Herbs for Digestive Health
by Kyla Sheffield
The scientific world is finally discovering just how much of our health & wellbeing is related to our gut health – from immunity to depression and beyond. Herbs can play a significant role in helping maintain digestive health – from easing digestive upset, soothing colic and gas pain, assisting digestion of proteins, promoting good gut flora, soothing inflammation and healing the gut lining.
HAPPY BELLY = HAPPY YOU
One way to approach how herbs can help you is through looking at their main therapeutic action (physiological effect). Of course, many herbs will fit into multiple categories, as each plant can have many different healing actions. Nevertheless, here’s a breakdown of some of the beneficial actions herbs can offer for your intestinal health:
Carminatives are mainly aromatic plants that assist in dispelling gas from the intestines. They are used for colic, cramping and flatulence. They are great after a heavy meal, or anytime to soothe an upset stomach or nausea. Some of them, such as lemon balm or chamomile, also have a calming action which can assist when stress or anxiety is a factor. Some of them are antimicrobials, helping to fight off unwanted bugs at the same time!
Ginger – Top choice for nausea, potent antimicrobial with digestive enzymes.
Peppermint – Refreshing, stimulating, settling, great after heavy meals.
Lemon Balm – Calming, soothing. Great for children’s colic.
Chamomile – Calming, soothing, relaxing digestive
Fennel – Excellent for gas & bloating, also a soothing demulcent
Anise, Cardamom, Dill, Cumin, Caraway & Oregano are also great choices
The use of bitter herbs and foods to aid digestion has a long history. We now understand that the bitter flavour initiates a series of actions in the body, helping to prepare our digestive system for the food we are about to ingest. This ‘bitter reflex’ stimulates digestion by triggering the release of enzymes, hormones and digestive secretions such as saliva, acids and bile. This in turn helps stimulate appetite, intestinal peristalsis & liver detoxification, as well as helping to regulate blood sugar and maintain gut wall health. Some excellent bitter herbs include:
Dandelion Root – Great liver detoxifier, stimulates bile flow & digestion, mild laxative
Mugwort – Not just a women’s or dreaming herb. Assists fat & protein digestion
Gentian – Bitter digestive and liver tonic, strengthens the system
Wormwood – Extremely bitter, anti-parasitic and antimicrobial
Barberry – Tonifying to liver & digestion, antimicrobial, mild laxative in high doses
Goldenseal – Liver & digestive tonic, potent antimicrobial, tonifies mucous membranes
Aloe – Soothing laxative with digestive enzymes
Yarrow – Astringent and tonifying, improves appetite
Calendula – Mildly bitter & tonifying, also anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory & soothing
Burdock Root, Artichoke, Turmeric, Milk Thistle all benefit the liver & digestion
Demulcents help to soothe, coat and soften inflamed mucous membranes of the digestive tract (the same as an emollient, but used internally). This action is usually due to their mucilage content, which are long chain polysaccharides that combine with water to create a slippery, semi-solid mass. In terms of digestion, demulcents are used for heartburn, constipation, inflammation, irritation, colitis, gastritis, ulcers, Crohn’s Disease, diarrhoea, diverticulitis, and IBS. Basically, any time there is irritation, a demulcent can help soothe it!
Liquorice – Sweet, soothing & anti-inflammatory, recommended for gastritis & ulcers
Marshmallow – Soothing & softening, used for heartburn, colitis, Crohn’s, ulcers
Slippery Elm – Soothing, great for IBS, heartburn, indigestion, constipation, diarrhoea
Fenugreek – Warming & soothing
Flax – Soothing, softening, can help sweep the intestines of waste
Aloe – Also bitter, laxative and antimicrobial, a great all-rounder for digestive health
Laxatives come in 2 main categories: Bulking and purgative. Bulking laxatives contain large amounts of fibre, helping to sweep the intestines of unwanted waste, they need to be taken with lots of water (or you might have the opposite effect!). Purgative laxatives stimulate peristaltic action of the colon (often by irritating it!), and need to be taken with caution – ideally only when other remedies aren’t working. Most colon cleansing programs will include both types of laxatives (check out Eden Healthfoods IDF#1 and IDF#2). Also, don’t forget the WATER WATER WATER. Without enough liquid, stools become hard…simple as that!
Psyllium Husk – Most common bulking agent, used in many herbal laxative formulas
Flax Seeds – Ground or whole seeds soaked in water creates a slippery intestinal broom
Chia – More of a superfood than an herb, these little seeds help lubricate the intestines
Cascara Sagrada – One of the most common & effective herbal laxatives
Senna – Used in many laxative & weight loss formulas or as a tea, also diuretic
Rhubarb – Used in many formulas, may cause griping in high doses
Aloe – Fresh aloe flesh or aloe juice is a milder alternative to the powder or extract.
There are also many foods that can assist in smooth movements. Prunes is a well known remedy. Another way to get things moving is to lubricate the intestines with some oil – 1 Tablespoon of flax or hemp oil in fresh orange juice is a tasty choice. Some people also swear by a salt flush: 2 tsp epsom salts (or sea salt also works) in 1 cup of water or juice (warning – some find this hard to get down!). Also, don’t forget exercise – you gotta get moving to get moving!
May herbs possess antimicrobial properties, and some have an affinity for the digestive system. Many of them are also bitter herbs that stimulate liver and digestive function, others are carminatives that help dispel gas and can help calm an upset stomach (see above). Antibiotic overuse is a serious issue, and many infections can be effectively treated with herbs. Some excellent choices include:
Wormwood – Extremely bitter anti-parasitic
Oregano – Aromatic carminative, excellent for bacterial, fungal & parasitic infections
Olive Leaf – Antibacterial bitter tonic
Goldenseal – Antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral & antiparasitic, bitter and tonifying
Barberry – Antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral & antiparasitic, bitter and tonifying
Garlic – Pungent and potent antibacterial & antifungal
Ginger – Antiviral and antibacterial, a powerhouse against pathogens
PROBIOTICS & DIGESTIVE ENZYMES
Probiotics foods & supplements are key ingredients in digestive health. You can replenish your beneficial bacteria with naturally fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso or kefir. We also stock some excellent probiotic supplements. Certain herbs and foods contain digestive enzymes that help your stomach break down fats & proteins. These include:
Papaya – Contains papain, helps break down protein. Benefit IBS & possibly cancer!
Ginger – Contains zingibain, helps prevent indigestion & nausea
Aloe – Contains lipase & amylase which help break down fats & starches respectively
Pineapple – Contains bromelain for protein digestion, also benefits allergies & inflammation
Well…that’s quite a list to get your started and keep you busy loving your gut!
Remember…A happy belly = a happy you 😉
Last but not least – here’s a simple video recipe for a Digestive Tea Blend: