Like a ceiling fan, my head is spinning. I can hear voices, but can’t make out the words. Doubled over in excruciating pain, I’m reaching out for a seat but there isn’t any. It’s just groomed coconut husk-lined dirt paths surrounded in tropical plants and shrubs. My skull starts pounding and I can feel my heartbeat thumping deep inside my ears. I recognise this feeling – and in preparation for what typically comes next, I know that I have about a minute before I hit the ground in a fainting spell.
My legs are suddenly taking me somewhere. A solitary shelter topped in dried palm fronds, where I sit and breathe deeply. But it’s not working. The pain is not subsiding. With stifled groans, I now have an audience, but I’m hurting too much to care. There’s a quick translation of my diagnosis into Tamil before some gentle massaging starts and a herbal concoction is deposited in my hands.
“Drink, drink,” the lady keeps repeating. It takes all my effort to sip the warm brew between waves of discomfort, while 16 sets of eyes are upon me.
I’m in Matale, in the centre of Sri Lanka’s spice region uncovering the healing benefits of medicinal plants. My host is the the zealous Bonnie, a general practitioner and Ayurvedic natural medicine doctor who is excitedly sharing the uses and benefits of some endemic and even common day ingredients we might find in the garden or kitchen.
Sri Lanka is a part of the ancient spice-trading route which dates back as early as 2000 BC supplying spices such as Cinnamon between the East and West. Thanks to its tropical climate, equatorial location and year round temperatures, an ideal growing environment produces thriving plants, herbs and spices.
Here, aromatic spices are more than just meal flavour enhancers; they are also the main medicine used by Sri Lankan families everyday for healing. Spices have some extraordinary health benefits and medicinal properties to help treat and prevent a great number of ailments and conditions. Today I’m taking a tour of some of the spices used in traditional Ayurveda – an ancient healing system, which is based on the “science knowledge of a long life,” declares Bonny.
Research shows that spices are the key to strengthening agni (metabolism or digestive fire) and one of the most important principles in the ancient science of Ayurveda. Its responsible for absorbing the nutrients and essential elements the body needs while burning off waste products.
Only half an hour ago I was enjoying a tour of the lush green gardens lined with 83 medicinal plants, where, the spices, I’m told, are not grown in great numbers here or harvested onsite. This ensures that plants and buildings are kept separate, in order to preserve their quality and ensure germs are kept at bay.
Pepper (Mijaku). There are 5 different colours of this pungent berry, which is the earliest known spice to humankind. All types (green, black, red, white and yellow) originate from the same plant. Pink peppercorns on the other hand are not in fact peppercorns, but tiny berries.
“Red is the ripest and hottest, black are left on the vine to mature for a stronger flavour, white is made from boiling the black pepper until the skin comes off to reveal the seeds inside, while green peppercorns are the youngest, resulting in a milder, sweeter pepper,” shares Bonny.
Pepper, particularly black pepper is high in antioxidants and antibacterial properties and stimulates the taste buds to aid in digestion. Known as a strong carminative it prevents gas, promotes sweating and urination. Nutritionally, Pepper is high in Manganese and Vitamin K.
- For the cellulite prone amongst us, the peppercorn outer layer is said to stimulate the breakdown of fat cells.
- Here in Sri Lanka, Pepper is the basis of the world famous Mulligatawny (Tamil pepper water) soup.
Clove (Karambunatti). Are the dried unopened buds often used for decorating food and chewing. Endemic to Indonesia and later introduced to Sri Lanka, cloves are especially effective in helping digestion. It is a mild aphrodisiac and disinfects the lymphatics. It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and may prevent toxicity from pollutants and digestive-tract cancers.
- Dap some clove oil onto a tooth ache to numb the area or chew a clove
- Use a couple of drops of Clove oil in water and gargle for a sore throat
- Add 2 drops of clove oil to your skin care products to help speed up the healing of wounds, cuts, bruises, athlete’s foot or sagging skin.
Cinnamon (Kurundu). Native to Sri Lanka, true cinnamon or “Ceylon Cinnamon is created from the bark of the tree and harvested once a year,” said our medicinal doctor. It differs to other types of Cinnamon known as Cassia both in its healing properties, strength and flavour.
True Cinnamon, known as the best in the world has been shown to improve blood sugar levels for diabetics as well as other cardiovascular diseases and assist with weight loss, with no toxicity side effects to the liver or kidneys.
The tree also produces Cinnamon oil, which is made from the leaves.
- Put a drop of Cinnamon Oil on a cotton bud and place in the ears when swimming or flying.
- Cinnamon oil can can help to extract earwax.
- Cold feet? Put a drop of cinnamon oil on the sole to warm them up.
- Stained teeth? Put 1-2 drops cinnamon oil in warm water and gargle and rinse.
- Cinnamon oil in the toothpaste also gets rid of gingivitis.
- Sri Lankans love to include Cinnamon in their daily diet with a quill in their rice while cooking.
Turmeric (kaha). The root of this bright yellow spice is known as an anti-inflammatory, anti bacterial, anti oxidant and anti cancer. Owing its preventative and curative characteristics to its active ingredient called Curcumin, the compound is proven to protect and improve the health of nearly every organ in the body by preventing oxidation and inflammation shown to trigger the diseases of modern life.
Ayurvedic texts show that Turmeric is used for rheumatoid arthritis, dissolving gallstones, conjunctivitis, skin cancer, chicken pox, wound healing, urinary tract infections and liver ailments. It is also used for digestive orders including colic, flatulence, menstrual difficulties, respiratory conditions such as asthma and allergies, abdominal pain, loss of appetite and gallbladder issues. Turmeric is currently used in the formulation of many sunscreens and by multinational companies involved in making face creams.
As many as 133 species of Curcuma have been identified globally with studies showing that Curcumin clings to cancer cells and is as effective as some pharmaceutical drugs, without the side effects. It is one of the best healing spices available today.
- Fresh turmeric or turmeric powder on a small cut helps it heal
- Place on your forehead when you have a fever
- Turmeric mixed with milk or water to treat intestinal disorders, colds and sore throats
- Turmeric and linseed oil forms a paste that reduces the pain and infection of wounds
- Sprinkle or grate a bit of fresh turmeric on meals daily to reduce internal inflammation
Aloe Vera (Kaṟṟāḻai). Known globally as a healing plant for skin conditions, cuts and burns, Aloe Vera is also good for the bowels – for those with gas and reflux. In Ayurveda, it’s suggested that the body needs good oil every day to line the digestive tract.
- I have not tried this at home, however, Bonny shares an Indigenous recipe – take 1 teaspoon of Aloe Vera twice a month orally to help bowel function.
- Aloe vera applied to sunburn aids in the healing process
Ginger (Inci). The go-to traditional remedy to help with queasiness and ease nausea. Ginger helps with motion sickness by stabalising the hormone vasopressin, suggested to play a key role in settling the electrical conductivity of the stomach.
A concoction including Ginger is also what I happen to be sipping right now.
- Grate 1 tablespoon of fresh ginger into a cup of warm water for heartburn, cramps, indigestion and morning sickness.
- Take a piece of pickled or crystalised ginger for travel sickness
- Grate 4 tablespoons of fresh ginger in a cotton bag/cloth and place under a running bath tap to help sooth aching and tired muscles
Cacao (kokko). In Sri Lanka, three of the four main types of Cacao are grown – Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. The pod, which grows directly off the trunk of the tree can vary in colour from green to yellow, purple to red, each containing approximately 45 beans.
Raw Cacao is a wonderful source of antioxidants that impart anti aging properties as well as being good for heart health, due to high levels of flavonoids. Not that we need a reason, but foods rich in Cacao appear to reduce blood pressure, lower blood disease and cancer as a result of improved blood flow, in addition to aiding learning and brain functionality in areas such as memory.
Interestingly, about 500 Cacao beans are required to make 1kg of chocolate. Studies show that raw Cacao is better for the body than dark chocolate due to the flavonoid degradation during the cooking process. Still, a little bit of dark chocolate is good for the system due to its higher level of bitterness, less caffeine content and increased medicinal value.
- Put a teaspoon of raw cacao into smoothies, porridge, coffee, on cereal or over deserts.
- Cacao is said to be good for insomnia at night in a warm glass of milk.
- Add a handful of fresh mint leaves, 1/4 teaspoon cacao powder, a cup of hot water and drizzle of honey for a tasty chocolate mint tea.
Saffron (kuṅkumappū). Known as an aphrodisiac spice, saffron strengthens the whole body, has a particularly powerful effect on the reproductive organs and is used to enhance fertility. It is a good spice for menopause and menstrual problems, since it is a revitalizer of blood, circulation and the female reproductive system, as well as the metabolism in general. Saffron regulates both the spleen and liver and it is said to help asthmatic and bronchial disorders, reduce inflammation, treat acne and skin conditions and strengthens the heart.
Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. The stamens of 75,000 flowers have to be hand picked to make ½ kilo of useable product.
- Make a luxiourious face mask with sandlewood oil and saffron
- For an Ayurvedic recipe – combine a mixture of saffron, bush honey and aloe vera in a pot and boil for three minutes to create a hair removal cream. Place the paste on the area of your body and leave for 10 minutes before washing off. Use the mixture a maximum of three times in two months.
Cardamom (Enasal). Growing in the shade of high jungle trees, the green Cardamom pod seeds are found at ground level and can only be harvested by hand. Once dried, they are a traditional medicine for teeth and gum infections, lung congestion, gastro, gall bladder stones and as an antidote for poisons.
There is a long list of health benefits for Cardamom as an anti-carcinogenic, as good for the heart and cholesterol, treating urinary disorders and as an anti-depressant commonly used in aromatherapy. Other conditions Cardamom address range from hiccups to detoxing, muscle spasms to asthma.
- For a sore throat, crush one cardamom seed and coat in bush honey before eating.
- Chew one seed after smoking or drinking to improve the breath
- For urinary tract infections or as a diuretic spice your warm water with plenty of cardamom and drink throughout the day.
Curry Leaves (Karapincha). The use of fresh curry leaves helps the functioning of the stomach and small intestine. In Ayurvedic medicine, curry leaves are used for their medicinal properties as an antioxidant (by being able to control diarrhea), as an antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory including ulcers, anti-carcinogenic and for liver protection. The roots are also used for body aches and the bark as a snakebite relief.
- Try eating 10 fresh fully-grown curry leaves every morning for three months to help prevent the diabetes produced from obesity, where the leaves are supposed to reduce LDL (bad cholesterol) and increase HDL – the good one.
- Some also say that a liberal intake of curry leaves is considered beneficial in preventing the premature greying of the hair, by nourishing the hair roots allowing new roots to grow with normal pigment. Try this one at home and let me know how you go.
Nutmeg (Sadikka) and Mace (Wasawasi). Nutmeg is the dry seed and mace is the red membrane around the seed. Nutmeg and Mace increase absorption especially in the small intestine and are recommended for urinary incontinence, gas and to relieve nausea. It is one of the best spices to calm the mind.
Ayurveda also tells us that Nutmeg is used to help with bronchitis, snoring and sinus as well as being added to a balm for menstruation. Research also shows that nutmeg/mace oil treats cancer by inhibiting the blood vessles that feed tumours.
Since nutmeg and mace have hallucinogenic properties never use more than one teaspoon.
- For sound sleep try 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg with 1/2 cup of warm milk.
- Add a tiny bit of Nutmeg oil to mens aftershave for a spicy scent
- Use Nutmeg or mace to flavour custards, desserts, fish and pasta.
- For a diarrhea treatment place 3 drops of nutmeg/mace oil on a sugar cube and swallow it after the oil has seeped in
- Mix a few drops of Nutmeg essential oil into a massage carrier oil (eg. Grapeseed) for great pain relief
Well that was as far as I got on my spice trail before stomach clutching set in and my hasty retreat to, what I thought would be solitude. Back on the timber bench, my unrequested but well appreciated treatment continues with a strong smelling herbal cream that’s being rubbed along my lower back, sides and abdomen. ”It’s made from red oil,” the smiling man tells me. In the background I can hear voices talking about curry powders and face creams made from sandalwood oil and jojoba, but I’m too busy coiled over, close to whimpering to take anything in.
Who knows how much time has passed, but finally my hot and cold sweats have ceased, the pain is subsiding and the colour starts returning to my cheeks. Everything is quiet, but it’s not until I open my eyes and take in my surrounds that I realise that there are no voices discussing spices and no multi-coloured jars of exotic goodness being passed around for testing. My fellow travellers are seated or laying down in various states of consciousness all receiving massages too.
I missed half of the workshop while I was not-so-quietly dying, but the medicinal spice class has finished and who knew that everyone would end the experience with their own mini Ayurvedic treatment. What a relief to find that I’m not the only one getting some hands on attention.
Everyone is up, but our spice tour is not yet complete. We now have a chance to taste-test the culinary uses of these colourful medicines in a spice-infused feast. Hesitantly, I join in on the deliciousness, but not before my Ayurvedic masseuse advises me to stay away from the pineapple – for its acidity.
Herbal Balm Pain Relief and Red Oil
My saviour today, this white ointment called ‘herbal balm’ is made of Cardamon oil, Clove oil, Tea-tree oil, Nutmeg Mace oil and three types of Cinnamon oil. It was so beneficial that I’ve popped into the retail centre to buy a tub to take home. After five minutes, the herbal balm is followed by 1/2 teaspoon of red oil.
Red Oil is called ‘home doctor’ because it helps with many symptoms of pain relief. Also known as Siddhartha Oil (the birth name of Gautama Buddha who founded Buddhism) or Buddha Oil. The oil is good for arthritus, joint aches and pains and Tendinitus. It contains seven different types of Ayurvedic plants including Black Cumin plant, Bitter Melon plant and Haritaki tree, amongst others.
Before leaving this mini medicinal sanctuary, the Spice Gardens share two more Ayurvedic recipes with me to enjoy at home.
Winter Spice Tea Recipe
- Make a mix of cardamom, ginger, ground cinnamon, coriander, star anise and cumin seeds and store in an airtight container in the fridge
- Place 1 teaspoon of the spice tea mix in a pot with 2 cups hot water
- Infuse for 2 minutes and strain into 2 cups
- Add 2 drops of vanilla essence and stir
The spice tea mixture is warming and stimulates the body. It is good for phlegm, colds and flu and stomach problems.
- Mix two teaspoons of lime oil (extracted from the skin of lime fruit), ¼ teaspoon tamarind extract and one teaspoon of wild bee honey in a glass of water or black tea and take before breakfast on an empty stomach for 90 days.
- Once a week take mixture in lemon juice instead of water/tea.
This is a traditional Ayurveda herbal remedy to burn calories and excess lipids to rid excess weight and improve metabolism and hormonal balance.