When your celebrations last into the waning hours of the day and include rich, flavorful dishes and liberal libations, the best advice is to be herbally prepared to relieve the digestive upset that may befall you.
The holidays can wreak havoc on the digestive system. Even traveling can be a source of stomach upset, constipation, or diarrhea. And when the festivities start, who can resist all that food and drink? Just one more piece of pecan pie can’t hurt, we say. Meanwhile, indigestion, bloating, heartburn, and flatulence declare that our bodies don’t agree.
A host of digestive ailments can be caused by stress, fatigue, changes in time zones, dietary indiscretion, unfamiliar foods, and/or departures from regular eating schedules. But with a little advance planning, you can avoid these problems and enjoy the celebrations without interruption.
A little awareness goes a long way. In other words, it’s helpful to think about what irritates your digestive system before the festivities begin. Perhaps fats, excess alcohol, sugar, rich meats, or a combination of these irritates your stomach. Ideally, then, it could work wonders to make a simple vow before the holidays to avoid overindulging.
Realistically, however, it’s not always that simple. You may find that in addition to overeating, the stress associated with shopping, traveling, and entertaining are, to some extent, unavoidable. The best advice in this case is to be herbally prepared to relieve the digestive upset that may befall you.
Before meal tonics
For many people, queasiness and digestive upset are considered an inescapable part of traveling by sea, air, or land. But this doesn’t have to be, with the help of ginger (Zingiber officinale).
Although the exact way ginger acts on the body is unknown, it has been shown in clinical studies to be more effective than Dramamine in relieving symptoms of nausea and vomiting. Ginger is available in capsule, syrup, or extract form. The recommended dose is two 500 mg capsules, a teaspoon of ginger syrup, or 30 to 60 drops (1.5 ml, or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon) of ginger extract dissolved in some water, taken about one hour before departure. Repeat every four hours as needed.
Dehydration, which can occur when traveling by air, can upset the digestive system. Airlines often cut down on the moisture circulating in plane cabins because it’s less expensive to heat dry air, which is recycled from takeoff to landing. Spending hours in such an environment can rob your system of needed moisture. Because the body takes water from within when moisture is lost, this can lead to constipation if water is taken from the colon.
To help avoid this, abstain from salty snacks (consider packing some fresh fruit in your carry-on bag instead) and say no to alcoholic or sugar-laden drinks. Drink at least one liter of water every time you fly—either before, during, or after—to replace lost fluids.
An herbal remedy that can prevent or treat constipation is psyllium (Plantago ovata or P. psyllium). The average dose is 1 to 2 tablespoons of psyllium seed husks in 16 ounces of water or juice once or twice daily for two or three days, taken before or after flying. Psyllium seed husks are bulk formers that can restore intestinal harmony whether you are constipated or have diarrhea. Cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana), derived from the aged bark of a small tree native to the Pacific Northwest, also battles constipation by stimulating the intestines, causing a laxative effect. The average dose is 500 mg in capsule form taken before going to bed.
A note of caution: If you suffer from chronic constipation, see your health-care provider and avoid laxative dependency.
If diarrhea disrupts your holiday, bayberry (Myrica cerifera) may be helpful because it acts as an astringent on the intestinal membranes.
An average dose is a half-cup of bayberry infusion every two or three hours for up to three days. To make a bayberry infusion, place 1 tablespoon of dried bayberry and 1 cup of water in a stainless steel or glass saucepan. Cover and simmer for fifteen minutes. Remove the infusion from the heat. Strain a half-cup into a mug and the remaining liquid into a glass storage jar; you can reheat the liquid before drinking again, if desired. Drink plenty of other liquids, too, because diarrhea saps the body of fluids and can leave it dehydrated.
One of my favorite herbal tea blends for treating diarrhea calls for alfalfa (Medicago sativa), nettle (Urtica dioica), red raspberry leaves (Rubus idaeus), and red clover (Trifolium pratense). Each of these herbs supplies phytonutrients and electrolytes such as potassium, chloride, and sodium, which help the body regulate electrical currents and the flow of water molecules across cell membranes. You can make a tea using one or all of these herbs. In either case, use only 1 tablespoon total herbs per cup of boiled water; steep for ten to fifteen minutes. The typical dose is 1 cup twice daily.
Changing your meal schedule also can upset your digestive system. Most of us eat our meals at routine times during the day, so, like Pavlov’s dogs, our stomachs are conditioned to start secreting digestive juices when mealtime approaches. If we eat earlier or later than usual, our digestive juices are thrown off track. We eat anyway and indigestion—a term used to describe general digestive discomfort—can result.
Gentian (Gentiana lutea) is often recommended to treat indigestion because it is a “bitter stomachic,” or, simply, a bitter—meaning that it increases the flow of digestive juices. Gentian in extract form is quickly absorbed, and the recommended dose is 10 to 20 drops in a half-cup of water fifteen to twenty minutes before meals.
Other digestive soothers include barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and its cousin, Oregon graperoot (Mahonia aquifolium). Their bitter tastes stimulate production of digestive juices and they contain antibacterial properties. Ten to 20 drops of an extract in a little water taken fifteen to twenty minutes before meals serves as a bitter tonic.
When you eat too fast, you may develop heartburn, which happens when gastric juices are regurgitated from the stomach into the esophagus. The herb of choice to treat such an ailment is peppermint (Mentha x piperita). Peppermint stimulates the production and flow of bile and prevents gas formation, which often results in stomach and intestinal cramping. The recommended dose is 1 tablespoon of the whole, dried leaves or one tea bag of peppermint herb steeped for ten minutes in a cup of hot water. Sip it slowly as you take time to relax.
For bloating and gas, the time-treasured remedy chamomile (Matricaria recutita) offers welcome relief, and a warm cup of chamomile tea can restore your holiday mood. Add 1 full tablespoon of whole chamomile flowers or two tea bags of chamomile tea to one cup of hot water and steep for fifteen minutes before sipping. Chamomile helps relieve flatulence, eases gastrointestinal inflammation, and generally calms the digestive system. Chamomile contains a constituent called alpha-bisabolol, which stimulates the production of a mucosal barrier that protects the stomach against possible ulcer-producing imbalances.
When your celebrations last into the waning hours of the day and include rich, flavorful dishes and liberal libations, you go to bed happy and satisfied. But a few hours later, you may awaken with an upset stomach and achy head. Hops (Humulus lupulus) can help. To calm the stomach, soothe the head, and encourage sleep, the recommended dose is 1/2 teaspoon of hops extract dissolved in 4 ounces of water.
Holiday eating is challenging to the liver, the body’s largest organ; its responsibilities include secreting bile and neutralizing poisons. Excess fats, sweets, and alcohol can tax the liver, but studies show that milk thistle (Silybum marianum) not only protects the liver, it also helps repair it if damage has been done. When the liver is overworked, you’ll know it; symptoms include aching temples and/or a coated tongue. The recommended dose of milk thistle is one 420 mg capsule or 20 drops of extract twice a day.
To ensure that your holidays will be enjoyable, pay attention to your digestive system’s signals. Take care to drink plenty of water, get adequate rest, and eat a little less chocolate this year than last. If dehydration, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, indigestion, heartburn, or liver difficulties do arise, turn to herbal remedies so that you can get back to celebrating—happily and healthfully.
Daniel Gagnon is executive director of the Botanical Research and Education Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and owner of Herbs, Etc., an herbal manufacturing company and retail store.
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