The road to health is paved with good intestines. It’s true; the gut is the gateway to optimal physical and psychological health. Making sure that we are properly digesting and assimilating our food is crucial to maintaining good energy levels, a balanced mood, a strong immune system, and a healthy ecology within the environment that makes up our body.
How often though, do we find ourselves eating way too fast? Eating while stressed? Drinking too much liquid with our meals? Eating foods that are simply unhealthy? It’s much too common in our culture to feel disconnected from our food let alone the whole ritual of eating. With the rise of industrial foods and the trend towards convenience over quality, it’s no surprise that many millions of Americans now suffer from digestive issues.
The good news is that no matter what our relationship to food may be, there are herbal medicines that can make it easier for our bodies to do the hard work of digesting whatever it is we eat or drink. Herbs that work on the digestive system can provide a myriad of benefit to us – sparking digestive enzymes, stimulating our appetites, soothing and protecting the GI tract, supporting gut restoration, and preventing digestive distress and thus disease. Really, these plants coax our digestion back into balance if we’ve fallen astray. Or, they help us maintain balance if we’ve already achieved it. Plus, these herbs are most accessible (some of them are growing in your backyard as you read this!) and they are super fun to incorporate into ones lifestyle. Let’s take a look at some wonderful herbs that can offer us digestive support.
Bitters: Stoking the Digestive Fire
Many species in the wild world of plants are teeming with bitter flavor. Upon ingestion, the bitterness that these plants contain stimulates the production of saliva, gastric enzymes, and bile, all of which help to awaken the appetite, support liver and gallbladder function, and prepare the body for optimal digestion. Research reveals that the amount of digestive enzymes and stomach acids that the body produces decreases as we age, so we may need some herbal support to kick start our digestive processes into high gear. Beyond coffee and dark chocolate, the inclusion of bitterness in the diet has largely been lost to the annals of culture. Instead, we have an overload (oftentimes addictively so) to foods and drinks that contain an unruly amount of sweetness. However, if you want to ignite your digestion so that you can break down your food better, maximize your ability to absorb nutrients and process waste, bitters are where it’s at. Additionally, working with bitters can help overcome food cravings, specifically to sugar.
Take a squirt (1-2 mL) of a bitter tonic 15-30 minutes before you eat, or take it right after you are done with your meal. It’s important to actually taste the bitterness because that experience in and of itself activates a cascade of receptors on our tongue and throughout the digestive system. Bitters also help to stimulate bowel movements and prevent sluggish digestion so you’re not feeling bloated or stagnant after a meal.
Herbs To Calm a Nervous Stomach
If you are feeling anxious or just plain stressed out, your gut knows it immediately, and, perhaps more intimately then your brain does. Stress over long periods of time can compromise your digestive processes. Conversely, digestive issues can destabilize your mood and lead to anxiety. Many people who suffer from gut sensitivities without knowing why often have nerve endings in their GI tract that have become compromised. This is not an easily diagnosable situation to confirm.
The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is its own network of nerves that govern GI function. The hundreds of millions of nerves that the ENS is comprised of are in constant communication with our Central Nervous System (CNS). Nerve sensitivities account for a huge and often overlooked number of digestive issues. There are many factors and forces that can throw our nerves off, ongoing stress being at the pinnacle. In addition, our guts produce 90-95% of the serotonin in our bodies, a neurotransmitter that regulates our ability to feel happy and to relax, making it all the more important to maintain good digestive health and a relaxed disposition.
As important as it is to eat good quality food in a stress-free inner and outer environment, it’s not always accessible or feasible to conjure such ideal circumstances. Nor is it easy to re-train an autonomic nervous system into cooperating with your desire for better gut health. Therefore, call upon the following plants to be of service to easing a nervous stomach and facilitating a more relaxed and optimal digestion.
2.) Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) Chamomile acts specifically on the Enteric Nervous System that resides in the gut. Our Enteric Nervous System is actually much more sensitive to changes in the environment then our Central Nervous System is. Chamomile is calming to the intestines and stomach and acts as a soothing anti-spasmodic. If you tend to hold stress in your stomach, if your muscles clench in your abdomen, if your not breathing from deep within the belly, or if you feel pain somewhere in your GI tract after you eat, try Chamomile. Chamomile has been used to soothe a nervous stomach, treat IBS, colic, gas, diarrhea, cramps, indigestion, and the like, for ages. It has an affinity for the nervous system that governs our digestion so is ideal for those that hold tension in their bodies. It’s also a totally safe and effective remedy for children. Drinking a cup of Chamomile tea after a meal is a perfectly delicious way to access this medicine, as well as working with it in a tincture form, which can be a more convenient way to have it on the go.
3.) Lemonbalm (Melissa officinalis) Lemonbalm, or Melissa, is a great ally for a nervous stomach. Within this wonderful plant, certain alkaloids reside that calm the nerve receptors in the GI tract, helping to reduce digestive distress and inflammation in the gut. Lemonbalm has the ability to relax smooth muscle, ease muscle spasms throughout the entire gut, and reduce abdominal pain. Melissa is in the mint family, and like all mint family plants with their outstanding array of volatile oils, it can help with digestive and anxiety related issues. Call upon any mint family plant to help facilitate better digestion and calmer states of being. Lemonbalm also detoxifies the liver, spleen, and kidneys. Work with Melissa if you have a nervous or sensitive stomach, or as a carminative herb to treat colic, indigestion, flatulence, or IBS. This plant is safe for children, pleasant and zesty to the taste, and truly contains multitudes of beneficial actions that go far beyond lending digestive support.
Demulcent Herbs to Soothe the Gut
The word Demulcent is derived from the Latin word for “Caress”. Demulcents literally caress our guts with soothing mucilage - a thick, gooey substance that helps to coat and soften inflammation along the mucous membranes within the digestive tract. Demulcent herbs help reduce irritation and dryness throughout the gut. Demulcents are wonderful to get things moving in cases of constipation, can help ease or eliminate stomach ulcers, treat colitis, tone down muscle spasms, and soothe intestinal discomfort of various kinds. Here are a few examples of some time-tested Demulcents.
4.) Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)- Marshmallow, or Althaea, is a gentle herb for soothing any inflammation along the GI tract. This isn’t the kind of marshmallow that you melt over a fire to make s’mores with, but it does have a similar quality – the roots of Althaea contain mucilage, a sticky and sweet polysaccharide, making it pleasing to the taste with ingredients that unlike grocery store bought marshmallows, actually provide deep nourishment and restoration to the body. The mucilage contained acts as a gentle laxative, and can help with discomfort around inflammatory conditions such as IBS, ulcers, diverticulitis, and gastritis.
To work with this plant, it’s advised to make a cold infusion as opposed to a hot tea. You don’t want to burn the long chain polysaccharides that make up the mucilage and the medicine that this plant contains. So, add 1-2 Tablespoons of Marshmallow root to 1 cup of cold or room temperature water and let it soak for a few hours until the liquid takes on a gooey, thick quality, then strain and enjoy. This is a very safe and delicious herb to use into perpetuity. You can also work with this plant as a powder and add it to smoothies, as well. The tea can also be used as an enema if you desire more direct healing from the bottom up.
5.) Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra): This plant is considered a cooling tonic and is used as a soothing demulcent to protect mucous membranes of the GI tract. Licorice releases secretions that protect the gut lining against stomach acid and other digestive juices that can cause discomfort. Licorice was found in a trial with 100 people that had peptic ulcers to be effective, some of which were completely cured of their ulcer after the trial. Licorice has anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory properties. The dynamic nature of this herb allows for it to have both a gentle laxative affect while also being antidiarrheal.
Licorice should rarely be used in isolation or in large doses or even for long periods of time. It is considered a potent synergist, meaning that it works best when combined with other herbs to increase the actions of all medicines. It would be ideal to combine with other digestive allies such as Ginger, Chamomile, or Fennel to create a well-rounded digestive formula. Go easy with dosage on this one; the sweetness contained is much stronger then sugar and can rightfully be used as a substitute. Add a tiny pinch of the dry root to tea blends, or throw a touch of the powder in with drinks or treats. A little bit goes a long way.
Carminative Herbs to Relieve Gas + Bloating
Carminative herbs work by preventing or relieving gas through a variety of different methods. They are perfect for those that feel heavy or bloated after meals or struggle with stagnation or constipation. These herbs can be warming or cooling or both. Carminatives have a long history in Ayurvedic Medicine. Their primary mode of action is via the complex array of volatile oils that they contain. The oils contain terpenes that have antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory affects that specifically target the bowel. Carminatives tend to stimulate the mucus membranes in the digestive tract, encouraging motility and peristalsis.
6.) Ginger (Zingiber officinale): Ginger is a tasty, aromatic, and time-tested digestive aid for an upset stomach. Ginger root is one of the most commonly used spices in the world; just about every culture has some affiliation with it. It is used extensively in Ayurveda, where Ginger goes by many names and is used to treat flatulence, colic, dyspepsia, indigestion, lack of appetite, and stomach spasms. It is effective at reducing nausea and stopping diarrhea. Ginger is also a great circulation enhancer, bringing warmth throughout the whole body and preventing sluggish digestion.
Like Licorice, Ginger is also considered a synergist; meaning that when it is combined with other medicines will potentiate them all. According to herbalist and writer Stephen Harrod Buhner, Ginger Root is most medicinal in its fresh form although brewing a tea with dry roots can be effective against certain digestive complaints. Juicing the root is a superior way to harness the medicine of Ginger, and then making a tea with the fresh fiber that is left over is all the better. If you find the flavor of Ginger to be too spicy, perhaps try this Ayurvedic formula of sautéing some fresh Ginger Root in ghee and adding it to milk with some honey to taste.
7.) Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): Here’s another common kitchen spice that makes for one of the best digestive aids out there. Fennel is an excellent carminative. The sweet and spicy flavor of these crunchy little seeds contains aromatic oils that reduce cramping, gas, and bloating. In Ayurvedic medicine, Fennel sparks Agni, or the digestive fires, within us. Fennel helps our body transform, absorb, and assimilate food. It is common in Ayurveda to toast Fennel seeds to eat right after a meal to aid in digestion and freshen the breath. Fennel can stimulate a dull appetite as well as relieve tension in the smooth muscle that governs digestion. Throw some fennel seeds into a hot tea after a meal to relieve digestive discomfort.
8.) Angelica (Angelica archangelica): Angelica is a master protective plant, or an “arch angel” to us humans. A warming aromatic herb, every single part of Angelica can be worked with medicinally. Traditionally, it is the root that is most sought after. A tea infusion of the roots or seeds whets the appetite, relieves flatulence, and supports kidney function. This plant is a time-tested bitter and a carminative herb so can be used interchangeably for both purposes. The terpenes (volatile oils) that reside within Angelica contain antispasmodic affects, helping to relieve intestinal spasms, indigestion, diarrhea, and gastric ulcers. This plant is loaded with antioxidants that prevent free radical damage to the tissues and relieve inflammation in the gut.
Herbs to Heal a Leaky Gut
Having a strong gut lining is a crucial component to good digestive health. When our gut lining is in tact, it acts as a barrier to protect foreign substances from making their way into the body. When our gut ecology is off (a condition known as dysbiosis) and our digestive processes are compromised (a natural byproduct of the western diet and lifestyle), our intestines become weakened and lose their integrity over time. Eventually, our gut lining deteriorates and harmful particles including toxins permeate through the intestinal lining and enter into our bloodstream. This throws our whole body way out of balance. Since our immune system resides in the gut, if there is intestinal permeability, or leakage, autoimmune conditions can result and a cascade of painful symptoms can emerge. The following herbs can be used to patch up a leaky gut, prevent further digestive damage, modulate the immune system, drive out harmful bacteria, and provide some deep healing.
9.) Calendula (Calendula officinalis): This radiant flower is traditionally used topically as an astringent and vulnerary, a plant that knits tissues together and heals wounds. Internally, it can be taken with the same idea – to patch up and heal our inner skin, aka our gut wall. Calendula’s actions are tightening and sealing, and can therefore plug up holes that exist along the mucous membranes of the intestines. Calendula also acts as a demulcent, a property that makes it ideal for cooling and soothing inflammation along the GI tract while protecting it from further damage. Calendula has been used as an anti-aging plant because it is loaded with antioxidants. Moreover, Calendula stops the growth of unwanted bacteria and is anti-fungal, so it’s a great remedy for balancing intestinal flora, which serves to heal dysbiosis and restore the integrity of the gut lining. Not only that, but this powerful bright bursting flower also supports the moving of lymphatic fluid while modulating the immune system, all of which circles back to preventing toxic build up and subsequently, autoimmune disorders which could be triggered by a leaky or compromised gut. I’d say Calendula is quite the all mighty flower to invite into your world to make it glow a little brighter. Brew whole flowers in tea, 2-3 heaping tablespoons per 1 cup of water. A tincture of this plant is also a great way to work with it.
10.) Plantain (Plantago major): This is a plant with a long folk history. Today, Plantain is most commonly used as a first aid remedy, where it is chewed up and applied topically as a poultice to bug bites, cuts, and wounds while out in nature. The leaf itself, once crushed, wet, and held on the skin, can provide instant relief from pain and irritation, draw out toxins, and accelerate the healing process. Plantain is one of the most abundant plants in nature. Anywhere grass or Dandelion proliferates, Plantain is likely there too. Internally, Plantain’s uses are not as well known but they are quite exceptional. Plantain contains a substance called allantoin, a chemical that stimulates cell growth and tissue regeneration, which can help heal a damaged intestinal lining, as well as treat ulcers and gastritis. Plantain is great for treating wounds on the outside as well as on the inside of the body. After all, leaky gut is basically a series of little wounds along the gut lining. Plantain can help to patch those up with the astringent qualities that it fosters, which help to seal and tighten the gut wall. Plantain also drives out unwanted pathogens and acts as a mild antibiotic, which can correct dysbiosis and encourage the gut to more readily restore itself. Moreover, Plantain contains mucilage, which coats the GI tract in an anti-inflammatory substance that both soothes the digestive tract while preventing further damage. If you have a backyard, Plantain is probably hanging out there. It makes a good tea chock full of nutrients and incredible gut healing potential.
As you can see, there are many plants that can be worked with to help our digestive processes function more efficiently. Always remember that plants are complex and have a broad spectrum of dynamics, therefore all of the herbs mentioned above go far beyond offering merely digestive support. They each contain multitudes and are irreducible in their essence. Here’s to radiant health, digestive ease, and warm and fuzzy gut feelings!
Top image: "Taraxaxum officinale" by Jacqueline Maloney