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Herbs can help your digestion.

In my first book, The Nutrition Detective (now out of print), published in 1985, I emphasized that we are not what we eat, but what we eat, digest, and absorb. Being able to digest your food is as important as choosing healthy ingredients. Digestion is what makes it possible for the nutrients in the foods you eat to be broken down into small enough particles to get into your cells.

I've talked before about the importance of chewing your food well so its nutrients can be broken down and utilized (August 2000 and September 1995). I also spoke about taking friendly bacteria, like acidophilus and bifidus, which produce enzymes that help digest foods and help prevent irritable bowel disease. In addition, the plant kingdom offers inexpensive and effective ways for getting rid of gas, bloating, and other signs of indigestion. Herbs can affect various stages of digestion, so choose the ones that best match your symptoms.


Many Indian restaurants have a little dish of fennel seeds by the cash register because fennel helps eliminate gas, preventing bloating after a rich meal. They are known as carminatives.

Carminatives have several properties. They help you belch up trapped air; they increase the secretion of stomach acids that help digestion; and they relax your intestines, allowing gas to be passed. Some carminatives act as cholagogues, promoting the flow of bile from the gallbladder that, in turn, promote the digestion and absorption of fats.

Peppermint oil is the most well known and widely used of all carminatives. Most of its activity comes from the menthol it contains. Scientific studies, including the German Commission E monograph, have found peppermint oil effective in reducing upper intestinal spasms, in stimulating bile flow, and in promoting stomach secretions. I have used enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules that don't open until they get into the lower intestines to treat irritable bowel disease for more than a dozen years. To help your digestion, drink a cup of peppermint tea half an hour before your meal and repeat this three or four times a day.

German chamomile flowers, the species commonly sold in this country, contain an oil that reduces inflammation and spasms. Their anti-inflammatory properties separate it from peppermint, which is why many people drink a combination of peppermint and chamomile for their digestion. To use, steep the chamomile flowers for fifteen minutes, and drink between meals the same as peppermint. Since chamomile flowers contain the active oil, whenever possible buy small amounts of chamomile flowers in your health food store, rather than powdered chamomile. All varieties of chamomile are members of a plant family that include asters and ragweed. Rarely, someone allergic to ragweed cannot tolerate chamomile.

Ginger root is both a carminative and antispasmodic. It is well known in India and other countries for its digestive properties. You can use fresh ginger root in cooking, drink ginger tea (found in health food stores and some supermarkets), or eat an occasional piece of candied ginger.

Other carminatives include spearmint, anise, caraway, and coriander. Their activity is weaker than peppermint or chamomile, but if you have a sensitivity to either of the first two, these plants are a safe substitution. Take a teaspoon of any of these seeds, crush them, and steep in a cup of boiling water for fifteen minutes.

Breaking down fats: cholagogues

If you have pain in the upper part of your stomach that gets worse after you eat fatty foods, you may not have enough bile to digest fats. If this is the case, you may need a cholagogue, something that either helps empty your gallbladder of bile or helps your liver produce more of it if necessary.

Turmeric root, an ingredient in curry powder, contains a volatile oil with a substance called curcumin that acts specifically on bile and also has significant anti-inflammatory properties. Recent studies indicate it may also protect the liver and guard against cancer, but it's too early to say for certain. We do know that the German Commission E monograph says that turmeric is a safe and effective digestive aid. The active ingredients in turmeric are not watersoluble, so buy this herb in an alcohol tincture and take according to directions (HerbPharm, 800-348-4372).

Milk thistle seeds, made into a tea (1 tsp of ground seeds to a cup of boiling water), increases the secretion of bile from the liver and gallbladder. It also detoxifies the liver and is used to reverse liver damage from exposure to toxic chemicals.

Dandelion root is often used to promote bile flow, and is a diuretic high in potassium. Since it's used to counteract liver and gallbladder congestion, your parents or grandparents may have used tender young dandelion leaves (either fresh or steamed) as a spring tonic. You can use dandelion root tea or fresh dandelion leaves.


If you have an ulcer, or a pre-ulcerous condition, you shouldn't take anything that stimulates stomach acid secretion. Nor should you take digestive enzymes or hydrochloric acid (HCl). But licorice root may be just the answer. Studies show it is very useful in treating peptic ulcers. Don't overdo licorice, either in an herbal tea, or in licorice candy since too much can cause headaches, water retention, loss of potassium, and high blood pressure. The German Commission E monograph suggests that licorice be used for ulcer treatment for no more than four to six weeks. If you have heart disease, liver or kidney problems, or a potassium deficiency, do not use this herb unless you are under the care of a physician.

When herbs are not enough

If you have no ulcer and no serious health problem that's causing your discomfort, and herbs are not enough, it may be time to take digestive enzymes. I've never found that papain, which comes from unripened pineapples, is particularly effective. But you can find either plant-based or animal-based enzymes that will help you digest protein, fats, and carbohydrates. One such formula is Women's Preferred Digestaid, which also includes lactase for help with lactose intolerance.

My suggestion is to chew better, eat when you're relaxed, use herbs to help your digestion, and then take digestive enzymes.

Hoffman, David, B.Sc, Healthy Digestion, Storey Books, 2000.

Robbers, James E, Ph.D., Tyler, Varro E., Ph.D., ScD., Tyler's Herbs of Choice, The Haworth Herbal Press, 1999.

RELATED ARTICLE: Swedish bitters.

In Europe, many people use a patented herbal combination of nearly a dozen herbs known as Swedish Bitters to help their digestion. This formula was discovered in the 16th century by Paracelsus and is still used today. If you want a preparation that's ready to use, you may want to try this formula either by itself or added to chamomile or peppermint teas.
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Publication:Women's Health Letter
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
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