Digestive issues affect most of us from time to time. When we eat too many rich, fatty, sugary and starchy foods, and sometimes excessively complex fibers, we can overwhelm our digestive systems’ ability to break them down. When our gut flora and digestive enzymes have difficulty breaking down complex molecules, our bodies react with various forms of “indigestion:” gas, bloating and sometimes constipation.
Although the symptoms of indigestion are unpleasant, they are also indicators telling us something bigger is going on. Symptoms such as heartburn and gas pains often indicate that we have inflammation in the digestive system. Indigestion causes inflammation because the immune system kicks in to try to help prevent damage to the digestive tissues. Indigestion can even trigger inflammatory immune compounds, resulting in inflamed tissues, similar to when we have an injury on our outer skin.
We can also experience indigestion when we are overwhelmed by stress or anxiety. The vagus nerve, the main nerve involved in digestion, affects the release of enzymes and digestive molecules, and it also responds to feelings of stress and anxiety. This is why we sometimes get stomachaches when we are upset or nervous. When triggered by anxieties or by inflammation, this nerve can affect digestive processes and cause nausea, gas, bloating or poor assimilation of food. This process is often an underlying aspect of irritable bowel syndrome.
Over-the-counter indigestion relievers only treat symptoms, not the underlying digestive issue, and sometimes do more harm than good. For example, heartburn medications often backfire by decreasing our ability to digest rather than just decreasing inflammation, thereby compounding the issue.
Fortunately, some plants easily grown in our gardens can remedy symptoms and help heal the overall digestive system. The following five plants can be incorporated into foods or used as teas, and don’t need to be consumed in concentrated doses (such as in tinctures or capsules) to be effective at improving digestion.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Fennel is a Mediterranean perennial with essential oils that act as “carminatives,” reducing inflammation and relaxing muscles in our digestive system to help dispel gas.
To grow: Fennel likes well-drained soil and a sunny spot. Plant seed directly, or if you have a short growing season, start seeds inside to transplant. If you live in a cool or wet climate, plant heat-loving fennel in a deep, wide terra cotta pot to help heat the soil and give space for water to drain and roots to grow. Fennel is an aggressive self-seeder; vigilantly harvest seeds and plant away from other crops to prevent spreading.
To use: Simply eat a few fennel seeds before or after eating a meal, as often as needed. The feathery leaves can be eaten, too, so snack on them while you are waiting for the seeds to grow. You can also use fennel seeds in cooking, or steep a teaspoon of seeds in hot water to make a simple tea to sip along with your meal.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
The unmistakable scent of rosemary comes from its essential oils, which act as carminatives. Rosemary’s antioxidants reduce inflammation and cell damage. Many studies have noted rosemary’s positive effects on digestion, as well as other medicinal benefits, such as colon cancer prevention.
To grow: Mediterranean rosemary requires full sun, good drainage and warmth. It does best in raised areas in the garden so its roots dry quickly. In moist climates, grow rosemary on top of a raised mound with rocks around it to increase warmth in the soil, or put it in a large terra cotta pot. In areas with cold winters, bring rosemary inside to survive the cold, but make sure it gets six hours a day of sun or fluorescent light.
To use: Snip a couple of inches from the tip of the branches. Remove leaves from stems, and steep about a teaspoon of fresh or dried leaves in hot water for a tea. Or, add rosemary leaves to a huge array of dishes.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
The flowers of chamomile are commonly enjoyed in after-dinner teas to improve digestion after a meal. Chamomile has an array of essential oils, as well as compounds such as flavonoids and mild bitters, which work together to improve digestion. The essential oil chamazulene has been shown to reduce anxiety and the digestive system’s reactive response to stress, as well as to reduce inflammation. The bitter compounds increase digestive enzymes.
To grow: Chamomile loves a warm, sunny spot. It does well in flowerbeds or pots as long as it doesn’t get too wet. Chamomile seeds require light to germinate, so sow seeds outdoors in late summer and mix them lightly into the soil. Or, start seeds indoors then transplant them after hardening off. Once it’s established, chamomile is quite hardy and can easily overwinter. In warm climates with at least some intermittent rain, chamomile plants often self-seed.
To use: Chamomile flowers can be picked and used fresh, or dried and stored in an airtight container. Add a couple teaspoons of flowers to hot water for an after-dinner tea, or infuse honey with the fresh flowers and add a little of the honey to warm water to drink with meals.
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Although climbing nasturtium is often used for ornamental color in the garden, its beautiful flowers are edible with a peppery taste. Their pungency and mild bitterness stimulate digestion, helping produce digestive acids and release enzymes. Nasturtium also has antioxidant-rich flavonoids and vitamin C, helping reduce inflammation and providing nutrition.
To grow: Nasturtium is a cinch to grow. Just plant seeds directly in soil and keep moist until they sprout, and that’s about it. Overly fertile soil will actually produce fewer flowers, so don’t pamper nasturtium plants. Best of all, they self-seed and can keep coming up every year. Put them in a pot on the patio or dedicate an area in the yard where they can climb. Nasturtium likes sunny spots but can tolerate partial sun.
To use: Simply pick the flowers and eat them. One to two flowers are enough to get digestive benefit. You can add these lovely, spicy flowers to salads or toss them into a casserole or omelet.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Although it’s often considered a weed, especially along roadsides in the Midwest, chicory is actually a nutritious little plant, with leaves packed with nutrients such as vitamins A, C and E, and magnesium, calcium, iron and potassium. These nutrients help reduce inflammation and improve immune function. Chicory greens are a good source of dietary fiber, too, which makes them useful for constipation. In addition to nutrients, chicory has bitter compounds that stimulate digestion.
To grow: Chicory prefers less-fertile soils and the sunnier, dry areas on the edges of gardens or in the wilder areas of your yard. Chicory is easy to grow from seed with little fuss. Some people grow it in vegetable beds to complement their sources of leafy greens. You can also spread chicory seed with other wildflowers to enjoy its pretty blue flowers.
To use: Collect leaves to eat raw in salads or cooked as you would spinach. If you have trouble digesting fiber-rich foods, add fennel or rosemary to the dish.
Herbs & Medication
If you are on prescription or over-the-counter medications for digestive ailments (such as antacids), these herbs should not interact with them if used in small amounts as described here. The use of these herbs may, over time, reduce your need for the medications. However, never stop taking a prescribed medication without first discussing it with your doctor.
Chronic digestive issues may stem from a lack of digestive enzymes and beneficial bacteria throughout the digestive system. To rebuild your colonies of helpful bacteria, consider enjoying traditionally fermented foods (such as fermented, nonpasteurized sauerkraut; kimchi; or yogurt) daily, or supplement with a high-quality probiotic and digestive enzymes. Learn more in The Benefits of Fermented Foods.