The spicy flavor has many understandings and an interesting function. When most people think of “spicy,” they think of spicy food. However, that’s normally due to the presence of chili rather than regular spices that don’t necessarily have what is normally thought of as a spicy flavor. In the last five years or more, food in the U.S. has become saturated with chili.
Once you’ve had some chili in your food, try tasting another food and see if you can detect that food’s flavor. I’ll bet you can’t. I don’t know about you, but I want to choose when I eat a particular food or spice. I once had to search for food without sugar on the label, now I have to search for it without chili, too.
The spicy flavor can be very strong and mask other flavors. In excess, spicy is irritating, over-heating, and over-stimulating. For this reason, spicy herbs are rarely taken alone but mixed in small amounts with other herbs.
What Is the True Spicy Flavor?
The true spicy flavor is stimulating and metabolizing. In fact, there are actually three “spicy” flavors – acrid, spicy, and pungent – each referring to a different level of spiciness. Here are their differences:
- Acrid: irritatingly strong or has an unpleasant taste or smell;
- Pungent: aromatic due to volatile oils and with a sharply strong taste or smell;
- Spicy: produces the feeling of heat on the tongue with prickly sensations.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), spicy is the flavor of the Metal element. The Metal element’s organs are the Lung and Large Intestine, and the season associated with that element is the Fall. As it is October, we are well into the Metal time of year and spicy is the flavor to moderately incorporate into your diet now.
Typically when Fall begins, we are most susceptible to colds and flu due to weather changes. Spicy herbs are specific for treating such conditions because they “open the surface,” or open the pores, allowing the pathogen out. In other words, you want to open the windows so the robber can escape. That means using a spicy herb to cause a sweat.
In TCM, the Lungs rule the skin and regulate the opening and closing of pores. Therefore, they are responsible for the superficial immunity of the body. The Lungs are the only vital organ with a direct link to the external environment and thus are quite sensitive and loathe cold (air and temperatures).
In Ayurveda, digestion is the key to health. Making sure the digestion is strong means maintaining strong organs. Further, the digestive organs directly nourish and engender the Lungs and Large Intestine. Thus, ensuring good digestion helps strengthen lung immunity to colds and flu. Spicy herbs also spark digestion and aid digestive conditions as well as aid lung clearing of pathogens. Overall, the spicy flavor treats cough with profuse white to clear phlegm, nausea, gas, bloating, diarrhea, poor appetite, and indigestion.
Spicy as a Carrier
The spicy flavor has a special action. It inhibits the P450 superfamily of enzymes present in most tissues of the body that “clear various compounds.” They are involved in hormone, cholesterol, and Vitamin D synthesis and drug metabolism. As well, they metabolize potentially toxic compounds.
While this is very important for the body’s health, it is also useful for metabolizing herbal formulas. Spicy herbs have long been used as carriers, meaning they make herbal properties more bio-available because of inhibiting the P450 enzymes. As well, it means if some spicy substances are taken too close to medications, it can make drugs more bio-available, too, which can be dangerous. Thus, spicy herbs should not be taken within two hours before or after taking any medications.
Cumin, fennel, and mint inhibit P450 as well as do other herbs such as St. John’s wort and grapefruit. Interestingly, cayenne chili does not inhibit P450, and so does not assist assimilation. I suppose this is a conveniently good thing since so many people are eating tons of chilis these days.
The herbs that inhibit P450 would be a fascinating subject in itself to explore, but for now, we will take a closer look at the spicy Ayurvedic formula family known as Trikatu.
When most people hear of the word, Trikatu, they think of the Ayurvedic formula containing long pepper, black pepper, and ginger. This is indeed an effective formula for sinus congestion, white mucus in the lungs, and poor digestion. However, Baba Hari Dass, a proponent of Ayurveda, said he knew from 80 to 100 different trikatu combinations and variations. This is because the word “trikatu” means “three pungents” or three herbs together that have a spicy flavor. These herbs are not limited to the classic trio mentioned above.
Trikatus are carriers, as spicy herbs are. Many Ayurvedic formulas include the primary Trikatu (i.e., the black pepper, long pepper, ginger variation) as part of their herbal combinations. Chinese medicine uses ginger or cinnamon as the carrier in formulas, but only in very small amounts. Thompsonic herbal medicine in the West, known mainly through Dr. Christopher, uses cayenne as their carrier but as we’ve learned, this doesn’t improve metabolism and assimilation although it does move blood circulation.
Following is another wonderful Trikatu that is very helpful for the digestion. It is easy to make and take plus very beneficial for good metabolism.
Mix equal parts cumin, coriander, and fennel powders. For digestive difficulties of all kinds, take anywhere from a pinch to ¼ – ½ tsp. or more mixed with water or honey and taken after meals. For more flavor, toast the seeds until they pop, cool, and grind to a powder.
Cumin Seed Cuminum cyminum
Also named: Green cumin, Cuminum cyminum Semen
Energy and flavors: slightly warm, pungent, slightly bitter
Organs and channels affected: Stomach, Large Intestine
Chemical constituents: Cuminaldehyde, thymol, cymene, terpenoids, volatile oils, phe- nols, magnesium, sodium, iron
Properties and actions: Carminative, antispasmodic, diuretic, emmenagogue, galact- agogue, antimicrobial, antifungal, antioxidant; regulates Qi
Caution: Avoid using in high doses where inflammatory conditions affect the GI tract.
Dosage and preparation: Decoction, 0.5–5g.
Cumin seeds have been used as far back as 2000 BC and were widely used in Egypt, Greece, India, and the Middle East. It is found in many spice mixes and curries and is one of the three spices (along with coriander and turmeric) used in traditional kicharee. Traditionally, cumin has been a useful digestive aid, preventing and treating flatulence, diarrhea, colic, bowel spasms, and nausea. The seed is also a mild diuretic to alleviate fluid retention. It is a mild emmenagogue. As well, it treats hemorrhoids and encourages lactation.
Coriander Leaf, Seed Coriandrum sativum
Yang sui zi (Chinese)
Also named: Cilantro, Chinese parsley, Coriandrum Herba
Energy and flavors: Neutral, pungent, bitter
Organs and channels affected: Lung, Stomach
Chemical constituents: essential oils, alpha-pinenes, linoleic acid, ascorbic acid, palmitic acid, oleic acid, stearic acid, Vitamin K furanocoumarins (coriandrine and dihydrocoriandrine) D-(+)- linalool (coriandrol), limonene, geraniol, borneol, camphor, p-cymene
Properties: Carminative, diaphoretic, diuretic, alterative, antimicrobial, antioxidant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-convulsant, anti-diabetic, antimutagenic; releases Exterior Wind-Cold, drains dampness
Contraindications: The Chinese warn against excessive use of coriander in cooking as it is so strongly diaphoretic (causing a sweat), which could be harmful to the body’s heat and metabolism (Deficient Yang).
Dosage and preparation: 6-12g seeds; 2 tsp. seeds/1 cup water, 1⁄2-1/2 cup QD. Standard infusion.
Coriander seeds are specific for alleviating digestive complaints such as poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, indigestion, abdominal spasms, dysentery and flatulence. As well, they treat cystitis, dysuria, neuralgia and rheumatism. Topically, the powdered seeds may be applied to treat skin and mouth ulcers and a poultice of the seeds is used for headache or arthritic joints.
The Chinese use coriander seed for toothache, poor appetite, stuffy nose due to Cold, and incomplete expression of rashes.
Fennel Seed Foeniculum vulgare
Xiao hui xiang (Chinese), Sampf, methica (Sanskrit)
Also called: Foeniculi Fructus
Energy and flavors: Warm, acrid
Meridians and organs affected: Liver, Kidney, Spleen, Stomach
Chemical constituents: 3-4% volatile oil including 50-60% anethole, 20% fenchone, pinene, phellandrene, camphene cymene, limonene, dipentene, fatty oil (oleic acid, petroselinic acid), stigmasterol, 7- hydroxycoumarin
Properties and actions: Stimulant, carminative, galactagogue, antispasmodic; warms the Interior, regulates Qi
Contraindications: heat from dryness (Fire from Yin Deficiency)
Typically after meals in Indian restaurants, one eats a spoonful of toasted fennel seeds mixed with sugar as a digestive aid. Fennel seed regulates energy, drives out coldness, stops pain, and harmonizes the stomach. It is specifically used in Chinese medicine to assist energy flow in the lower abdomen, treating all types of hernia disorders and disorders with swelling and pain, PMS abdominal distention and pain, menstrual pain from coldness, and explosive diarrhea with menses.
It is also used for asthma, lung mucus, flatulence, poor appetite, sluggish digestion, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). As well, fennel is a wonderful herb to promote lactation. It can be used for fish and meat poisoning if no medical intervention is available.