Herb Basics: Herbs for Digestion Problems


Content Tools

Inside Action

You know herbs help you from the inside out. But you may be surprised at the array of activities they carry out in your digestive system. Here are just a few.

Antacids reduce excess stomach acid, helping the stomach lining recuperate. These include marshmallow root and leaf, meadowsweet, and hops.

Anti-emetics reduce nausea or vomiting. Three that are safe to use during pregnancy are lemon balm, black horehound, and ginger. Ginger is clinically proven to relieve motion sickness.

Bitters relieve gas and improve digestion. These include chamomile, dandelion, calendula, yarrow, and yellow dock.

Carminatives clear up gas and bloating because they are mild antiseptics ­(normalize intestinal flow) and antispasmodics (reduce spasms by improving circulation). These include culinary spices such as peppermint, cardamom, fennel, aniseed, dill, caraway, and ginger.

Demulcents provide nourishment and soothe inflamed surfaces, inside and out. Plantain adds moisture and encourages movement, and marshmallow, slippery elm, and aloe gel (not the rind, which is a stimulant laxative) soothe irritation in the stomach, intestine, and colon.

Herbs Redefined

Have you ever eaten garlic because it’s good for your arteries? Chewed parsley to freshen your breath? Had a cup of chamomile tea to help you relax? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you’ve used an herb.

Merriam Webster’s Tenth Collegiate Dictionary defines an herb as “a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities.” In the pages of Herbs for Health , the word herb refers to plants or trees that have been used throughout the ages to bring balance to the body. The plant parts that contain medicinal compounds differ from herb to herb and may include leaves, fruits, roots, flowers, and/or bark.

Herbs can be used to build and cleanse the body or activate certain functions. Kelp, for example, can activate the thyroid, and dandelion can build liver strength.

Some herbs also offer a concentrated source of vitamins, minerals (especially trace minerals), enzymes, and other catalysts that make certain nutrients more effective, such as bioflavonoids, which make vitamin C work better.

In addition, when you eat herbs, you begin to quickly bene­fit from them, because the body recognizes them as food.

Pick Another Sweet

Looking for alternatives to sugar and saccharin? Originally from Paraguay, stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is 200 times sweeter than sugar, and laboratory tests on animals indicate that stevia has no harmful effects. It’s used in Japan, Brazil, Israel, and other countries as a noncaloric sweetener, but has not been approved as a food additive in the United States. Stevia may be imported only if it’s explicitly labeled as a dietary supplement. The powder, extract, and dried leaves are available in some health-food stores. Some recipes call for substituting 2 tablespoons of the slightly earthy-tasting ­stevia powder for 1 cup of sugar. Powdered stevia extract is even sweeter; use 1/4 teaspoon for every cup of sugar.

Many plants can carry the common name stevia, so the best way to ensure you’re ­getting the right plant is to check the botanical name.

The Tastes of Health

In Ayurveda, the healing art of India, all foods and herbs can be classified in term of the six tastes: pungent, bitter, astringent, sweet, sour, and salty. Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine believe that these tastes act on the body to increase or decrease the three humors, which are kapha (water or phlegm), pitta (fire or bile), and vata (air or wind). The humors are regarded as waste products of digestion; if your diet is imbalanced, illness can follow. A healthful diet balances the six tastes, and illnesses can be treated by emphasizing certain tastes to restore balance.

The following herbs and foods are representative of the six tastes. Some herbs have more than one taste, such as garlic, which is everything but sour.

• Pungent: horseradish, basil, cloves
• Bitter: turmeric, gentian, goldenseal, globe artichoke
• Astringent: sage, bilberries
• Sweet: sweet potato
• Sour: cranberries, spinach, lemon
• Salty: seaweed, kelp

Know Those Nicknames?

Often there’s more than one common name for the same plant, so Herbs for Health includes botanical names in articles to help eliminate confusion.

Before the precision of scientific nomenclature came into being, however, the various common names told volumes about an herb: What it looked like, how it was used, or what the stories were surrounding it. Different uses and stories, thus different names, came from different regions.

Here are a few of the more colorful common names that give clues about an herb’s uses or characteristics. See if you can guess which common herbs they refer to. Answers appear below.

a. Sweet-root
b. Cureall
c. Rattlesnake weed; hedgehog coneflower
d. Touch-and-heal
e. Pee-da-bed

a. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra): the root’s sweet taste comes from a compound called glycyrrhizin, which is 50 to 150 times sweeter than sucrose.

b. Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis): the seed oil, which contains essential fatty acids, is being used experimentally to treat eczema, asthma, migraines, inflammations, PMS, diabetes, allergies, and arthritis.

c. Echinacea ( Echinacea spp.): the plant was used as an antidote for venomous bites and stings by the Native Americans of the Northern Great Plains; “hedgehog” comes from the appearance of the flower’s central cone.

d. St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum): the Irish called it this because of the plant’s wound-healing properties; to this day, herbalists use oils infused with the herb as an antiseptic and wound healer.

e. Dandelion (Taraxacum offinicale): dandelion is a well-known diuretic, though precisely how it works isn’t yet ­established.

• McQuade Crawford, Amanda. Herbal Remedies for Women. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima, 1997.
• Tucker, Art. “Sweet alternatives.” Herbs for Health (May/June 1997).
• Ody, Penelope. The Complete Medicinal Herbal. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1993.
• Coffey, Timothy. The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
• Kernion, Maureen. Going Natural with Herbs: Integrating Herbs into Everyday Use. Pleasant Grove, Utah: Woodland, 1998.