Anti cancer spices and herbs

Anti-cancer foods: The Healthiest Herbs and Spices (Part 1)

8 minutes to read
Bernadeth Atrinindarti

Bernadeth Atrinindarti

MAppSc (Advanced Nutrition Practice)

Evidence Based Potential Allergens

While there has been a decrease in certain types of cancers, for instance lung cancer due to lower rates of smokers over the last decade, at the same time there has been an increase in other cancers, such as breast cancer.

Modern medicine often has a role in a form of a treatment. But perhaps it doesn’t need to go that far. 

What if we can prevent cancers and tumors by using certain herbs and spices?

What is the difference between herbs and spices?

Herbs and spices have been well-known and utilized as food preservatives, food flavoring and medicine since ancient Rome and Egypt, and continued to be used during the Middle Ages. 

The U.S. National Arboretum defines spices as flavorings (often of tropical origin) that are dried and culinary herbs that are fresh or dried leaves from plants which can be used for flavoring purposes in food preparation.

Spices can be obtained from root, stem bark, or seed of a plant, whereas herbs are obtained from a plant or tree leaves.

Nowadays, many cuisines represent some of their cultural diversity in the usage of herbs and spices such as garlic and oregano in Italian cuisines; turmeric in India; and ginger, cilantro, and chili peppers in Thai food.[1,2]

Use of herbs and spices as medicine in history

The use of herbs and spices for their medicinal properties started thousands of years ago

Around 1000 BC, the Assyrians in Mesopotamia established an understanding of the health benefits of herbs, such as juniper, saffron and thyme. 

Not long after that, Hippocrates wrote a repertoire of about 300 cures that consist of garlic, cinnamon, and rosemary, which were available in ancient Greece and Rome.[3]

Galen, 129 AD – 216 AD, who was a Roman physician concurrently a pharmacist, developed the first list of drugs, of which some are used as mild diuretics and uroantiseptics until this day. 

For instance, the Romans used sage for cooking and medicine and depicted it as “fresh and green to cleanse the body of venom and pestilence”.[3]

Dioscorides, a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist, wrote an encyclopedia about herbal medicine and related medicinal properties called De Materia Medica and introduced plants that were used for specific disorders.[4]

During the 11th-13th century, the trade between Africa and Asia brought in all new kinds of herbs and spices. 

Galangal was called the “spice of life” and garlic was used by herbalists as a treatment during the plague.[5]

Herbs, Spices and Cancer

Cancer is a group of malignant diseases, characterized as the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells

Cancer is caused by the body’s failure to maintain the process of cell division which leads to an increase in the number of dividing cells.[6]

There are several reported health benefits from numerous clinical trials and animal studies such as 

  • Digestive stimulant action
  • Antioxidant potential
  • Anti-inflammatory property
  • Cancer preventive potential[7]

In recent decades, the chemistry of spice bioactive compounds has been observed by many researchers to find out their beneficial health effects, especially on its influence on tumor and cancer behavior.


Allspice is a dried unripe berry from a tree called Pimenta dioica. It’s mainly grown in southern Mexico, Greater Antilles, and Central America. 

Allspice has the flavour of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves combined. The reason why Allspice is interesting is that it contains a range of bioactive compounds that might be beneficial to health including

  • Flavonoids
  • Catechins
  • Phenolic acid
  • Phenylpropanoids[1]
Source: Havlis @ Unsplash

Research by Zhang et al. showed that aqueous extract of allspice (AAE) significantly reduced incubated breast cancer cells over 72h period. Moreover, a dose-dependent test indicates that AAE has a potentially significant effect on the colony-forming process of breast cancer cells.[8]

RELATEDHow common is Breast Cancer and what are the Risk Factors?

This study also found that AAE is related to autophagy which is a process when the body’s cells “clean and remove” any unnecessary or damaged components. 

Apoptosis, on the other hand, is a common cell death mechanism exerted by most anticancer drugs in human breast cancer cells.

Another research identified that aqueous allspice extract (AAE) is cytotoxic (damages the cells and causes them to die) to prostate cancer and it could inhibit the cloning process.[9]

RELATEDProstate Cancer: All you need to know and are afraid to ask

They also tested the potential antitumour activity of AAE in mice and found that the injection of 100mg/kg AAE lowered the tumor growth rate and reduced the tumor volume

Angelica sinensis

Angelica sinensis, also known as female ginseng, is commonly used in Chinese traditional medicine as a reliever of gynecological discomforts in women. 

It has been widely used to treat 

  • Menstrual disorders
  • To nourish the blood
  • Relax the bowels 

Nowadays, it is used to help improve the immune system and relieve menopausal syndrome.[10]

RELATEDMenopause Revealed: Signs, Stages, Types and Treatment

Recent studies showed that Angelica sinensis has many potential antioxidant, immunoregulation, anti-tumour and anti-inflammatory properties. 

Angelica Sinensis and reduction in bladder cancer cells
Angelica Sinensis and impact on bladder cancer cells. Source: Chiu et al. Potential therapeutic effects of N-butylidenephthalide from Radix Angelica Sinensis (Danggui) in human bladder cancer cells. (BMC Complementary and Alternatice Medicine, 2017).

The root contains phenolic acids, organic acids, flavones, polysaccharides, and other secondary metabolites which may affect health promotion.[11]

A study by Liao et al. found that Angelica sinensis has a bioactive compound named N-butylidenephthalide (BP) which is a potential antitumor agent for several cancer types

Treatment of 50 or 75 μg/mL of BP for 48 hours showed an increase in respective cell survival rates of 49% and 24.1%. 

The test indicated that BP inhibits cell proliferation, an increase in the number of cells of gastric cancer and triggers cellular apoptosis.[12]

Artemisia annua

Artemisia annua (Sweet Wormwood) is a well-known herb used as tea or press juice in Asia and Africa to treat malaria and related symptoms. 

It has an active compound called artemisinin (ARS), which not only has been developed to treat malaria but also has an anti-cancer effect, as shown in several studies.

Research showed that artemisinin promotes anti-cancer effects by decreasing the cancer cell growth cycle, stimulating apoptosis, and inhibiting the tissue infiltration of tumors.[13]

Artemisia annua and breast cancer prevention
Artemisia annua treatment for breast cancer Source: Lang et al. Antitumor activity of an Artemisia annua herbal preparation and identification of active ingredients. Phytomedicine, Volume 62. (September 2019).

The doses of Artemisia annua related products used in research studies were quite high, ranging from 20-100 μg/mL. This implies that long-term intervention of high dose Artemisia annua might be needed for clinical treatment.[14] 

Furthermore, the research found that there are two other compounds, called casticin and chrysosplenol D, in Artemisia annua that proved to have anti-cancer activity. 

Casticin could prevent the spread of cells and apoptotic activities in various cancer cells, such as bladder, breast, colon, lung and others.[15] 

Astragalus membranaceus

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) is a major medicinal herb commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a wide variety of diseases and body disorders. 

Moreover, it is also used to treat oxidative stress diseases related to 

  • Brain
  • Eye
  • Intestine
  • Lung
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Cancers (like leukemia and uterine cancer)[16]

Astragali radix, the root of Astragalus membranaceus, is shown to have an anti-tumour effect against lung papilloma, urinary bladder, and renal cell carcinoma by controlling immune mechanisms.

Burdock Root

Arctium lappa L. popularly known as burdock, is widely used in popular medicine worldwide as a diuretic and antipyretic agent and has also been used to treat 

  • Hypertension
  • Gout
  • Hepatitis

and other inflammatory disorders.

RELATED What are 5 types of Hepatitis?

Burdock root contains a bioactive component called arctigenin that has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and immune-modulatory properties

Arctigenin also has been observed to have an anti-cancer effect by stimulated apoptosis through inhibiting the cell cycle and the mitochondrial pathway

The figure below showed the effect of arctigenin on ovarian cancer cell apoptosis. The cells were treated with 10 μM of arctigenin for 48 hr.[17]

Arctigenin and effect on ovarian cancer cells
Arctigenin and effect on ovarian cancer cells

Another study investigated the effect of arctigenin on breast cancer in mice. 

Arctigenin and breast cancer
Arctigenin and effect of breast cancer size

They found out that arctigenin could prevent tumor growth and decrease tumor size and weight without causing any weight loss which suggests that it would not lead to significant cytotoxicity in vivo.[18]


Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a culinary herb widely known throughout the world and largely used in Italian and Southeast Asian cuisines.

Sweet basil is one of the most common types that has been observed for its health-promoting properties.[1]

A study by Shimizu et al. observed the effect of ethanolic extracts of basil leaves on pancreatic cancer cells. The results showed that a dose of 80 μg/ml of ethanolic extracts of basil is the minimum dose that could inhibit the pancreatic cell cloning process.[19]

Another study found that the seed oil of basil could have chemopreventive properties in mice with induced-fibrosarcoma tumors. Treatment with 100 μl/kg body weight of tolerated dose showed that the oil reduced tumor volume and tumor incidence.[20]

Effects of basil on cancer
Effect of basil (Ocimum basilicum L.) blossoms aqueous extract on MCF7 cells viability and growth. Source: Al-Qahtani et al. Low-Temperature Extracts of Purple Blossoms of Basil (Ocimum Basilicum L.) Intervened Mitochondrial Translocation Contributes Prompted Apoptosis in Human Breast Cancer Cells. (Biological Research, vol.54, 2021).

This chemopreventive activity has been found caused by its antioxidant component named eugenol which is responsible for basil therapeutic potentials.[21]


In ancient times, caraway (Carum carvi) was used for the treatment of digestion problems, pneumonia, and as an appetizer. 

Caraway comes in many forms such as essential oil, fixed oil, and many extractive components in industrial application.

Thymoquinone (TQ) is a bioactive compound in black caraway seeds or also known as black seed or cumin seeds which proved to have potential health benefits.

Thymoquinone (TQ) reduction in cancer cells 24h
Thymoquinone (TQ) reduction in cancer cells 48h
Thymoquinone (TQ) reduction in cancer cells 72h

The effect of Thymoquinone (TQ) on % reduction in cancer cell number after 24, 48, and 72 h.

A research study by Sutton et al. was looking at the effect of TQ in breast cancer cells. The treatment with 1-25 μM of TQ for 24-72 hours  resulted in time and dose dependent decrease of breast cancer cell.[22]


Cardamom (E. cardamomum) is a spice widely used in Indian cuisine and many parts of Europe.[1] 

It has been relied on for a long time by ancient Egyptians not only as a flavor enhancer but also for its medicinal properties including breast cancer anticipation.[23]

Research by Almeer et al. observed the effect of green cardamom injection in the Ehrlich solid tumor bearing mice. They evaluated the effect between injection of green cardamom alone, green cardamom combined with an anti-cancer drug and an untreated group.

The cardamom doses administered in this research was 100 mg/kg body weight. Their study indicated that the combined treatment of green cardamom with the anti-cancer drug diminish cell survival significantly compared to the treatment with green cardamom or anti-cancer drug alone.[24]


Cayenne pepper, chili or Capsicum annuum is a spice commonly used in many cuisines throughout the world. 

It is also known to have a medicinal property and is utilized by traditional medicine to treat

  • Loss of appetite
  • Dyspepsia
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Gastric ulcer[25]

Capsicum annuum has an acid derivative called capsaicin which gives the spicy feeling of the Capsicum genus. 

Many studies were conducted to evaluate the capsaicin effect on cancerous cells. Doses ranging from 50–300 µM have been administered to observe the effective amount of capsaicin that could help improve the anticancer mechanism.[26]

A study by Yang et al. showed that a high dose of capsaicin treatment (≥ 200 µM) inhibited colorectal cancer cell proliferation which helps the treatment of cancer.[27]

Breast cancer cells death as treated capsaicin
Breast cancer cells death as treated with 0, 100, 150 µmol/L capsaicin for 72 h

Another study observed the effect of capsaicin in breast cancer cells. They found out that capsaicin inhibits the breast cancer cells proliferation in a time and dose dependent treatment. 

Capsaicin also reported induces apoptosis of breast cancer cells after treated with 0, 100, 150 µmol/L for 72 h.[28]


Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) can be obtained from the bark of an evergreen tree that has major bioactive constituents including 

  • Cinnamaldehyde
  • Eugenol
  • Terpinene
  • Alpha-pinene
  • Carvacrol
  • Linalool
  • Safrole
  • Benzyl benzoate
  • Coumarin.

Various studies were conducted to indicate the anti-proliferative effect of cinnamon in cancerous cells. 

A dose-dependent treatment ranging from 0.05 and 0.2 mg/mL of cinnamon extract has been found effective to decrease cancer cells viability (healthy cells found in the sample).[29]

Study also showed that cinnamon extract significantly impaired the translation and transcription of melanoma cells in a dose-dependent treatment with the dose range from 0.5 and 0.3 mg/ml.[30]

Cinnamon and tumor cells
Dose-dependent growth inhibition induced by cinnamon extract after 48 h in the HeLa and HL-60 tumor cell lines. Source: Xie et al. Proliferation effects of cinnamon extract on human HeLa and HL-60 tumor cell lines. (European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences, 2018).

Adding spices and herbs is beneficial to overall health, but when it comes to cancer it is often more complicated. 

Much of the evidence shows promising anti-cancer properties of spices and herbs. It demonstrates their effect on various processes including proliferation, apoptosis, and cytotoxicity towards cancer cells. 

However, most research was conducted in vitro (a test performed outside living organisms) and in animals and the results are still mixed. Further research is needed to find effective doses and ways of treatment to help patients with cancer.

We have more articles coming on the topic of anti-cancer foods. You can find them on our Nutrition page. 

Related Questions

1. What herbs and spices are carcinogenic?
There are no carcinogenic herbs and spices if they are consumed in limited quantities.

2. What is apoptosis?
Apoptosis is death of cells which occurs as a normal and controlled part of an organism’s growth or development.

3. What are the best herbs and spices to induce apoptosis in cancer cells?

  • Turmeric
  • Black cumin
  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Saffron
  • Black pepper
  • Chili pepper 

Contain important bioactive components such as curcumin, thymoquinone, piperine and capsaicin which help induce apoptosis.

Bernadeth’s passion in cooking, food and health led her to learn more about nutrition and the importance of functional foods. Throughout the years, she gained special interest in sports and performance nutrition, and the varieties of diets around the world. As a nutritionist, Bernadeth’s goal is to encourage a healthy-balanced diet and share the evidence-based nutrition knowledge in order for people to live healthier and longer lives. 

Bernadeth is a part of the Content Team that brings you the latest research at D’Connect.


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(16) Aliya Sheik, Kwanwoo Kim, Ganji Lakshmi Varaprasad, Hoomin Lee, Suheon Kim, Eunsu Kim, Jin-Yong Shin, Seo Yeong Oh, Yun Suk Huh. (2021). The anti-cancerous activity of adaptogenic herb Astragalus membranaceus. Phytomedicine. Retrieved from

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(18) Shi, H., Zhao, L., Guo, X., Fang, R., Zhang, H., Dong, G., Fu, J., Yan, F., Zhang, J., Ning, Z., Ma, Q., Li, Z., Li, C., Dai, J., Si, C., & Xiong, H. (2020). Arctigenin Attenuates Breast Cancer Progression through Decreasing GM-CSF/TSLP/STAT3/β-Catenin Signaling. International journal of molecular sciences, 21(17), 6357. Retrieved from

(19) Shimizu, T., Torres, M. P., Chakraborty, S., Souchek, J. J., Rachagani, S., Kaur, S., Macha, M., Ganti, A. K., Hauke, R. J., & Batra, S. K. (2013). Holy Basil leaf extract decreases tumorigenicity and metastasis of aggressive human pancreatic cancer cells in vitro and in vivo: potential role in therapy. Cancer letters, 336(2), 270–280. Retrieved from

(20) Prashar, R., Kumar, A., Banerjee, S., & Rao, A. R. (1994). Chemopreventive action by an extract from Ocimum sanctum on mouse skin papillomagenesis and its enhancement of skin glutathione S-transferase activity and acid soluble sulfydryl level. Anti-cancer drugs, 5(5), 567–572. Retrieved from

(21) Singh, N., Verma, P., Pandey, B. R., & Bhalla, M. (2012). Therapeutic Potential Of Ocimum Sanctum In Prevention and Treatment of Cancer and Exposure To Radiation: An Overview. International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Drug Research, 4(2), 97-104. Retrieved from

(22) Kimberly M. Sutton, Anna L. Greenshields & David W. Hoskin (2014) Thymoquinone, A Bioactive Component of Black Caraway Seeds, Causes G1 Phase Cell Cycle Arrest and Apoptosis in Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Cells with Mutant p53. Nutrition and Cancer. 66:3, 408-418. Retrieved from DOI: 10.1080/01635581.2013.878739

(23) Vutakuri, N., & Somara, S. (2018). Natural and herbal medicine for breast cancer using Elettaria cardamomum (L.) Maton. International Journal of Herbal Medicine, 6, 91-96. Retrieved from

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(26) Chapa-Oliver, A., & Mejía-Teniente, L. (2016). Capsaicin: From Plants to a Cancer-Suppressing Agent. Molecules, 21(8), 931. MDPI AG. Retrieved from

(27) Yang, J., Li, T. Z., Xu, G. H., Luo, B. B., Chen, Y. X., & Zhang, T. (2013). Low-concentration capsaicin promotes colorectal cancer metastasis by triggering ROS production and modulating Akt/mTOR and STAT-3 pathways. Neoplasma, 60(4), 364–372. Retrieved from

(28) Chen, M., Xiao, C., Jiang, W., Yang, W., Qin, Q., Tan, Q., Lian, B., Liang, Z., & Wei, C. (2021). Capsaicin Inhibits Proliferation and Induces Apoptosis in Breast Cancer by Down-Regulating FBI-1-Mediated NF-κB Pathway. Drug design, development and therapy, 15, 125–140. Retrieved from

(29) Schoene, N. W., Kelly, M. A., Polansky, M. M., & Anderson, R. A. (2005). Water-soluble polymeric polyphenols from cinnamon inhibit proliferation and alter cell cycle distribution patterns of hematologic tumor cell lines. Cancer letters, 230(1), 134–140. Retrieved from

(30) Kwon, H. K., Jeon, W. K., Hwang, J. S., Lee, C. G., So, J. S., Park, J. A., Ko, B. S., & Im, S. H. (2009). Cinnamon extract suppresses tumor progression by modulating angiogenesis and the effector function of CD8+ T cells. Cancer letters, 278(2), 174–182. Retrieved from

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