For our traditional Christmas dishes and drinks or even for the festive decorations, we often use spices which, besides their appearance and flavour, help us prevent or treat various diseases.

Cinnamon is one of the oldest household spices and herbs, its healing properties being already known to the ancient civilizations. In the Nile Valley, people created cinnamon ointments or they used it in large quantities for oil lamps and as an aphrodisiac. Cinnamon is already known to improve digestion and mood as well as for its antioxidant properties but recently it was discovered that it also reduces both LDL cholesterol and blood sugar levels. As cinnamon has antispasmodic effects and improves digestion, it can efficiently treat bloating, intestinal cramps, nausea and stomach problems. Due to its active ingredients with antioxidant and disinfectant properties, it is also very efficient against gastrointestinal and respiratory infections. In the 12th century, Saint Hildegard frequently used cinnamon to treat cold and flu. Perhaps due to its effects in improving digestion, it is almost mandatory to eat cinnamon cookies after consistent Christmas meals.

The modern history of vanilla begun in the 16th century when the Aztecs discovered that under the impact of heat and humidity, the inedible fruits of an orchid species acquire celestial flavour. They called it “black flower” and demanded the finest vanilla pods as tax from the Totonac people, who were experts in their cultivation. In 1518, Cortez tasted the vanilla-flavoured chocolate drink of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma and he loved it so much that he brought entire sacks of cocoa and vanilla to Europe. More than fifty years later, Spanish factories began to manufacture vanilla-flavoured chocolate (cocoa). For a long time, vanilla was only mixed with cocoa, when in the Elizabethan England, at the proposal of pharmacist Hugh Morgan, these two ingredients were separated for the first time. Three hundred years after Cortez’s expeditions, vanilla became more popular than chocolate. This marks the beginning of vanilla’s success, which lasted for centuries and infiltrated the world of gastronomy, conquered the hearts of lovers and the souls of the sick, becoming not only a remedy but also a very popular aphrodisiac. Vanilla improves mood, digestion and it is currently used to increase the appetite of patients receiving chemotherapy. A specific use of vanilla is to diagnose the deterioration of smell in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. In South America, vanilla is mixed in tequila to increase the virility of men.

The beneficial effects of clove oil are due to its content of eugenol, caryophyllene and oleanolic acid. It is used to relieve stress, against cold, rheumatism and impotence. In case of toothache, a few drops of clove oil on a gauze will ameliorate the symptoms however, one will not escape the dentist! (In the last century, patients with toothache inserted cloves into the tooth cavities instead of going to the dentist, thus soothing the pain …). It can be also used to relieve cramps.

Anise was popular especially in England, where anise seeds were used to make clothes smell good but is also as a valuable spice. In 1305, anise seeds were subject to an import tax used to maintain the London Bridge. It is an important ingredient in many popular alcoholic drinks such as raki, ouzo and Pernod. Anise essential oil contains trans-anethole, metilcavicol and anise-aldehyde. Anise reduces bloating and the sensation of satiety, it is known for its carminative, antispasmodic effects and to accelerate digestion. Nursing mothers consume this spice to accelerate breast milk secretion. Anise aids biliary excretion and by inhalation or in the form of tea it is an excellent expectorant and cough reliever.

According to the records, nutmeg has been used since the 14th century, when people wore necklaces made from nutmeg beans to protect themselves from the plague. In addition, nutmeg oil was used as a pain reliever, to ease menstrual cramps and gastric problems. Recent studies show that isoeugenol, one of the main active ingredients in nutmeg, has significant antibacterial effects and therefore it is good especially in case of food poisoning. However, excessive consumption (at least 12 tablespoons per day) might have unpleasant side effects such as hallucinations, nausea, palpitations or cramps.

Cardamom is a popular spice especially among gourmets. It is suitable to season fruit cakes or gingerbread. It is the favourite Christmas spice of the Scandinavian people, who use it in different cakes. Arabs season with cardamom their black coffee sweetened with honey. It is a medical plant used since the ancient times.