During the long holiday season from Halloween to New Year's, various dishes and recipes call for spices that mostly get their moment in the sun at this time of year. Herbs and spices that get relatively little play during other times of the year find themselves in the kitchen spotlight. But spices not only add flavor and aroma to favorite foods- they also add healthy benefits. Most spices are also traditional medicines, with modern science to back their efficacy. Among these holiday stars are allspice and nutmeg.

Known variously as newspice, Jamaica pepper or myrtle pepper, allspice is native to several Caribbean islands, Mexico and Central America. Looking similar to dried peppercorns, allspice is the fruit of an evergreen shrub. Christopher Columbus encountered allspice during his second voyage to the New World, and the flavorful condiment was named by ship’s physician Dr Diego Alvarez Chanca.

Employed in sausages, various meat dishes, pies, cakes and a variety of desserts, allspice imparts a somewhat sharply sweet and aromatic flavor. As a traditional medicine, allspice is used to relieve digestive complaints,, notably intestinal gas, abdominal pain, and indigestion.

Rich in aromatic compounds, allspice contains cineole, eugenol, alpha pinene, alpha terpene, limonene, and many more agents which collectively possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, cancer-fighting, sedative, antiseptic, antiviral and antifungal properties.

An intriguing study published in the August 2013 issue of the journal Carcinogenesis shows that allspice contains a novel compound called ericifolin, which helps to fight prostate cancer. Virtually all effective chemotherapeutic agents are derived from natural sources. Allspice may prove useful in the battle against this common cancer.

Another sweet and aromatic spice, nutmeg, is the seed of a tree deriving from the spice islands of Indonesia. This egg-shaped spice comes wrapped in a red elastic material that is the spice mace, which is sold separately from nutmeg itself.

Grated nutmeg features somewhat prominently in Indonesian, Penang and Indian cookery, but is also popular in European cuisine as well. The powder is used variously to flavor meats, baked goods, vegetable dishes of various kinds, soups, mulled wines and cocktails.

This spice enjoys a long and colorful history, dating back to medieval cuisine. Arab traders dealt in nutmeg during the middle ages, relying on the sole supply of the spice, from Indonesia’s Banda island. The trade was subsequently dominated for a time by the Dutch during the 17th century. Eventually the British gained control of Banda island, and spread the cultivation of nutmeg far and wide, thus breaking the Indonesian monopoly.  

Nutmeg is a source of essential oil, containing geraniol, saffrol, limonene, and other aromatic compounds. Collectively these provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other protective activities. Used in pharmaceuticals and in cosmetics, perfumes and toiletries, nutmeg essential oil is found in a broad variety of products.

Nutmeg enjoys a long history as a traditional medicine, for indigestion, as a sleep aid, to enhance blood circulation, to protect the liver, and as an anti-microbial agent used in oral care products. Applied topically, essential oil of nutmeg helps to soothe sore muscles. Published studies show benefits for protecting the liver, and for fighting leukemia.

A word of caution- in very large amounts, nutmeg can be psychoactive. This is due to the presence of the natural chemical myristicin. The amount required to get high on this is about 20 grams, so a very big amount. In this quantity, people can experience palpitations and delirium. Not really recommended. Stick to the healthy lower amounts.

At the very foundation of modern pharmacy, herbs and spices play important historic and modern roles. Traditional remedies are now typically backed by modern science, thus bridging the gap from antiquity to current times. Allspice and nutmeg, two traditional seasonings and medicines, maintain their place in both the kitchen and the medicine cabinet.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at MedicineHunter.com.