Wouldn’t it be amazing to sail through cold and flu season without getting bogged down by a stuffy nose, cough, body aches, or chills? You can — by tapping into the immunity-boosting benefits of star anise. The spice is rich in potent antiviral, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory compounds. Here, learn how to harness the the power of star anise to bolster your immune system, soothe digestive upset, deepen your sleep and more.
The history of star anise as a health booster
Also known as illicium verum, star anise is a dry fruit that comes from a small tree native to China and Vietnam. While star anise is commonly used to add flavor to both savory and sweet dishes, it has also been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for 3,000 years. It’s been hailed a a natural remedy for respiratory infections, digestive issues such as nausea and constipation, colic in babies, and it has even been used as a breath freshener.
The fruit has a reddish-brown color and gets its name from its natural star shape. An individual star typically features eight points, with each point containing a small seed. And the taste? It has a sweet, licorice-like flavor that makes it a versatile ingredient for cooking and baking. Both the seeds and the star “pod” can be added to dishes like soups, stews, broths, fruit pies, brownies, and cakes.
It’s also a spice that plays well with others. “Star anise is one of the traditional spices in five spice powder predominantly used in Chinese cuisine,” says LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD, a registered dietician and nutrition counselor in Los Angeles and author of The Everything Glycemic Index Cookbook.
Besides star anise, five spice powder typically contains fennel, Szechuan peppercorn, clove, and cinnamon. “Five spice powder contains antioxidants, and star anise is one of those spices shown to have exceptional, naturally occurring antioxidant properties,” Weintraub says.
What to look for when purchasing star anise
It’s important to look for the Chinese version instead of Japanese star anise. Why? Japanese star anise contains a toxic substance called anisatin. Japanese star anise is not meant to be ingested, According to the American Botanical Council. Instead, it’s typically used as an ingredient in potpourris because of its warm fragrance and pretty star shape, or it’s burned as incense.
Another hitch to watch out for: Chinese star anise shouldn’t be confused with anise seed. Although the names are similar, the latter is a fruit of the Pimpinella anisum plant and part of the parsley family.
You’ll readily find Chinese star anise at supermarkets, health food stores and online. Star anise comes in its whole star form, ground, as an oil, and in capsule or tablet form. Or search for it online using the search term “Chinese star anise.” One we like: Soeos Organic Star Anise, Whole Star Anise (buy on Amazon, $12.99).
The science behind star anise’s health benefits
“Star anise, rich in flavonoids and polyphenols, acts as an antioxidant by neutralizing harmful free radicals, potentially reducing cellular damage and the risk of chronic diseases,” says Monisha Bhanote, MD, an integrative medicine lifestyle physician in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and author of The Anatomy of Wellbeing.
The specific antioxidant compounds present in star anise, such as quercetin, limonene, and linalool, protect and strengthen the plants from which they originate, adds Weintraub. “When consumed by humans, these compounds offer anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and potentially even disease-preventing properties,” she notes.
“The antioxidant properties of star anise and whole foods nutrition could theoretically contribute to reducing the risk of certain chronic diseases that are influenced by oxidative stress and inflammation,” Dr. Bhanote adds. “These may include cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases.”
Star anise fends off colds and viruses
Many of us who come down with a cold or flu simply ride it out by getting rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and treating symptoms with over-the-counter pain relievers or decongestants. Sometimes, though, you need the help of antiviral medication such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir). This is where the benefits of star anise come into play. Tamiflu contains shikimic acid — the same compound found in star anise!
“Shikimic acid is a primary component used in the synthesis of the antiviral drug oseltamivir, which is a neuraminidase inhibitor that is used to treat and prevent influenza A and B,” explains Dr. Bhanote. Neuraminidase inhibitors block the release of newly formed viruses from the surface of host cells. This prevents their spread to other cells, according to research in EC Clinical and Medical Case Reports.
What’s more, research suggests compounds found in star anise may specifically ward off the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the one that causes COVID-19. A study in the Future Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences found phytochemicals such as quercetin and kaempferol in star anise bind to spike proteins, interfering with the virus’s ability to attach to and enter cells.
Star anise speeds healing from respiratory infections
According to a study in EC Clinical and Medical Case Reports, star anise has a high amount of anti-inflammatory anethole. “Anethole’s essential oils have demonstrated antibacterial and antifungal activities, suggesting a role in combating certain infections,” Dr. Bhanote adds. The Chinese star anise compound also curbs airway inflammation from respiratory conditions such as dry cough, bronchitis and asthma.
One of the other respiratory benefits of star anise is that it acts as an expectorant. This means it loosens and clears mucus from the respiratory tract, making it easier to breathe. And a small study in BioMedResearch International suggests its antimicrobial properties can combat potentially harmful infection-causing bacteria, too.
Star anise helps you sleep longer
Star anise contains mild sedative components, making it easier to doze off and snooze soundly. One likely reason is that star anise brims with magnesium. A study in The Journal of Research and Medical Sciences found folks who upped their magnesium intake fell asleep 15% faster, slumbered more soundly, and slept longer than than those who didn’t take magnesium. “The spice is also thought to influence neurotransmitters and hormones to induce calming, sedative effects, thereby promoting healthier sleep patterns” adds Dr. Bhanote. (If stress is sapping your slumber, click through to see how affron can help you sleep.)
“For women 50 and older, getting adequate sleep is not just a luxury,” Dr. Bhanote says. “It’s a crucial part of immune defense against viruses and bacterial infections. Quality sleep can also alleviate some menopausal symptoms, adding another layer of significance to finding natural sleep aids like star anise.”
In fact, a study in JAMA Internal Medicine found folks who slept less than 7 hours were nearly twice as likely to catch a cold than those who slept 7 to 8 hours a night. And they were nearly three times more likely to fall ill than those who slept 8 hours or more. For a sleep-promoting bedtime brew, warm 1 cup plant- or dairy milk, 3 star anise pods and sweetener to taste in a saucepan over low heat for 10 minutes. Transfer to your favorite mug and sip an hour before bed.
Star anise tames GI upset
“Star anise is traditionally believed to have carminative properties,” says Dr. Bhanote. “This means it can help reduce gas in the gastrointestinal tract and alleviate bloating. The spice’s potential antispasmodic effect may relax the digestive tract’s muscles, promoting smoother digestion, and can offer relief to those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).”
One of the best ways to harness the stomach-settling benefits of star anise is by brewing up a cup of comforting tea. “If ginger is added to the tea, it brings its own suite of digestive benefits, including aiding in relieving nausea and promoting gastric motility,” Dr. Bhanote adds.
“Many of my patients have begun incorporating a daily cup of star anise tea into their regimen,” Dr. Bhanote says. “Over time, they’ve reported not only an improvement in digestive comfort but also a general sense of wellbeing. The subtle warmth and aromatic quality of the tea seem to offer a moment of relaxation in their day.” (Click through to our sister publication to see more key spices that improve gut health.)
Dr. Bhanote’s Chinese star anise tea
Ready to reap the benefits of adding Chinese star anise to your daily diet? Try Dr. Bhanote’s simple homemade star anise tea recipe.
- 1 star anise pod
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 slice of fresh ginger (optional)
- 1 cup of boiling water
- Honey or lemon (optional)
- Bring a cup of water to boil. Place the star anise pod, cinnamon stick and ginger in a heatproof mug.
- Pour the boiling water over the ingredients, then let steep for 5 to 7 minutes.
- Remove and discard the star anise pod, cinnamon stick and ginger slice.
- Add honey or a squeeze of lemon to taste, then enjoy!
No time to make your own tea? Weintraub suggests trying Twinings Soothe Tea (Buy from RiteAid.com, $4). “It has turmeric, star anise, and orange peel that also help support healthy digestion,” she says.
More ways to add star anise to your daily diet
“I frequently use star anise to add depth and complexity to various dishes,” Dr. Bhanote says. “Aside from the daily tea ritual, I love incorporating this aromatic spice into my rice pilaf and curry recipes. For rice pilaf, a couple of star anise pods added to the pot infuse the rice with a subtle, sweet aroma that elevates the entire dish. In curry recipes, star anise works wonderfully alongside other spices like turmeric, cumin, and coriander to enhance the richness and complexity of flavors. This integration of star anise into my cooking delights the palate and adds therapeutic value.”
Interested in cooking with star anise? You can buy ground star anise at supermarkets, or make your own from scratch with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
And don’t forget to add star anise to your simmer pot — it’s a great addition there as well!
Read on to learn how to tap into the benefits of nature’s top health-boosting spices:
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
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