Ahhh, the aftermath of Thanksgiving – a glorious feast followed by the inevitable belly bloat and gas that makes us question some of our choices. It's very normal to indulge in big holiday meals and thankfully there are many natural plants to soothe that indulgent tummy! These natural gut-friendly options are great for supporting digestion, easing gas and feeling less full and bloated.
Below we'll explore amazing digestive herbs that help our bodies. You'll notice that I include the botanical names for these herbs. We do this in herbalism because there are so many common names around the world in different languages - or even regionally within the United States - for the same exact plants. So by including the botanical name, this helps make sure everyone is on the same page about the plants.
We also uncover interesting info about how to actually prime ourselves for optimal digestion - such as with probiotics, prebiotics and digestive bitters. These natural remedies help us before we even eat, so consider it like preventative belly-bloat measures.
Here's useful educational information on how to take these natural remedies, when to take them and why they support gut health!*
Cinnamon ( Cinnamomum verum): A Sweet Spice that's oh-so Nice
Cinnamon comes from a tree bark, native to Asia, West Indies, Africa, South America. It’s a small bushy evergreen tree with pink-brownish bark and as you might expect, just scratching the bark smells amazing. The leaves vary from green to purplemand the flowers are fragrant, yellowish-green.
Cinnamon’s etymology derives from the Hebrew word qinnāmōn/ קינמון. This is interesting that it comes from Hebrew, as not many English words do. It likely speaks to its use in biblical times and has been truly used throughout the ages by many traditional cultures for food as medicine. It was one of the main key spices sought after in the Spice Trade.
Cinnamon’s lovely sweet flavor makes it a key ingredient in many culinary spice dishes and treats, especially around the Fall or Thanksgiving.
But it’s also great for easing bloating! Its demulcent qualities help support digestive tissue lining. Demulcent herbs are herbs that create stickiness and help soothe and protect cells, particularly in the digestive tract. Cinnamon is also used for peptic ulcers, diarrhea, vomiting and all those troublesome digestive woes.
Cinnamon has also been used traditionally for cardiovascular support and the circulatory system. It soothes urinary infections and inflamed tissues of the bladder, and it has a antiseptic and analgesic or relieving effects. It's a great addition to natural toothpaste or tooth powders, due to its antiseptic properties and affinity for the gums.
Note: I refer to Cinnamomum verum but many of the qualities can be referenced with other forms of Cinnamon such as Cinnamomum cassia which is more commonly used in the USA.
How to use cinnamon for your digestion:
One of the best ways to take cinnamon for belly bloat is simply infuse long cinnamon sticks or chops in cold water and let them sit for 20 minutes - a few hours. The benefits of cinnamon water are that the drink will be incredibly tasty and its help with the digestive process. Or you could easily make a hot cinnamon tea, by adding hot water over cinnamon sticks or chips. You could also use the powder, it will just feel more silty which some people don't like that kind of thicker texture.
Marshmallow Root (Althaea officinalis): Not Just for S'mores
No, it won't turn your belly into a fluffy treat, but marshmallow root can work wonders for digestive distress. This root contains mucilage, a gooey substance that coats and soothes the digestive tract.
I love Marshmallow Root so much, I even created a rap about why this is such a magical plant! Yes, you can absolutely view that rap here on my Instagram @nurtureforall.
How to use marshmallow root for your digestion:
Prepare it as a cool infusion to get the most out of its demulcency. You would let this steep for at least 1 hour in cold water, ideally overnight, for diarrhea and inflamed tissues. To help with constipation, you can also infuse it in cool water and drink immediately which would help hydrate and move stool out. This is a great herb for Crohn’s Disease, Colitis, other IBD issues, IBS, diverticulitis, gastritis and GERD.
Mint (Mentha spp): Mother Nature's Belly Bloat Buster
Mint is a breath-freshening, belly-soothing superstar. Whether it's peppermint or spearmint, this carminative herb helps break up gas. Most of us have had mint before -we use the mint leaves - and will feel refreshed and soothed pretty instantly. One of the key reasons mint does this is because it has strong antispasmodic properties that help soothe the intestines when they digest and stop that cramping feeling or bloat which is creating built-up pressure.
As the beloved herbalist David Hoffman writes in Medical Herbalism,
"Peppermint is an excellent carminative with with relaxing effects on the muscles of the digestive system. It combats flatulence, flatulent dyspepsia, intestinal colic, and associated conditions, and stimulates the flow of bile and digestive juices. The volatile oil acts as a mild anesthetic to the stomach wall, allaying feelings of nausea and the desire to vomit". (Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, page 568).
In other words, Mint can be a great friend for the gut and is a simple culinary herb that has abundant benefits. However, if you're very prone to acid reflux or GERD, you may want to avoid mint because sometimes it can be overstimulating to the esophageal lining.
How to use mint for your digestion:
Sip on mint tea or add fresh leaves to your water for a refreshing twist.
Fun fact: if you slap fresh mint against the side of your wrist first, that will help release some of the volatile oils that aid in digestive support. Fresh mint will be more ideal than dried because it has more of those oils, but dried is still great too!
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): The Seed of Calm
Fennel is one of the best natural remedies for belly bloat. It's a plant that flourishes in sunshine, growing over 7' tall and has beautiful yellow flowers that bloom in summer! Fennel seeds are commonly chewed on in India and Asian countries, after a heavy meal. It's a wonderful part of many Ayurvedic formulas.
The seed tea or tincture is effective for treating intestinal spasms and belly bloat, and many gastrointestinal conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s Disease, SIBO, leaky gut syndrome, Celiac’s Disease, and more.
Dr. Jill Stansbury, a famous naturopathic doctor, writes:
"Fennel is a fast-acting carminative for gas and bloating, and mint is one of the strongest intestinal antispasmodics that I have encountered." (Herbal Formularies for Health Professionals: Digestion and Elimination, page 31).
This is a great book if you're a holistic health professional, herbal student or really just want fantastic natural medical and scientific information on herbs for digestive support. You can get the book easily here.
How to use fennel for your digestion:
As mentioned above, you can chew on the seeds after a meal which also have that soothing, demulcent effect. Or you can drink tea or take a tincture of the seeds. Fresh fennel is also nice to include in dishes, chop of the fennel stalks to add to a salad, soup, or veggies stir-fry. It's very lovely to add cooked fennel to a dish!
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): Calming and Soothing for the Gut
Chamomile is one of the most globally recognized herbs, known for its ability to rest and digest. It is instantly soothing and supports digestion by being a mild bitter and antispasmodic. Chamomile’s bitterness helps stimulate the production of bile.
In a 2006 study of children with acute diarrhea, it was shown to significantly reduce symptoms of diarrhea (Becker, Kuhn & Hardewig-Budny (2006) Double-blind, randomized evaluation of clinical efficacy and tolerability of an apple pectin-chamomile extract in children with unspecific diarrhea ).
Chamomile is supreme for calming the nervous system and helps with sleep. It’s good for nervous tension, especially with children, pets or those who complain a lot.
A very cool fact about Chamomile is that it was discovered in the scrapings from a Neanderthal’s teeth dating over 50,000 years ago! It's an ancient herb. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is used for constricted liver chi or “liver attacking the stomach”.
How to use chamomile for your digestion:
Chamomile flowers and leaves are great to drink as a tea. This is GRAS (generalized recognized as safe); a soothing option for pets, children and also women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. If someone has an Asteraceae sensitivity (sunflower/daisys), they may want to be cautious with it.
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria): The Gut's Astringent Guard
Meadowsweet is a perennial herb native to Western Asia and Europe that grows 3-6’ tall with soft, sweet-smelling delicate white flowers and reddish purple stems.
Historically, Meadowsweet was used for rheumatic pains and osteoarthritis, as well as children’s diarrhea, colic and digestive pains. Indeed, it is still used very much in this way - particularly for digestion.
As David Hoffman shares in Medical Herbalism, “Meadowsweet is one of the best herbs for digestion” ( Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, page 5). It protects and soothes the digestive mucus membranes, mitigating nausea and excess acidity. It’s great for heartburn, ulcers, gastritis and more. Its astringency and drying qualities are useful in boggy and lax conditions.
Meadowsweet is very powerful for helping with diarrhea and it has many pain-relieving effects as it's high in salicylates.
Fun fact: in a 2004 article from published in the Canadian Journal of Herbalism, entitled Nutritional and Herbal Recommendations for Attention Deficit Disorder, researchers found that herbs in salicylates could be beneficial for children with ADD due to the constituent being anti-inflammatory and relaxing to the system. Meadowsweet is listed as one of the herbs. While more would have to be investigated here, this could be a potential use-case as well.
How to use meadowsweet for you digestion:
Meadowsweet is great as a tincture or tea. Some consider the tincture to be more effective than the tea for helping stop diarrhea, but if you're experiencing digestive upset overall and that's not the case, then the tea could be nicer. This would also pair well in combination with the other herbs above: cinnamon, mint, fennel, chamomile, meadowsweet and marshmallow root.
Probiotics and Prebiotics: The Tiny Heroes in Your Gut
By definition, probiotics are live organisms that help support the digestive system by maintaining and supporting the gut microbiota (or gut microbiome). Imagine your gut as a bustling metropolis with trillions of inhabitants. Probiotics are like the friendly folks - aka bacteria - who run the community garden.
Fun fact: did you know that if you weighed all of your gut microbiota, it would be about the same weight as your brain?! We truly are hosts to an ecosystem of bacteria!
Probiotics help our gut flourish with beneficial bacteria. Now prebiotics are a type of fiber, often rich in inulin, that help support the probiotics to live comfortably in our digestive system. Another way to think about it: probitoics are like the plants and prebiotics are like the the fertilizer to help support them to grow and live in the belly.
Natural Sources of Probiotics
Yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut are all great natural sources of probiotics. If you are sensitive to spicy foods or dairy (as many of us are), opt for sauerkraut because this will be more mild on the digestive system while still effectively supplying probiotics.
In addition, you can get probiotic supplements. I'm a big fan of VSL#3 , these are live active probiotics that can be very supportive to folks with IBS or IBD* and have over 112 billion CFUs (colony forming units). Probitoics are measured in CFUs, meaning how many viable bacterial cells could be in the blend. This line has way more strains the average probiotic, and I've been taking it for years for my Crohn's Disease.
Natural Sources of Prebiotics
There are many wonderful herbs that are a strong natural source of prebiotic fiber. These include chicory oot (Cichorium intybus), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) and burdock root (Arctium lappa)! Roasted Dandelion Root in particular tastes like a natural coffee replacement because of their earthy, bitter taste.
Bitter roots and herbs often help stimulate the liver. The best way to take these is buy drinking them as a tea, adding them as a powder into a soup or stew, incorporpating them as a tincture or you can try them as a supplement. Personally I'm a fan of drinking these, as I think they help bathe and wash over the entire intestinal track. Choose what calls to your heart (or gut) and select what's right for you!
When to take probitoics and prebotics:
It's best to take them together, or prebiotics first. You'll want to to ideally take these 1-2 hours before eating so they have time to properly get into your digestive system and support your gut in digestion.
Taking Digestive Bitters: A Bitter, Sweet Symphony
Contrary to the name, bitter herbs are friendly to your digestive system.
What are digestive bitters?
Digestive bitters are herbs that have a bitter taste and quality. When you hear the word "bitters", it's traditionally referring to bitter herbs infused in alcohol - either a single herb or combination of herbs - that you can take right before a meal. Just a few drops of bitters before your meal can stimulate digestive juices and bile to flow from the liver, helping to break down food more easily.
Natural sources of digestive bitters:
There are a plethora of herbs and foods to help stimulate digestion! Some of the best are dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), gentian root (Gentiana spp), artichoke leaf (Cynara cardunculus) and more! You can get these in a bitters formula or create your own! I really like the Bitters Compound by beloved Herbalist David Winston of Herbalist + Alchemist. You can also drink them as a tea.
If you're looking to eat more bitter foods, opt for dark leafy greens like kale, arugula, collard greens, and mustard greens. These are perfect to use as the base of a salad or top of a dish.
What's the best time to take bitters?
These are best to take about 15 minutes before a meal because you want to get that digestive process kickstarting before all the food enters. That said, if you already ate and forgot your bitters, they could still be helpful during or after a meal. So try to take them as immediately as possible!
Treat Your Digestive System Right!
Go ahead, indulge in the holiday cheer - or just the normal every-day life of digestion. Now you're armed with the wisdom of probiotics, the boldness of bitters, the freshness of mint, the calm of chamomile, the soothing power of fennel and marshmallow root, and the prowess of meadosweet! Your belly will thank you. Cheers to a gut-friendly holiday season!
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This is for purely educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.