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Clove: A Valuable Spice That's Been Used for Centuries

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

clove health benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Clove has long been used as a food and for medicinal purposes; it is one of the richest sources of phenolic compounds such as eugenol and gallic acid
  • Clove is well-known to aid digestion, calm dental pain, reduce inflammation and relieve headaches
  • Clove also supports your respiratory health and can be used to soothe cold symptoms, including sore throat
  • Lab-based research has demonstrated the anticancer potential of cloves, as well as the beneficial impact this spice has on diabetes and obesity

Clove is a pungent spice used worldwide in a variety of foods and beverages. Its uses extend to other areas as well, particularly due to its well-known analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Let's take a closer look at these dried aromatic flower buds that have the appearance of small nails.

While you may enjoy cloves in a hot beverage like spiced apple cider, they also feature prominently in pumpkin pie and speculoos — those crispy gourmet spice cookies that are a symbol of the Christmas season in Belgium, Germany and other countries across Europe.

Cloves Give a Pungent Punch to Foods and Beverages Worldwide

Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum or Eugenia cariophylata) are the aromatic flower buds collected from evergreen trees of the same name. Clove is a tree of medium height (averaging 25 to 40 feet tall) that is populated with large green leaves and crimson flowers grouped in terminal clusters.

Distinctive due to their nail-like appearance, cloves feature a long calyx adorned by four spreading sepals. They are topped by four unopened petals that form a small central ball. Native to Indonesia, cloves are also harvested in countries such as Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

Cloves have long been used as a food and for medicinal purposes. This pungent spice has also been used to make clove cigarettes, also known as kreteks, which have been linked to a number of lung-related health problems.1,,sup style="font-size: 10px;">2 With respect to the history of cloves, authors of a 2012 study published in the journal Molecules noted:3

"Clove … has been traded from one end of the world to the other, being a highly sought-after commodity in medieval Europe for medicinal and culinary purposes. During the 14th century the clove trade acted as a stimulant in the establishment of commerce at ports especially in Asia and Europe where it was traded for large profits.

The high clove trade price inspired exploration expeditions in the search for new sources of this highly praised spice and the establishment of new sea routes.

Throughout the following centuries its trade went through several phases such as increased trade prices, struggle over control of the industry, warfare, decreased trade prices and even smuggling of seedlings for cultivation."

Cloves have long been used to enhance a variety of foods and drinks. Certain types of meat dishes, curries and marinades benefit from the unique punch delivered by cloves. In addition, cloves play prominently in spiced cider and other hot beverages, as well as dishes like arroz con leche (rice pudding), which is popular in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Eugenol Is One of the Most Valuable Compounds Found in Cloves

Researchers note cloves are one of the richest sources of phenolic compounds such as eugenol, eugenol acetate and gallic acid.4 As such, they suggest cloves possess great potential for agricultural, cosmetic, food and pharmaceutical applications.

Notably, eugenol, a major volatile constituent of clove essential oil that is obtained through hydrodistillation of buds and leaves, has been incorporated into numerous products. About eugenol, authors of the Molecules study stated:5

"Its vast range of pharmacological activities has been well-researched and includes antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antioxidant and anticancer activities, among others.

In addition, it is widely used in agricultural applications to protect foods from micro-organisms during storage … and as a pesticide and fumigant. As a functional ingredient, it is included in many dental preparations."

Furthermore, the researchers note, while eugenol has been identified in other aromatic plants such basil, cinnamon and nutmeg, clove is considered to be the principal natural source of this bioactive compound because it represents between 45 and 90 percent of the total oil.

On the other hand, they assert commercial eugenol preparations are mostly derived from clove bud/leaf oil, cinnamon leaf oil or basil obtained through steam distillation, which is then further refined.

Besides eugenol, other phenolic acids found in clove include caffeic, elagic, ferulic, gallic and salicylic acids. Flavonoids like kaempferol and quercetin are also found in clove in lower concentrations.

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7 Health Benefits of Cloves

As noted in the video above, due to its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, as well as the other pharmacological activities associated with this spice, clove can benefit your health because it:

Aids digestion — In animal studies, clove essential oil was shown to increase production of gastric mucus, which protects the stomach lining from being damaged by digestive acids. One set of study authors commented, "[T]he quantification of free gastric mucus showed that the clove oil and eugenol were capable of significantly enhancing mucus production."

The researchers noted the need for further research before clove oil could be recommended for the treatment of gastric ulcers. An earlier study also involving lab mice validated the folkloric use of clove as a purgative. In that body of work, clove extract was found to increase gut muscle propulsion similar to medications typically administered for constipation.

About the use of cloves for digestion, Indian researchers who published a 2012 study in the Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry stated, "[Cloves] are well-known for relieving flatulence and can actually help promote good digestion as well as metabolism. They may also help relieve vomiting and diarrhea as well as a host of other digestive disorders."

Boosts immunity — Clove's antiviral and cleansing properties are said to purify your body and enhance your resistance to disease.

In lab tests, eugenol was shown to possess antiviral activity against the herpes simplex viruses (HSV‐1 and HSV‐2). The researchers said, "[I]t was found that the replication of these viruses was inhibited in the presence of this compound. Topical application of eugenol delayed the development of herpesvirus-induced keratitis in the mouse model."

Calms toothaches and other dental pain — Given its analgesic properties, clove essential oil can be used to soothe toothaches. Simply place a few drops of clove oil on an organic cotton ball and place it next to the bothersome tooth. In similar fashion, you can use clove oil to relieve pain from sore gums.

Authors involved in 2012 research said, "The antiseptic properties of clove oil are why it's a common ingredient in various dental creams, toothpastes, mouth wash and throat sprays." For more information on using clove for your oral care needs, refer to my article "Choose Clove Bud Oil for Better Dental Health."

Promotes healthy skin — A body of 2013 research from China validated the usefulness of clove essential oil for skincare applications. The scientists commented, "Clove oil exhibited prominent free-radical scavenging activities … and strong inhibitory effect on lipid peroxidation … This study suggests that both clove oil and citronella oil could be used as new source of skincare ingredients in the cosmetic industry."

Reduces inflammation — A 2005 study involving lab rats, published in the European Journal of General Medicine, validated the anti-inflammatory potential of clove essential oil when compared to two nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

After administering either clove oil or the NSAIDs etodolac or indomethacin to rats with swollen paws, the study authors noted clove, depending on the dosing, had anti-inflammatory effects similar to both medications.

Indicating clove as a promising compound worthy of further research, they concluded, "The current study proves the anti-inflammatory activity of clove in vivo, [in addition to] its antibacterial, analgesic, spasmolytic and anesthetic actions."

Soothes headache pain — Given the anti-inflammatory benefits of eugenol, clove is useful for the treatment of headache pain. About cloves and headaches, NDTV Food states:

"Cloves can be used to ease a throbbing headache due to its cooling and pain-relieving properties. Crush a few cloves gently and put them in a sachet or a clean handkerchief.

Inhale the smell of the crushed cloves whenever you have a headache until you get some relief from the pain. You can also put two drops of clove oil in a tablespoon of coconut oil plus sea salt and gently massage your forehead and temples with it."

Supports respiratory health — One way to use clove as a respiratory aid is to make clove tea, which you can either drink or use as a steam inhalation.

For a cold or sore throat, you can add a couple of drops of clove essential oil to a mug of hot water, which you can sweeten with raw honey or stevia if desired. Drink two to three glasses a day until your condition improves. You can also use clove oil for aromatherapy by diffusing it into the air.

Cloves Shown to Possess Anticancer Properties

Scientists conducting a 2014 study published in Oncology Research found clove extract slowed the growth of multiple types of human cancer cells, including colon cancer. The researchers called out oleanolic acid as one of the constituents in cloves with antitumor potential. They stated:

"We identified oleanolic acid (OA) as one of the components of ethyl acetate extract of cloves (EAEC) responsible for its antitumor activity. Both EAEC and OA display cytotoxicity against several human cancer cell lines.

Interestingly, EAEC was superior to OA and the chemotherapeutic agent 5-fluorouracil at suppressing growth of colon tumor xenografts. Our results demonstrate that clove extract may represent a novel therapeutic herb for the treatment of colorectal cancer."

In another study, the cytotoxic activity of clove extract on MCF-7 human breast cancer cells was evaluated. In lab tests, the researchers found that clove essential oil and ethanol extract of clove were both toxic to breast cancer cells.

Noting the well-validated anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiseptic properties of cloves, the researchers concluded, "Cloves are natural products with excellent cytotoxicity toward MCF-7 cells; thus, they are promising sources for the development of anticancer agents."  

Earlier research published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention called out eugenol for its anticancer effects. The study authors commented:

"[T]his work demonstrates that the eugenol present in clove oil extract is an effective cytotoxic agent for different type of cancer cells and it is endowed with apoptotic inducing capability. These results suggest that eugenol may constitute a potential antitumor compound against different kind of cancer cells."

Clove Influences Diabetes and Obesity

A body of 2014 research evaluated the effect of clove bud powder on lab rats with diabetes. They noted blood sugar levels were lower in rats that received the clove powder compared to those in the control (no treatment) group. They also observed:

  • Reduced activity of alpha-glucosidase for rats treated with either clove powder or the diabetes drug metformin as compared to the control group
  • Rats receiving clove powder had significantly reduced activity of liver enzymes such as alanine aminotransferase, aspartate aminotransferase and alkaline phosphatase
  • Rats receiving clove powder showed elevated levels of antioxidants such as glutathione, ascorbic acid, superoxide dismutase and catalase

About the outcomes, the researchers said, "The results suggest that the clove bud diet may attenuate hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia, hepatotoxicity and oxidative stress in the Type 2 diabetic condition."

Beyond this, research published in the Journal of Medicinal Food asserts clove extract and nigericin, a component of clove extract, reduced insulin resistance in mouse muscle cells (myoblasts). Diabetic mice that consumed nigericin had less insulin resistance and showed improvements in glucose tolerance, insulin secretion and beta cell function.

Cloves have also been investigated for their potential impact on obesity. In a 2017 studying using a mouse model, researchers found an alcohol extract of clove (AEC) reduced the incidence of obesity resulting from a high-fat diet.

Specifically, mice who received clove extract had lower body weight, less abdominal fat and less liver fat than those in the control group who received none. The study authors also found AEC could regulate triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

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