As polite topics of conversation go, constipation, gas, diarrhea and irritable bowels definitely don’t top the list. But we won’t let that stop us. After all, digestive health is important: Your elimination system carries away the wastes of all of your cells, allowing each organ to function in a proper environment. And elimination troubles can put your daily routine out of whack. It’s your good fortune that some simple digestive herbs and effective natural remedies can put you back in balance—and we aren’t too embarrassed to share them with you.
Start at the Stomach
Although a small amount of starch is broken down in the mouth, thanks to amylases in your saliva, the stomach is where the first real action is—where powerful chemicals of digestion are mixed with the food mass. If these digestive juices, including hydrochloric acid, pancreatic juice and bile, are in short supply, the whole process gets off to a poor start.
Traditional herbalists all over the globe agree that herbs with a bitter taste tend to promote digestive secretions and speed up digestion. Gentian (Gentiana lutea) is the most popular digestive bitter in Western herbalism. Europeans often drink a bitter aperitif (an ounce or so of a bitter herbal beverage) before the first bite of a meal, to stimulate digestive secretions and keep food passing through rapidly. Bitter herbs reduce gas, bloating, symptoms of food allergies and indigestion. Other bitter digestants include barberry root (Berberis vulgaris), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and artichoke (Cynara scolymus).
Carminative herbs warm up the digestive tract, speed up and increase the thoroughness of digestion, and reduce gas. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), dill (Anethum graveolens), cumin (Cuminum cyminum), caraway (Carum carvi) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) are carminative.
Contractions move the digesting food slowly toward the large intestine. It normally takes about 90 to 120 minutes for the first part of a meal to reach the large intestine, although the last portion of the meal may not make it there for five hours.
Did you know? Although it’s about 30 feet long, the digestive tract needs smaller helpers, too: acids, enzymes and bacteria all help break down food.
The Ideal Bowel Movement
Yes, we’re going there. (You know you’re curious.) The ancient lifestyle science of Ayurveda says that a proper stool is like a peeled, fully ripe banana—size, shape and color. And it floats. Ayurvedic practitioners say that “if your stool is sinking, you’re sinking!” Western medical systems, including herbalism, do not generally specify an ideal bowel movement’s morphology.
Regular, bulky, soft and comfortable bowel movements are vital to good health. Yet 4.5 million Americans say they are constipated most or all of the time. Constipation is medically defined as passing stools less than three times a week, or in low quantity.
Digestive Herbs: 3 Factors in Efficient Elimination
A proper bowel movement depends mainly on three factors: peristalsis, fiber and moisture. Peristalsis is the wavelike smooth muscle contraction that propels feces out of the large intestine. When the bowel is functioning properly, muscles squeeze briefly every few seconds and then relax, propelling the stool toward the rectum. So-called stimulant laxatives promote this wave. Among the best are senna leaf (Senna alexandrina), cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana) and aloe leaf (Aloe vera). They should be used only short-term for brief episodes of acute constipation.
Fiber absorbs moisture, increasing stool size, giving the muscles in the intestinal walls something to grab onto, and making the stool softer. Sources of fiber, known as bulk fiber laxatives, include pectin from fruit, flaxseed, chia seed and oat bran. These can be taken daily as necessary to create a soft, spongy stool. A basic directive is to increase fiber intake (fruits, vegetables and dried legumes) to up to 35 grams per day. Psyllium seed (Plantago spp.), a common bulk fiber laxative, balances bowel function and relieves pain in irritable bowels. Psyllium’s capacity to absorb fluids makes the herb useful for treating diarrhea. As it travels through the gut, the mucilage in psyllium creates a soothing effect, which may help relieve cramping.
Proper moisture content is critical for good elimination. Mucilages are herbs that create a healing slime that coats and soothes the gut wall and keeps the stool moist and slippery enough to exit smoothly. These include marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra) and mullein leaf (Verbascum spp.). Marshmallow root is used for inflammation of the stomach membranes. To use marshmallow root or slippery elm, stir 1 tablespoon of the powdered bulk herb into a bite of food per meal.
Osmotic laxatives, including the natural mineral magnesium, draw moisture into the bowel and soften the stool. Most people can tolerate up to about 1,200 mg of magnesium per day.
Probiotics, the friendly bacteria in our gut, are key in maintaining or restoring a healthy intestinal tract. Try eating live-culture yogurt or taking high-quality probiotic supplements to fortify the colony with good bugs, which can prevent constipation.
Studies link a lack of exercise with increased colon cancer risk, so physicians customarily prescribe physical exercise for constipated patients.
Regular Bowel Movements
Proper bowel timing includes the key concepts of transit time and regularity. The time it takes for a meal to go in the mouth and come out the other end is referred to as “transit time.” For a person who eats a healthy diet, free of refined, processed foods, 30 hours is an average transit time. Ayurvedic practitioners say the ideal transit time is 18 to 24 hours. In our constipation-prone society, 48 hours, or considerably more, is commonplace.
Why does transit time matter? The longer the end products of digestion stay in our system, the more chance they have of decomposing into unhealthy compounds. And if bowel transit time is slow, increasing the time that fecal matter spends within the colon leads to greater absorption of water from the feces. More water is absorbed, resulting in harder, smaller stools that have more difficulty moving forward. Increasingly, evidence implicates slow transit constipation in the development of gallstones.
Measure your transit time by swallowing something that colors the stool. Mark the time that you see the color in the feces. Charcoal powder, beets and chlorophyll all work well.
Regularity is the interval between bowel movements. Depending on whom you ask, recommendations run from “three bowel movements per week is plenty” to “a bowel movement every day is essential.” Mammals are designed so that each meal stimulates fecal movement and initiates a bowel movement. Most natural healing practitioners prefer one bowel movement per day, or up to one per meal.
Herbs for Digestion
Herbal medicine helps keep digestion perking along. In one study, 24 patients received a mixture containing dandelion root, St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), lemon balm, calendula (Calendula officinalis) and fennel. Ninety-five percent had relief of colitis symptoms in 15 days.
Triphala, an Ayurvedic combination of the fruits amalaki, haritaki and bibhitaki, is the classic herbal remedy for long-term digestive benefit. It tones the intestinal walls, detoxifies the system and promotes evacuation. Triphala has a high tannin content, so in low doses, it treats diarrhea (1 gram per day). In higher doses, it treats constipation in a slow, gentle way, toning the walls of the gut while it works. Triphala is suitable for children and is ideal for older folks who need just a little help with regularity. For maintenance, take 2 grams per day. As a short-term laxative, use 6 grams. An easy bowel movement comes in about eight hours.
Turmeric root (Curcuma longa), a common curry spice, helps keep digestive inflammation under control. One of the herb’s active ingredients, curcumin (the pigment that gives turmeric its distinctive yellow color), has anti-inflammatory effects comparable to cortisone, the standard drug prescribed for inflammation. Curcumin also treats pain directly. Like cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum), turmeric depletes nerve endings of substance P, the pain receptor neurotransmitter.
Turmeric is widely used to improve digestion, and there is some scientific evidence that curcumin treats dyspepsia (that Thanksgiving-dinner feeling of eating a log that never moves on). With its ability to suppress inflammation, increase mucin content of the stomach and stop bleeding, turmeric helps prevent ulcerations, including gastritis, peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and colitis. Take 1 to 2 grams of the powdered herb in capsules (or as a spice) with each meal.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) guards digestive mucous membranes by increasing the production of mucin, a secretion that protects gut linings against stomach acid and other digestive juices. Deglycyrrhizinated licorice root (DGL) removes the glycyrrhizic acid (the ingredient in licorice root associated with the possibility of increasing blood pressure and water retention). The soothing part of the root, however, remains intact in DGL. Use 1 teaspoon of the chopped herb brewed as tea, three times a day, or 1 to 2 chewable wafers of DGL (250 to 500 mg) 15 minutes before meals and one to two hours before bedtime.
Peppermint (Mentha ×piperita) is a well-known digestive herb for easing tummy troubles. Enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules work well to prevent dyspepsia. Peppermint oil is a relaxant for the muscles of the intestinal wall. Enteric-coated capsules delay this effect until the remedy is further down in the digestive tract—this also reduces peppermint-tasting burps. Take 1 teaspoon of the dried leaf, brewed as tea, three times a day, or 0.2 to 0.4 ml of an enteric-coated capsule three times a day.
Used by nearly every culture in the world, tasty, aromatic ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a time-tested digestive remedy for stomach upset. European practitioners also use ginger in tea for indigestion. It reduces spasms and increases the secretion of digestive juices, including bile and saliva. Ginger contains ingredients that soothe the gut and aid digestion by increasing peristalsis that moves food through the intestine. Use 1 teaspoon of the chopped herb brewed as tea, three times a day.
Warming cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum) is a mild but useful remedy for sluggish digestion. The German Commission E, the European standard for herbal medicines, recommends cinnamon for loss of appetite, dyspeptic complaints, bloating and flatulence. Use 1 teaspoon of the chopped herb brewed as tea, three times a day.
Did you know? Infants are born with sterile digestive tracts, and bacteria from surrounding adults colonize their little intestines.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa is the national president of the American Herbalists Guild and the lead instructor in Nutritional Therapy at Portland Community College in Oregon.