eat plenty of pickled onions, black pepper and dishes flavored with verjuice – a highly acidic liquid derived from the pressing of unripened grapes, and often mixed with lemons or citrons and sorrel or other herbs. Other potions to ward off the disease included one made of marigold petals and crushed eggshells.


The following commentary may seem a bit odd to those who know me well because it comes from someone who firmly believes in modern methods to prevent and treat disease, but some of the recommendations of these ancient physicians are not without merit. Cleaning with vinegar would act as a mild disinfectant as cleaning with diluted bleach might today and would discourage (but not prevent) infestations of fleas the vector of bubonic plague, and keeping a highly acidic diet might also make the insects less likely to bite because of the smell and chemical composition of the sweat and skin of the acid-eaters. The anti-inflammatory nature of marigolds petals is well known and different forms of Calendula are currently under scientific investigation for their tumor-killing potential. All this good advice aside, how Battuta avoided repeated exposures to the pneumonic forms of the disease in both India and Cairo remain a matter of luck, a miracle or the structure of certain receptors – depending upon how faithful or rational one’s personal outlook.

Interestingly, verjuice is still used fairly commonly in many Levantine and Maghreb cuisines and in Persian cooking as well – where it is used to give a sour zing to meat and vegetable stews. It is also an ingredient in real Dijon mustard, probably entering France via Muslim Spain. Marigold is also commonly used in Western Asian cooking, and some say the flavor approximates fresh turmeric – the anti inflammatory drug (. . . I mean spice) from the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, the whole study of medicine began as a subset of the art of the kitchen with the earliest books on leechcraft and herbs being barely distinguishable from cookbooks. After I completed my graduate degree, I spent many a happy hour in the New York Academy of Medicine’s rare books collection – pouring over some of these works.

It’s odd, at the time I wasn’t nearly as interested in cuisine as I am today. I was already a good cook who experimented widely with international foods – but cooking wasn’t as important to me as it is today. I was researching at the Academy to try to come up with a topic of inquiry for my research fellowship at a nearby hospital. Funny how life’s experiences introduce you and prepare you for events and actions well in advance of their happening. With the vantage of age, I’ve come to think that life is less linear than a cyclical or even a stochastic jumping from point to point – without a guiding purpose. I used to envy people who had a life plan and achieved their goals on more or less of a set schedule. Now I feel sorry for them and wonder if they ever think about the adventures they are missing because of the artificial structure they are imposing on their passage through the world.

Ibn Battuta returned to his native Morocco after he had turned 45 years old and had spent more than half of his life traveling to the farthest reaches of the known world. At some times he was honored as a senior scholar and jurist and lived as a wealthy man and at others, he lost everything to pirates, bandits or bad political choices and had to rebuild his life on the road literally from scratch. For him, the journey was the thing as he crisscrossed the globe, chronicling life in the medieval Muslim world and beyond its borders in cosmopolitan China and the Pacific Islands.(Words and Photo of Christmas Tree by Laura Kelley; Photo Skull and Bones and Marigold borrowed from Google Images).