10 common digestive herbs and how they benefit your health

Ninety per cent of serotonin is made in the gut. Did you know, serotonin helps the body regulate anxiety, happiness and mood? By eating well and feeding the healthy bacteria in your gut, the body’s ability to generate serotonin is significantly increased, helping you feel more relaxed, happy, and confident.

I recently took an introductory course on the importance of our digestive system and self care, and it’s re-inspired me to have a greater curiosity in the kitchen with plants. The course was given by Alex Laird, one of the Founding Directors of Living Medicine, a charity that aims to reskill us all in using food and herbs for our everyday healthcare, sharing knowledge across cultures. The course was held at Chelsea Physic Garden – a hidden green oasis – which is home to a unique living collection of around 5,000 different edible, useful, medicinal and historical plants.

The digestive system is now seen as fundamental to our overall health in most traditional medicine systems. Digestion has a strong influence on our nervous, hormonal and immune systems. The role of foods is now increasingly recognised in conditions not previously associated with diet: auto-immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis; mood and behaviour problems such as autism, ADHD and depression; degenerative disorders such as Alzheimers’s and arthritis; allergic conditions including asthma and eczema. Inflammation underlies these and most chronic disease like obesity, heart disease and cancer. We can modify these destructive inflammatory responses by the kinds of food we eat and how we eat them. Common problems like heartburn, indigestion and constipation can be managed with understanding how to use foods, herbs and spices in self care.

There are obviously other factors that affect our digestive health, such as our stress load: sleep, diet, alcohol, smoking, weight, liver function, circulation, mood, exercise, chemicals, food quality etc, but you can begin to support your digestive health by understanding the basic digestive functions and being mindful of your body.

The main points I took from the course were the importance of eating as much variety as possible – this sounds obvious but after seeing a small selection of herbs and spices in Chelsea Physic Garden, I was reminded of the vast natural variety – and also that the ‘medicine’ in plants is often found in the skin, plith and seeds. Medical Herbalist, Alex, encouraged us to enjoy all the different parts of a plant and experiment more in the kitchen; whether that’s by adding the stalks as well as leaves of fresh herbs to a salad, trying the inside plith of a banana skin or when cooking with garlic or onions keeping the skin on to enjoy the benefits of the pigment leaking into the stew.

Here are some common digestive herbs you should experiment with in your cooking, along with their health benefits:

1. Ginger

Ginger is warming and calming to the digestion, anti-nausea and anti-microbial to many common stomach bugs. Warms cold hands and feet.

2. Tumeric

Tumeric is carminative – meaning it can relieve bloating, liver supporting, an anti-microbial and a powerful anti-inflammatory.

3. Fennel

Fennel can also help relieve bloating and is stimulating to the liver. It improves appetite, increases milk production and eases colic. It expels upper respiratory catarrh, is an eyewash for conjunctivitis and has a balancing oestrogenic action.

4. Caraway

Caraway is a supreme herb for the digestive system, eases stomach cramps and nausea, helps expel gas from the bowel and prevent fermentation in the stomach.

5. Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a warming stimulant to appetite and circulation. Antiviral, antibacterial and anti fungal. Helps reduce blood sugar and ulcer causing Helicobacter pylori.

6. Garlic

Garlic is anti-microbial, and probiotic due to its inulin and other compounds, which supports cardio-vascular health. Onion, shallot and leek etc belong to the same Allium genus family and have similar actions.

7. Rosemary 

Rosemary is a stimulating carminative that helps to clear your liver and head.

8. Peppermint

Peppermint is refreshing as well as antispasmodic, cooling and anti-microbial. It’s useful in coughs and colds, supports liver function and helps stop itching when used topically.

9. Dill

Dill is calming and can be used as a sedative. It’s useful to promote restful sleep, dispel colic and cramping pain. It’s a key ingredient in gripe water.

10. Allspice

Allspice is warming and settling to the gut. The eugenol content promotes digestive enzymes, is analgesic and antiseptic. Most beneficial when drank as a tea after a meal.

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