Cloves are a popular and very aromatic spice. They enter frequently into holiday baking and are a staple in Indian spice blends. Once worth their weight in gold, there are also many powerful health benefits of cloves that might surprise you.
As a medicinal spice, cloves are highly regarded in both traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine. They are thought of as a warming spice, able to purify the digestion and improve circulation. Cloves have been found in a vessel dating back to about 1720 BC, which means they've been around for a while!
Here's more about their history and the most notable health benefits of cloves.
The Story Behind Cloves
Cloves come from evergreen trees (Syzygium aromaticum synonym Eugenia caryophyllata) native to Indonesia and Madagascar. You'll sometimes hear cloves referred to as clove buds because they are the unopened flower buds harvested from the trees.
The common name "clove" comes from the Latin word clavus, which means nail. This refers to the nail-like shape of clove buds. In fact, their shape makes them easy to press into oranges, apples, and other foods to add flavor during the cooking process.
After being harvested, the pink clove buds are dried until they turn brown. They can then be sold whole, crushed into a powder, or distilled to produce clove essential oil. All have similar health benefits, but clove oil is a much more concentrated source of eugenol, a powerful plant compound.
Cloves have long been valued throughout history. At one point, the price of cloves was extremely high, and countries maneuvered to control the trade of clove buds.
One famous use for clove oil was as a part of the essential oil blend known as "Thieves." Its origin supposedly comes from a group of thieves who went around robbing dead bodies during the bubonic plague. They never caught the plague themselves because they used a very specific blend of oils for protection- one of which was clove.
Top Health Benefits of Cloves
Extremely High in Antioxidants
Most herbs and spices contain antioxidants, but cloves are especially high on the list. They have about 30 times the antioxidants of blueberries and are 6th overall in foods measured for antioxidant content. (1)(2)
You've probably heard about how good antioxidants are for your body. They protect against oxidative stress, something that you get exposed to over time, which also helps prevent certain chronic diseases. Eugenol, one of the main compounds in cloves, has especially shown strong protective properties against oxidative damage. (3)
Strong Antibacterial Properties
Cloves and clove essential oil have strong benefits against harmful bacteria. So far, they have been shown to kill strains of bacteria that can cause food poisoning (E. coli), acne (Staphylococcus aureus), and pneumonia (Pseudomonas aeruginosa). (4)
The same research indicates that clove oil is able to inhibit gram-negative as well as gram-positive bacteria. This is important because many strains of gram-negative bacteria are increasingly becoming resistant to antibiotics, and no other drugs have been developed to treat them.
Supports Oral Health
The antibacterial nature of clove makes it especially good for your oral health. Along with the bacteria mentioned above, compounds from clove have been found to stop the growth of specific bacteria that cause gum disease. They are also able to help decrease plaque. (5)(6)
Another use for clove that you may have heard of is as a toothache remedy. The oil contains a high amount of eugenol, which is a numbing and pain-relieving agent. Clove is still used in many dental preparations for this reason. (7)
In case you're wondering whether ancient remedies really work, recent research has shown that clove oil can equal the topical numbing agent benzocaine for effectiveness. It's also been shown to help remineralize teeth. (8)(9)
Anti-Inflammatory and Pain-Relieving
Clove isn't just useful for relieving a toothache. It's one of many herbs with natural anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties.
Research has shown that eugenol, specifically, has an anti-inflammatory effect and seems to be especially protective of liver health. Clove essential oil has high amounts of eugenol and can be useful for sore muscles and joints when applied externally. Just mix it with a carrier oil and massage into painful areas. (10)
Clove has strong antifungal properties that have proven to be especially effective against Candida albicans, the pathogen responsible for yeast infections. One animal study demonstrated that eugenol was just as effective as a common drug at killing candida responsible for oral yeast infections. (11)
At least one study has also shown that clove oil can kill internal parasites. The specific parasites in the study can be devastating in tropical and subtropical regions, and treatment is expensive. Though more research needs to be done, clove essential oil could be a big help. (12)
Boosts Your Immune System
The health benefits of cloves for the immune system have long been valued by herbalists and traditional practitioners. One of the reasons it's still used in many versions of thieves oil is due to its immune-boosting and antimicrobial properties.
Modern research confirms that clove oil can stimulate your immune system and also indicates that it has antiviral properties. You may not want to test it against the plague, but there's good evidence that using the essential oil or drinking something like chai tea (with cloves, of course) is good for your immune health. (13)(14)
May Moderate Blood Sugar Levels
Several studies have shown that clove may be able to help regulate blood sugar, potentially making it very beneficial for diabetics. It's been found to moderate increases in blood sugar levels, increase the secretion of insulin, and improve insulin resistance. (15)(16)
Another study concluded that taking clove and following a plant-based diet could help treat diabetes. (17)
Fantastic for Digestive Health
Cloves have been used for healthy digestion for thousands of years. They are considered a warming spice like cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger. As a warming spice, clove stimulates digestion and especially helps with indigestion, gas, and bloating. You can also try cloves for motion sickness or nausea.
Besides settling digestion, research has found that clove oil can protect against gastric ulcers and treat ones already present. It does so, in part, by stimulating the production of gastric mucus, which protects the lining of your digestive tract. (18)(19)
Using Cloves for Health Benefits
There are many ways you can use cloves to get their health benefits. To start with, add whole or powdered cloves to your recipes frequently. They work well in both sweet and savory dishes.
To make a simple clove tea, simmer a few whole cloves in a pot of water for about 10 minutes. Add other spices like cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, peppermint, or nutmeg for more flavor (and additional health benefits).
Of course, another way to use clove is as an essential oil. It is strong, so make sure you dilute with a carrier oil before using. Use it as part of a massage oil for sore muscles, diffuse it, or add it to a warm bath to soothe aches and pains.
Cloves are a very safe spice and rarely have side effects when taken in normal amounts. The biggest consideration is that clove can slow blood clotting. Large amounts of it shouldn't be combined with blood thinning medication, and you should talk to your doctor before consuming if you're taking any of that type of medication.
Cloves for Health
Though a familiar and common spice to many of us, cloves have a long history of use as a cherished medicinal herb. You can enjoy their benefits for your digestion, immune system, and oral health. Regularly consuming cloves will give your body lots of antioxidants that benefit your overall health.
And don't forget about clove essential oil. It smells wonderful when diffused and can be used externally for sore muscles and everyday aches. There's a lot to love about this one little spice!