To find other prevention tips for digestion problems, see Natural Ways to Improve Digestive Health.
For centuries, chefs and traditional healers alike have recommended digestive bitters to pique the appetite and spark digestive juices. Aperitifs—alcoholic drinks taken before a meal—include “bitters,” which contain herbs such as gentian, cascarilla, orange peel, cardamom, coriander and juniper.
Another tradition for jump-starting digestion is eating a salad of bitter greens—such as endive, arugula, dandelion leaves and radicchio—or an appetizer of artichoke leaves. Artichoke, and even more so its botanical cousin milk thistle, also supports liver health. Artichoke leaf extract and milk thistle extract both reduce symptoms of dyspepsia (a vague term for digestive difficulties with symptoms such as nausea, heartburn, bloating and discomfort) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Fennel provides a host of digestive benefits. It acts as a carminative (helps expel gas), antispasmodic (to relieve painful cramping), anti-inflammatory, digestive bitter and antinausea herb. After a meal, try chewing a few fennel seeds to improve digestion. You might create a tasty digestive-enhancing herbal blend of dried fennel seeds, anise seeds and caraway seeds. To counter indigestion, chew 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of the seed blend.
Peppermint possesses antispasmodic, carminative, antinausea and analgesic effects that resolve many digestive complaints. If tension has caused a headache and intestinal distress, peppermint may remedy both issues. Peppermint oil capsules have been shown safe and effective in children and adults with IBS. A combination of peppermint and caraway oil also relieves dyspepsia. Look for peppermint products that are enteric-coated, which can survive the acidic stomach then break down in the small intestine. Other mint-family herbs such as spearmint, lemon balm, catnip and basil may also reduce painful cramping and gas.
German chamomile is a traditional digestive remedy, readily available as a tea. Slightly bitter and anti-inflammatory, this herb has been successfully combined with herbs such as peppermint and milk thistle for managing dyspepsia and IBS.
Ginger is one of my favorite medicinal and culinary plants. It’s warming, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and the best-researched herb against nausea. Studies show it counters motion sickness, post-operative nausea and vomiting, and nausea of pregnancy (pregnant women should take no more than 1 gram a day). Lab studies show ginger might prevent stomach ulcers caused by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
Slippery elm bark and marshmallow root spell relief for inflammation anywhere in the intestinal tract. You can make tea from either plant. You can also take encapsulated powdered slippery elm or mix powdered bark half and half with oats to make a soothing cereal (add minced ginger to counteract nausea and enhance taste). Tea made from red and black raspberry—the leaves and roots—is a traditional diarrhea remedy.
Linda B. White is a Denver-based doctor, writer and lecturer. Her latest two books are Health Now: An Integrative Approach to Personal Health and 500 Time-Tested Home Remedies and the Science Behind Them.