Antioxidant Rich Spices and Herbs for PCOS
If you have PCOS, you’re probably tired of hearing about all the foods you should supposedly cut out. You rarely hear about foods you should be adding to your diet! The good news that adding in certain foods can decrease inflammation, insulin resistance, reduce oxidative stress and more. Antioxidants are “sneaky” substances found in plant foods such as fruits and vegetables, spices and seasonings that may help improve symptoms of PCOS as well as decrease long term health risks. In this blog post, nutrition student Nikki Kim takes a deep dive into the world of antioxidants, their health benefits and where to find them. Hint: you’ll learn how to incorporate delicious antioxidant rich spices and herbs into your foods! This post gets a little “sciency” but hang in there.
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What are antioxidants?
You’ve probably heard of antioxidants – but what the heck are they? Antioxidants are substances that can protect your cells against “free radicals,” also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS). Free radicals are essentially unavoidable byproducts produced by cells during the normal metabolic processes, such as turning foods into energy. Your body cells naturally produce antioxidants to remove and neutralize these free radicals. Under normal conditions, the body can maintain a balance between free radicals and antioxidants. However, when there is an accumulation of free radicals and/or the antioxidant status is inadequate, a condition called oxidative stress can occur.
Oxidative stress can accelerate cell damage, negatively affecting your immune system and leading to chronic inflammation. Inflammation is a major factor that contributes to the progression of various diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and more (see the section on antioxidants and PCOS below).
Risk factors that contribute to oxidative stress:
- Excessive exercise
- Diets high in sugar and fat
- Environmental pollution
- Exposure to pesticides and industrial chemical
Types of antioxidants:
There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of substances that can act as antioxidants. Each substance has its own unique role and functions to fight against free radicals. Also, they are not interchangeable with one another, meaning that no single substance alone can protect your body from all harms of free radicals. Therefore, it is important to eat a wide variety of foods within each food group. Some of the familiar substances that can act as antioxidants are:
- Vitamins A, C, and E
Why are antioxidants important for PCOS?
Studies have suggested chronic low-grade inflammation is a key contributor in worsening symptoms of PCOS. Since inflammation directly stimulates excess ovarian androgen production, it is critical to reduce inflammation to manage many underlying symptoms of PCOS. Fortunately, many antioxidant compounds have impressive anti-inflammatory effects. For example, flavonoids can react with catalytic metal ions to render free radicals inactive.
Balance reproductive hormones for PCOS
The high levels of androgens commonly found in PCOS can lead to acne, hirsutism, irregular periods, and infertility. Evidence suggests that oxidative stress stimulates the androgen-producing ovarian steroidogenic enzymes and may play a role in androgen hypersecretion in women with PCOS.
Improve insulin sensitivity/regulation
Insulin resistance affects the majority of women with PCOS. Higher insulin levels stimulate more androgen production and cause more oxidative stress, resulting in inflammation. The good news is that antioxidant intake has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity. A study suggests diets high in natural antioxidants may help increase insulin sensitivity. This correlates with the results of a 2018 study showing that people with insulin resistance tend to have lower antioxidant levels, especially glutathione. Powerful antioxidant glutathione can be found in tomatoes, and it can neutralize a wide range of free radicals, boost recycling of the other antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, and reduce insulin resistance. Similarly, the catechins, antioxidants present in green tea have been shown to reduce the effects of insulin resistance by the absorption of carbohydrates.
Higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety are common in PCOS. This can contribute to increased cortisol, which leads to more insulin resistance and inflammation. And this worsens symptoms of PCOS. Eating a healthy diet that is rich in antioxidants can help protect against the inflammation and increased insulin resistance caused by stress. Of course, your best bet is to find ways to manage stress!
Antioxidant-rich spices and herbs for PCOS
Here are some common antioxidant-rich spices and herbs along with potential health benefits (more studies are needed for conclusive benefits):
- Anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic action
- Lowers blood sugar and cholesterol
- Improves insulin sensitivity in women with PCOS
- Improves the digestive system
- How to use: Add cinnamon powder to your smoothies or sprinkle on your oatmeal (warm or overnight oats). Use in coffee instead of sugar.
- Anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, antiviral activities
- Boosts brain function
- Decreases insulin resistance
- How to use: Add turmeric to rice (or to any of your favorite grains) for bright color and mild flavor. Try roasted veggies with turmeric, You can also try making popular “golden milk”
- Antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antibiotic properties
- Promotes memory retention and enhancing concentration
- How to use: Use rosemary to flavor roasted vegetables (onions, potatoes, peas), fish, chicken, paring with other spices and herbs. Also, fresh rosemary-infused oil is simple and easy to make!
- Contains a wide range of antioxidants
- Boosts metabolism and promoting weight loss
- Lowers blood pressure
- How to use: Just add a pinch of cayenne pepper to your boiled eggs or make your own hot sauce to flavor your food for a nice kick.
- May improves weight loss by suppressing the appetite and increases feelings of fullness
- Decreases blood pressure and lowers cholesterol
- Regulates blood sugar levels
- How to use: Fenugreek is widely used in Indian cuisine with a sweet, nutty flavor. You can make chicken curry with fenugreek leaves or use fenugreek powder in combination with other spices such as coriander and cumin.
- Anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial properties
- Soothes an upset stomach and indigestion
- Improves brain function
- How to use: Mint is such a versatile herb. You can easily add mint to your smoothies, salads, dressings, and cookies. Infuse mint with some lemons and/or cucumbers to cold water. It’s so refreshing!
- Cancer-fighting properties
- Improves mood and boosts memory
- Protects against heart disease
- Reduces PMS symptoms
- How to use: Saffron goes remarkably well with rice, chicken, and seafood dishes along with vegetables. How about traditional Spanish paella?
- Antibacterial. Antifungal, cancer-fighting properties
- Reduces blood pressure
- Aids skin problems (acne)
- How to use: Add fresh thyme to any roasted vegetable, fish, meat dishes for a nice, piney flavor. Dried thyme also works well with pasta or soup.
- Anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-diabetic properties
- Relieves nausea and morning sickness
- Reduces blood sugar levels and risks factors of heart disease
- Reduces menstrual pain
- How to use: Mix with miso, sesame oil and orange juice for a tangy marinade or salad dressing, Add to stir-fry’s for a burst of flavor. Drink as a tea.
- The highest average antioxidant concentration compared to other spices (30 times more concentrated than blueberries)
- Anti-inflammatory, antibacterial properties
- Promotes bone health
- Lowers high blood pressure and keeping blood sugar in check
- How to use: Try making homemade chai tea with whole cloves or adding some ground cloves to flavor your oatmeal and muffins. Poach pears or apple with cinnamon and cloves.
- Anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial properties
- Decreases excess secretions of respiratory and sinus mucus
- Lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol
- Promotes skin, oral, brain health
- How to use: Sage goes perfect with rosemary as a flavor enhancer for poultry. There are also many soup recipes using sage, pairing with other vegetables such as butternut squash, tomato, and carrot.
- Powerful antibiotic (100 times more effective than two popular antibiotics)
- Antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral anti-cancer properties
- Enhances immune cell function
- Lowers blood pressure and cholesterol
- Prevents Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia
- How to use: Garlic might be the most often used seasoning in many cuisines. There are so many ways to use garlic. Garlic adds delicious aroma and flavor to whatever you are cooking: pasta, pesto, dressings, marinades, sauces, soups, and etc.
- Antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer properties
- Regulates blood sugar and lipids
- Relieves muscle and joint pain
- How to use: If you like Italian cuisines, dried oregano can be your staple item. Add to salad dressings, marinas sauce, chicken and fish dishes.
This blog post is focusing on antioxidant-rich spices and herbs – but here’s a brief list of other foods rich in antioxidants (stay tuned for a blog post on this!)
- Fruits: Avocado, blueberries, goji berries, strawberries, cranberries, red grapes, prunes, plums
- Vegetables: Artichoke, beets, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, red cabbage, red bell peppers, eggplant, dark leafy greens (collards, mustard, turnips, kales), orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash)
- Grains and cereal: Brown rice, barley, oatmeal
- Nuts and legumes: Pecans, walnuts, brazil nuts, pinto beans kidney beans, black beans, snow peas
- Other: Teas (white tea, green tea, black tea), dark chocolate
Can’t you just take an oxidative supplement?
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), high doses of antioxidant supplements can actually be harmful as they can worsen certain diseases and increase overall mortality. It’s also possible antioxidant supplements may interact with some medicines. And some may be contraindicated in pregnancy. So generally speaking, your best bet is to eat a diet containing plenty of antioxidant-rich plant foods. And the food tastes better than supplements! There are times when your body may need higher doses of antioxidants than what you could obtain from food. Follow the advice of your health care practitioner for supplementation.
Start thinking more about what you can add to your diet vs what you should avoid. These antioxidant rich spices and herbs are the perfect way to add flavor to your diet … with an added nutritional punch!
What are your favorite antioxidant-rich herbs and spices?
I’d like to thank Nikki Kim for writing this blog post. Nikki is a recent graduate from New York University with a B.S. in Nutrition and Dietetics.
She’s excited to gain more professional experience and develop her career in the dietetics field. Working under the pandemic situation, she finds it fascinating to utilize technology and multimedia graphics to deliver helpful information to the mass. Nikki likes to spend her downtime with her dog, Namu, and her guilty pleasure is binge-watching cooking videos on Youtube.
I especially love problem-solving, whether it’s helping women defeat issues plaguing them for years, helping a busy executive find practical ways to get heart healthy, or providing tips to help you reverse diabetes. That’s why I’m on a constant quest to expand my knowledge by staying on top of the latest research.