Researchers have touted the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet for 10 years. In 2003, a large Harvard study found that people who ate a Mediterranean-style diet rich in vegetables and fruit supplemented with nuts and seeds, olive oil, fish, and wine, were healthier and lived longer.
Since then, dozens of studies have validated the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease could reduce their chance of heart attack, stroke, and death from coronary artery disease by 30 percent if they ate the heart-healthy diet.
But there is an element of Mediterranean diets that is often overlooked — spices. Cuisine native to the Mediterranean area uses spices generously, and research has shown that they are potent sources of antioxidants that aid in the fight against many ailments including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. One common spice — cloves — may be a superfood that can help conquer heart disease, diabetes, and other deadly medical conditions.
Researchers from Spain's Miguel Hernández University tested five spices used in the Mediterranean diet — cloves, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and sage. They found that cloves had the highest levels of phenols, a type of antioxidant found naturally in some essential oils that have strong antiseptic and antibacterial properties. As a result of the study, the Flavor and Fragrance Journal ranked cloves as the best natural antioxidant.
Cloves have long been a part of folk medicine, and modern studies have validated many of the uses. They include:
• Cardiovascular disease. One study found that cloves, even in small amounts, produced a drop in glucose and triglyceride levels and also inhibited lipid peroxidation, a cause of heart disease. Cloves have also been shown to be an effective platelet inhibitor, thus helping prevent blood clots. Eugenol, a component of cloves, was found to be 29 times more potent than aspirin in preventing platelet aggregation.
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• Diabetes. A study from Pakistan's Agricultural University found that as little as one clove daily lowered glucose levels in people with Type 2 diabetes. Researchers found that cloves help insulin function more efficiently requiring less to get sugar into cells where it is used to provide energy.
• Lung cancer. A research team from India's Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute injected mice with cancer-causing benzopyrene, a chemical found in tobacco that's a major risk for lung cancer. One group of mice was given a clove infusion, and a second group was injected with water. Cancer growth was reduced in mice treated with cloves. Researcher Suktta Das said that cloves caused malignant cells to commit mass suicide and even stopped pre-malignant cells from progressing. Other animal studies have suggested that cloves may play a part in preventing skin and digestive cancers.
• Dental pain. A study of 73 adults conducted in 2006 by Kuwait University found that an oral preparation containing clove was as effective as benzocaine in relieving pain caused by oral injections.
• Arthritis. Studies have found that cloves help normalize insulin function. In addition, eugenol, a chemical in cloves, inhibits COX-2, a protein which triggers inflammation that spurs the swelling and pain of joint diseases such as arthritis. COX-2 is the same protein that drugs such as Celebrex suppress.
• Infections. Numerous studies have shown that cloves are effective in stopping the growth of many different types of bacteria, such as E. coli, staph, and Enterobacter. In some cases, cloves were even more effective than the antibiotic amoxicillin. Several studies have found that cloves are also a powerful anti-fungal agent that can curb Candida in both the mouth and the intestines, and a 2009 study found that cloves were even effective against strains of fungi which were resistant to standard drugs that treat fungal infections.
Researchers believe that the strong antiseptic and antibacterial properties of cloves may be used to preserve foods naturally, replacing the man-made chemical preservatives used today.
The best way to use cloves for over-all health is to incorporate the spice into your daily diet by adding it liberally — powdered or whole — to recipes. Clove oil can be used topically, especially to relieve mouth pain. Soak a cotton ball in clove oil and apply to an aching tooth or hold a clove or two in your mouth against the affected area. The aroma of clove oil also can be beneficial by itself — aromatherapists use it to relieve the symptoms of arthritis.
According to experts, a little goes a long way. A study presented at Experimental Biology found beneficial health effects with taking the equivalent of only one or two cloves per day.
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