When you have an upset stomach, gas, bloating, pain, or really any digestive complaint, there is an herb that can help you.
While many people reach for a prescription or over-the-counter remedy, these are often not very helpful. Herbs and herbal combinations have been handed down through generations and are foods for the gut that nourish, protect, and improve the functioning of the entire digestive system.
Let’s take a look at some of the more powerful herbal aids that are used whenever you have a digestive complaint.
When you think of licorice, most people imagine a red candy snack you eat in the movie theater. Real licorice, the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra plant, is a much healthier thing to put in your mouth. Licorice has been used as traditional medicine for thousands of years; it is high in sterols, flavonoids, isoflavonoids, coumarins, quercetin, magnesium, manganese, silicon, zinc, and many other nutrients. It is both a nutritive to the digestive system and a healing aid for damaged tissues.
Traditionally, licorice has been added to herbal formulas to help colds/flu and fatigue, as an expectorant, and as a way to sweeten bitter medicine. Modern science has discovered that licorice acts to reduce inflammation, supports healthy immune function, protects the heart and liver, and exhibits antiviral and antibacterial properties.(1)
Licorice really shines, though, as a treatment for gastrointestinal conditions.
Licorice soothes and strengthens mucus membranes – and since the entire digestive tract is lined with mucus membranes, it can benefit a wide variety of conditions. Licorice works well for ulcers(2) and even canker sores(3) in the mouth. Taking licorice in a chewable form is often the best, as mixing it with saliva activates the herb. Licorice is also helpful for gastritis, reflux, indigestion, heart burn and even conditions such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and celiac disease.(4)
Licorice contains glycyrrhiza, which can increase blood pressure in some people, so using a deglycyrrhizinated type of licorice is recommended.
The leaves of the peppermint plant (Mentha piperita) have long been cultivated and used in traditional medicine, and it is now one of the most widely used herbal plants in the world. Sure, peppermint tastes great, but its popularity is based more on the benefits it brings to the digestive system than on how our taste buds feel about it.
The leaves of the peppermint plant contain flavonoids, beta-carotene, magnesium, potassium, selenium, zinc, and many vitamins. It has been shown through scientific study to have strong antibacterial and antiviral activity, acts as a powerful antioxidant, can support healthy immune function, and has cancer preventing properties.(5)
What peppermint really excels at is calming nerves; this is especially true of the nerves of the digestive system. Scientists call peppermint an antispasmodic because of the calming activity it has on the entire digestive system. Peppermint has been shown in animal studies to have a relaxing effect on the gastrointestinal tissue, and reduces pain associated with gas and bloating.(6) Peppermint improves the entire digestion process. Peppermint oil has been shown to be helpful in reducing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).(7)
People with reflux should use peppermint with caution because it can make the condition worse.
Ginger is better known as a spice, but scientists have been surprised at just how many conditions this herbal powerhouse can benefit. To date, more than 1,000 medical studies have been done on the root of this plant known as Zingiber officinalis. All the attention ginger is receiving is for good reason:
• It is packed full of powerful antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and phytonutrients. It has been shown in laboratory tests to be a powerful anti-inflammatory and cancer preventive, and to help reduce pain.(8)
• Ginger has long been known to fight nausea; which is why people drink ginger ale when they feel sick while traveling. This anti-nausea ability has been backed up scientifically by multiple studies. Ginger has proven effective for pregnancy-related nausea, chemotherapy induced nausea, and motion sickness.(9,10)
• Ginger also is a powerful antimicrobial and is being studied for reducing H. pylori infections, which have been shown to cause ulcers.(11)
• Ginger helps most symptoms of indigestion and has also been studied for use in people with ulcerative colitis.(12)
Overall, ginger is one of the best herbs you can use to relieve nausea and improve the functioning of the entire digestive tract.
Triphala, which means “three fruits,” is a health and digestive tonic from traditional Indian, or Ayurvedic medicine. It is made from the fruits of three trees, the amalaki fruit (Embelica officinalis), bibhitaki fruit (Terminalia belerica), and haritaki fruit (Terminalia chebula).
These fruits are high in vitamins and antioxidants. Triphala has been used for thousands of years – often for people who are suffering from digestive complaints. It works especially well for the elderly and people with sensitive stomachs.
Triphala has many properties that make it desirable as a digestive tonic. It works as a gentle laxative and improves assimilation of food for people with weak digestion. It improves the function of the entire digestive system. It reduces gas and can help to improve appetite.
* Dr. Scott Olson is a Naturopathic Doctor – trained as a primary care physician with added emphasis on supporting the healing powers of nature. He has an expert knowledge of nutritional medicine and botanicals, and is a much-published medical writer and researcher. Dr. Olson’s new book about the addictive qualities of sugar – Sugarettes: Sugar Addiction and Your Health – is available on Amazon.com.
Dr. Olson will host a Live Chat Q&A on nutrition, diet, weight control and health in the ProHealth.com Community Chat Rooms on Friday, Jan 9, 2009.
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9. Borrelli F, Capasso R, et al. Effectiveness and safety of ginger in the treatment of pregnancy-induced nausea and vomiting. Obstet Gynecol. 2005 Apr;105(4):849-56. PMID: 15802416
10. Levine ME, Gillis MG, et al. Protein and ginger for the treatment of chemotherapy-induced delayed nausea. J Altern Complement Med. 2008 Jun;14(5):545-51. PMID: 18537470
11. O’Mahony R, Al-Khtheeri H, Weerasekera D, et al. Bactericidal and anti-adhesive properties of culinary and medicinal plants against Helicobacter pylori. World J Gastroenterol. 2005 Dec 21;11(47):7499-507. PMID: 16437723
12. El-Abhar HS, Hammad LN, Gawad HS. Modulating effect of ginger extract on rats with ulcerative colitis. J Ethnopharmacol. 2008 May 15. PMID: 18571884
Note: This information has not been evaluated by the FDA. It is generic and is not meant to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure any disease. It is very important that you make no change in your healthcare plan or health support regimen without researching and discussing it in collaboration with your professional healthcare team.