As the temperature outside starts to drop, we might feel our bodies slowing down in a similar way. One area we might notice this most profoundly is our digestive health. You might also notice this as the foods you eat become progressively richer and heavier towards the holidays. As we meander deeper into November, this blogpost offers ways to build digestion with a few common herbs and spices.
But! Before we dive into herbs, a little note on intentional, seasonal cooking:
The idea that our digestion ‘slows’ during the colder months is a long-standing Traditional Chinese Medicine concept. According to this lens of holistic health-- where food is largely considered medicinal in nature-- it actually benefits our digestion to consume warmer foods and liquids in the colder months (1). This is to help us assimilate nutrients using less physical energy. While it can be super tempting to eat raw fruits and veggies in the spirit of being healthy, you could do your digestive health big favors by swapping iced drinks for hot ones, steaming or sauteing greens, or drinking a cup of warm miso soup or bone broth for breakfast.
Herbal bitters are truly an invaluable digestion essential-- they affect so many aspects of the digestive process! They are known to stimulate appetite, promote the release of digestive juices, help the liver in its detoxification processes by increasing bile production, and even help balance sugar metabolism (2). In terms of holistic herbal medicine, bitters are also considered grounding-- they are believed to draw the energy of the body downwards towards the organs and pelvis, which has a physiological effect on various body systems.
The key is actually making sure you taste the bitterness-- when we do this, our brain registers this chemical signal (5) and sends signals to our gut to begin producing digestive secretions. This is one reason why people eat salads before larger meals! Try swapping plain lettuce for steamed arugula to reap the benefits of bitters in your day-to-day. Orange peels, Dandelion leaves (Taraxacum officinalis), Arugula (Eruca vesicaria ssp.), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and Gentian (Gentiana) are all common bitters.
Keeping a small bottle of medicinal-grade digestive bitters in your kitchen or backpack can be a life-saver if you are prone to indigestion. You’d want to take them 15-20 minutes before meals to give your stomach a head-start with digesting. The beauty of herbal digestive aids like bitters (and their close cousins, ‘carminatives’, as you’ll read next) is that they can be used as needed, or on a daily basis to help reconstitute stomach acid levels over time.
While the foods we eat this time of year tend to be on the richer side, they are also traditionally loaded with spices. (Think about the sage in roast beef, or the ginger in gingerbread cookies!) Most culinary spices are very effective digestive aids-- these herbs are known as ‘carminatives’. Herbs like Sage, Turmeric, Fennel, Anise, Allspice, Nutmeg-- even Chamomile and Peppermint-- are all excellent for stimulating the digestive process, getting digestion moving when there is stagnation or ‘congestion’ (2, 4).
Because of their high concentrations of aromatic volatile oils, carminative herbs are often antispasmodic (6)-- they ease digestive discomfort by helping the muscles in our gut to relax. They also help dispel the gas and bloating we typically experience when we eat heavier foods.
A perfect time to take carminative herbs is after meals or whenever you feel your stomach cramping. It can be as simple as chewing on a handful of fennel seeds, making a strong cup of chamomile tea (3 bags per cup of water!), or, if you are dining on the go, take an herbal formula like Gaia’s Gas & Bloating or Fennel seed capsules with you!
You can work with carminative herbs first thing in the morning if your digestion is sluggish constitutionally. Try this recipe below for a medicinally potent (and delicious!!) ‘Pumpkin Spice’ breakfast smoothie:
Carminative ‘Pumpkin Spice’ Protein Smoothie
1 Tbsp of equal parts Allspice and Nutmeg, mixed together
½ Tbsp organic Fennel seeds
1 tsp organic Cardamom seeds
1 tsp organic cinnamon
¼ inch Fresh ginger
1-2 Tbsps of cooked oats or barley
1-2 Tbsp organic pumpkin puree (optional)
2 cups of plant milk
Maple syrup or honey to taste
Add all the ingredients into a blender, and blend until smooth. Adjust to taste, and enjoy!
Lastly, we would be remiss not to mention what herbs could be helpful when digestion goes haywire. If you are prone to acid reflux, GERD, ulcers, or any inflammatory condition of the gut, you want to look for herbs that will form a thick, slimy consistency when mixed with water. This mucilage actually helps promote healing of the delicate tissue found throughout your gut (4, 7) . Some common examples are the Aloe Vera plant’s inner fillet, Licorice Root, and Marshmallow Root powder. A nice way to work with marshmallow root capsules is to empty a few into a quart of lukewarm water and let it steep for an hour or two. Drink throughout the day.
We can intentionally build digestion by working with bitter, carminative, and demulcent herbs, as well as adapting how we prepare our foods for the colder weather. Deep-seated digestive issues do require oversight and finesse to address at a root level. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are coming in with digestion issues this month. If you feel you are missing the mark with your digestive health, book a consultation with us!
- PITCHFORD, PAUL. HEALING WITH WHOLE FOODS: ASIAN TRADITIONS AND MODERN NUTRITION. NORTH ATLANTIC BOOKS, 2009.
- Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism: The science and practice of herbal medicine. Rochester, Vt: Healing Arts Press.
- Gladstar, Rosemary. Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health: 175 Teas, Tonics, Oils, Salves, Tinctures, and Other Natural Remedies for the Entire Family (p. 189). Storey Publishing, LLC. Kindle Edition.
- Behrens, M, Gu, M, Fan, S, Huang, C, Meyerhof, W. Bitter substances from plants used in traditional Chinese medicine exert biased activation of human bitter taste receptors. Chem Biol Drug Des. 2018; 91: 422– 433. https://doi.org/10.1111/cbdd.13089
Eric Yarnell and Kathy Abascal.Alternative and Complementary Therapies.Jun 2011.169-174.http://doi.org/10.1089/act.2011.17305
- Bhardwaj, K., & Kishore, L. (2021). Natural remedies: For gastroesophageal reflux disease. Journal of Medicinal Plants Studies 2021. Natural Remedies: For Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. https://doi.org/JMPS 2021; 9(4): 114-118