Digestion & GI health
Herbs for healing digestive imbalance
Dr. Mary James, ND
To learn more about the intricate connections between emotions and our digestion,
see our other articles on GI health:
Long before Pepcid®, Alka-Seltzer®, TUMS® or Pepto-Bismol® hit the shelves of your
local “apothecary,” people everywhere regularly turned to the plants that were already
growing around them to heal their digestive system complaints. Today, many of these
same botanical remedies remain in widespread use for common symptoms of
digestive system problems. Bouts of nausea, motion sickness, morning sickness,
vomiting, heartburn, dyspepsia, bloating, belching, flatulence, or diarrhea, when
occasional or mild, can all be self-treated, frequently to good effect. More serious
or persistent digestive disorders, such as intestinal infections, diarrhea, chronic
acid reflux, inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis),
or peptic ulcers, among others, should be discussed with a qualified professional.
While these more problematic digestive concerns can also be treated with herbs,
results can be much more variable, and professional guidance is important to ensure
a successful outcome.
Meant for the milder or occasional GI upset, this is an introduction to a handful
of gentle, “kitchen-garden” remedies that are often effective. Most women can safely
use these herbs as antidotes to the occasional GI upsets we nearly all experience
from time to time. (If your GI symptoms persist or worsen, do consult with a qualified
healthcare professional for assistance.)
The botanical nervines
For healthy digestive function, our bodies must be in a relaxed state. When we’re
in an anxious, fight-or-flight state, digestion always takes a back seat to dealing
with the stressor. When we eat in this state, it’s common to develop digestive disturbances.
For those whose digestion is easily disrupted by emotional upset, botanical nervines
can have a pronounced positive effect on the nervous system that is followed naturally
with relief in the digestive system. They do this by reducing the stress response
— an adaptive triggering of the sympathetic nervous system accompanied by a simultaneous
turn-off of any other bodily function not required in an emergency for survival.
In essence, these herbs help heal our nervous stomachs by making us more serene.
Certain plants have what are called adaptogenic effects. This means they
are capable of having opposite actions — relaxing or stimulating — depending on
what is needed at a particular moment in time in a person’s body. In the case of
nervines, some herbs can function both as relaxant nervines —
which are thought to work by relaxing constricted or contracted tissues
in the nervous system — and as stimulant nervines — thought to stimulate
lax or stagnant tissues in the nervous system. Other herbs are more nutritive for
the nervous system. Here are five great botanical herbs that aid digestion.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita and Mentha spp.) for digestion
The use of essential oil of peppermint as a digestive aid probably dates back to
ancient Greece. Several thousand years later, a body of scientific research now
exists that supports its use, particularly in the form of delayed-release, enteric-coated
peppermint oil capsules, for symptomatic relief of
irritable bowel syndrome. An enteric coating on the capsule allows for the
oil of peppermint to pass undegraded, through the more acidic upper regions of the
GI tract, to the lower intestine, where, as reported in the British Medical Journal
more than 30 years ago, it has the effect of a gentle smooth-muscle relaxant, serving
to calm digestive spasm, inhibit GI contraction, relieve gas, and reduce pain and
Herbal preparations — some terms
What’s the difference between a tea, a tisane, an infusion, a decoction, and a tincture?
Here are some of the many methods we employ to capture the essential oils and additional
active constituents found in medicinal plants.
- Tisane — an herbal “tea” brewed in water from any plant
materials other than the true tea plant (Camellia sinensis)
- Infusion — similar to a tisane or decoction, but generally
more potent, with the plant materials left to steep in oil or boiling water for
- Decoction — prepared by boiling ground-up or mashed plant
materials in water, then straining the preparation
- Tincture — an extract prepared by placing herbs or other
plant material in a jar with ethanol or another form of alcohol, allowing it to
stand for a couple weeks or longer, shaken periodically, then strained. Vinegar
or glycerin is sometimes used in place of alcohol.
A cautionary note: enteric-coated peppermint is well-tolerated at the commonly recommended
dosages, but higher doses may cause adverse effects. Caution is also urged with
anyone with GI reflux, hiatal hernia, or kidney stones. Please see a qualified naturopath
or herbalist for advice and guidance.
Additional applications include its topical use: Soak a clean towel in hot water
containing a few drops of peppermint oil, then apply to the abdomen for 20–30 minutes,
two to three times daily, as a comforting compress for bloating or distention.
But you need not suffer from a digestive disorder to enjoy peppermint, at least
in the form of peppermint tea. No adverse reactions have been reported from peppermint
tea, and it may well be the mostly widely consumed, single-ingredient, herbal tisane.
The most delicate and the most “cast-iron” of stomachs, alike, will find an after-dinner
cup of peppermint tea quite soothing, thanks to its delicate aroma, flavor, and
all the beneficial effects on digestion described above. If you have a sweet tooth
but, high-carb desserts bother your digestion or your sleep — especially after the
evening meal — try it with or without a dollop of honey or agave nectar in place
of dessert. Your digestion will thank you!
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita, M. chamomilla, Chamomilla recutita) for
Chamomile is a botanical nervine that is popular for digestive symptoms, used singly
or in combination, as a tisane, tincture, or homeopathically. Sometimes referred
to as “mother of gut,” chamomile has traditionally been prescribed in the treatment
of both acute and chronic gastric distress, such as inflammation and cramps of the
digestive organs. Though scientific studies on humans are limited, there is research
on extracts of dried chamomile flowers demonstrating spasmolytic (spasm-dissolving)
and anxiolytic (anxiety-dissolving) effects. Along with chamomile’s antimicrobial
and anti-inflammatory properties, these actions may explain its overall soothing
effect on digestion.
Numerous chemical compounds have been isolated from chamomile flowers, including
apigenin. The pharmacologic effects of this phenolic flavonoid are not
fully understood, but apigenin has been noted to have an affinity for GABA receptors
in the brain, where it may exert a natural inhibitory effect on our central nervous
system. (This same mechanism explains the action of some barbiturates and anti-anxiety
drugs.) Generally recognized as safe and well tolerated, chamomile may, however,
cause rare allergic symptoms in those sensitive to plants in the sunflower (Asteraceae),
celery (Umbelliferae), or onion (Amaryllidaceae) families.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis); rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis);
and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) for digestion
Often formulated into combination products, lemon balm, rosemary, and valerian are
three additional botanical nervines that can help dispel digestive spasm, relieve
excess gas, calm queasiness, and diminish pain. There is somewhat limited clinical
evidence to support their use, but based upon observation and available research,
these herbs are generally well-tolerated and can be taken orally to help reduce
symptoms of GI disturbance.
Lemon balm, also known as bee balm or Melissa, is another member of the
mint family used internationally for centuries to allay gas, spasm, and dyspepsia,
as well as to increase “calmness.” Rosemary is noted for its antispasmodic effects,
and the German Commission E has approved the use of rosemary leaf for the treatment
of dyspepsia. Research into the active constituents of medicinal plants often turns
up biochemical similarities between different species. Rosemary and lemon balm,
for instance, share the polyphenol compound known as rosmarinic acid. Valerian is
better known for its effects on restlessness and nervous sleep disturbance, and
is often formulated with other herbs such as hops or lemon balm for use as a mild
sedative or anxiolytic. Historically, valerian has also been used for gastrointestinal
problems such as intestinal spasm and flatulence (gas).
Other herbal digestive aids
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) for digestion
With origins in traditional Ayurvedic, Mid-Eastern and Mediterranean Basin medicine,
preparations of fennel leaves and seeds are noted to help prevent and relieve gassiness
and diminish bloating, heartburn, and constipation. Fennel is also believed to promote
the secretion of digestive enzymes and to improve a weak appetite. For infants with
colic, fennel has also been traditionally given as a tea in combination with other
medicinal herbs, or as a fennel seed emulsion. In one small trial, significant relief
of colic symptoms was noted, with no side effects reported. Fennel is generally
recognized as safe, though may rarely cause an allergic reaction. It is not recommended
for use in pregnancy.
Ginger root (Zingiber officinale) for digestion
Ginger root has been used and studied extensively over time for a wide range of
biological activities. There is considerable experimental data, collected by scientists
worldwide, regarding ginger root’s ability to strengthen and mildly stimulate the
stomach and intestines, as well as to calm nausea and vomiting. The active constituents
are chemical compounds called gingerols, which function as inhibitors of
pro-inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins. Ginger formulations have
been relied upon to soothe travelers’ queasiness both on land and sea — even (experimentally)
in space! — as well as by women in first-trimester pregnancy to quell morning sickness.
Some of the diverse properties attributed to ginger include anti-ulcer, digestive,
antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-nausea (anti-emetic), and anti-motion
sickness. It can be used in the form of fresh ginger root or ginger juice, in teas
or decoctions, ginger ale, or dried and encapsulated ginger root powder.
A bitters formulation may be an
infusion, tincture, or distillation (usually in some type of spirits), of
aromatic herbs, barks, fruits, and roots. Bitters have a range of medicinal qualities,
but the primary effect is to improve digestion. This occurs predominantly through
enhanced production of digestive enzymes, by nutritive support of the epithelial
lining of the GI tract, and by reducing intestinal irritation and inflammation.
Many different bitters formulations exist, handed down through the ages from elders
familiar with the native flora. Swedish bitters, probably the most well-known here
in the Western world, has its origins in 16th-century Europe, where it was used
for a number of GI symptoms, including stomach cramps. One “original” recipe is
believed to have been a tincture of aloe, myrrh, saffron, senna leaves, camphor,
Angelica root, rhubarb root, and other ingredients of a somewhat esoteric
nature, in a mixture of several different spirits. Nowadays, there are a number
of different preparations labeled “Swedish bitters” that contain more variable combinations
of herbs from around the globe. Turmeric (Curcuma longa), cardamom seed,
milk thistle seed, fennel seed, dandelion root, gentian root, ginger root, and other
herb leaves, flowers, bark, roots, or seeds are among the many plants used. Citrus
essences, such as bitter orange or lemon, are frequently added as flavorings to
Angostura bitters, which most people think of as a cocktail ingredient, was originally
compounded as a remedy for stomach maladies. A few drops in mineral water ‘to taste’
makes a welcome digestion-enhancing alternative to the drink menu list of sugary
sodas, alcoholic beverages, and fruit juices. It owes its refreshing taste to the
bark of the Angostura tree and gentian root, among other ingredients.
Digestive herbs — more than just for taste
These are just a few of the many herbs with a long tradition of use for digestive
upset. Look for these herbs at your health food or grocery store, in your garden,
or at the office of a local naturopath or herbalist, and give them a try. Keep in
mind that no one treatment will work for everyone in the same way, and there are
myriad additional components to a natural approach to healing digestion. And as
always, before using herbs to treat an ongoing or chronic digestive condition, it’s
wise to consult a qualified herbalist, naturopath, practitioner of Oriental medicine,
or Functional Medicine practitioner. You can heal your digestion naturally, given
time and the proper support, but sometimes it takes professional assistance — from
someone with knowledge and expertise — to not only rule out potentially more serious
conditions, but also to create a platform from which you can then draw on Nature’s
herbal compendium to maintain your digestive wellness.
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References & further
reading on healing herbs for digestive problems
Last Modified Date: 06/17/2014