Your spice rack can be a secret weapon against digestive ailments.
Spice Up Your Digestive First Aid
Cinnamon is high in antioxidants. It may assist in relieving intestinal gas and indigestion. It can also be used to help regulate insulin and blood sugar levels. Because cinnamon is naturally sweet, it can help decrease the need for added sugar.
Ginger can alleviate nausea. It may help ease heartburn and relieve gas and bloating.
Licorice Root may relieve irritation of the mucous membranes and soothe GI tract inflammation. It can have a mild laxative effect. Deglycerized licorice (refined from the root) is often used for ulcers and gastritis. However, people with high blood pressure, edema, congestive heart failure, low blood potassium or pregnancy should use caution. Note that licorice candy usually contains gluten.
Oregano can have antimicrobial, antibacterial properties.
Slippery Elm and Marshmallow Root have been found to help with heartburn/reflux.
Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties. It can also help reduce intestinal gas and facilitate the expulsion of gas. Curcumin is the active substance in turmeric.
A pinch of cinnamon or a teaspoon of grated ginger can enhance more than the food on your plate. When you add herbs and spices to your diet, you may also be enhancing your health—especially if you suffer from digestive issues.
Indian Ayurvedic medicine has used five spices—cardamom, coriander, cumin, fennel and ginger—for thousands of years to aid with digestive health. That dish of fennel seeds at the door of your favorite Indian restaurant? Turns out it’s more than a breath freshener; fennel is a digestive aid that reduces gas and bloating, says Christine Doherty, ND, a naturopathic doctor who specializes in malabsorption conditions.
Spices have been part of ancient cuisines for a reason, Doherty says. Many pungent spices have gastrointestinal and antimicrobial properties. For instance, ginger helps fight inflammation and also acts as an immediate digestive aid for nausea. Oregano and basil have antifungal properties and can protect against infection.
Herbs and spices offer a bevy of health benefits, agrees Bethany Doerfler, MS, RDN, clinical research dietitian in the division of gastroenterology at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. “Foods such as honey, peppermint leaves, turmeric, raw garlic, oregano and its oil have been used for both their anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties for centuries,” she says.
The Antioxidant Power of Herbs and Spices
Many herbs and spices contain antioxidants that neutralize free radicals or damaged cells that can lead to cancer, inflammation and other health problems,” says Sonya Angelone, MS, RDN, CLT, dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Cloves, cinnamon, oregano, turmeric and cumin rank high in antioxidants, as measured by their oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) values.
Blueberries are well known for their antioxidant power—but one teaspoon of ground cinnamon has a higher ORAC value than a half cup of blueberries. The key is using enough spices consistently so that they can make a big difference, Doherty says.
Both fresh and dried herbs and spices are excellent sources of antioxidants, although fresh comes out ahead in this regard. Yet dried herbs and spices are powerful, too, Doerfler says.
Since dried herbs and spices lose their potency over time, use them quickly or replace them in six to 12 months. Also, check labels to make sure your spice blends are gluten-free. “Many seasoning blends can contain food starch or gluten as a binder,” Doerfler warns.
Use Beneficial Herbs and Spices in Cooking
A great way to regularly incorporate spices like turmeric, ginger and peppermint is in foods. “Turmeric is best consumed when added to a curry or a stew and served over a gluten-free grain,” Doerfler says. It can also be brewed into a turmeric tea or a soothing golden milk.
One of Doerfler’s favorite ways to use herbs and spices is to make a mixture of mashed fresh herbs, spices, garlic and oil and keep it in a sealed container in the refrigerator—similar to a sofrito used in Puerto Rican or Latino cuisine. When ready to cook, simply add a spoonful of the mixture to dishes.
She recommends using ginger and peppermint in teas and smoothies. “To make a tea, grate fresh ginger root and mash several mint leaves in a mug. Add boiling water and let steep for five to 10 minutes before enjoying,” she says. “For a spicy kick, add a small piece of fresh ginger to your next smoothie.”
Medicinal Properties of Plant Oils
Herbs and spices have a health-promoting attribute that’s often overlooked. The plant oils found in the leaves can have medicinal properties that can be used topically or made into teas, depending on the plant.
“Peppermint oil is used to stop spasms of the intestines in patients with irritable bowel syndrome,” Doerfler says. “Since many patients with celiac disease or other digestive issues have IBS-like symptoms, this can be an important treatment tool.”
Angelone agrees: “Oils of peppermint, rosemary and thyme can help support GI function, soothe occasional discomfort and help reduce mild gas.”
A few small studies have suggested that oregano oil can act as a natural antibiotic, killing bacteria as efficiently as some prescription antibiotics in patients who suffer from small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), Doerfler says.
But check with your physician before using any oil or supplement. Oils can be very powerful and cause harm if used improperly or too long. “This should only be done under the supervision of a qualified health professional,” Angelone says.
With their many wellness benefits, herbs and spices can help gastrointestinal issues. Sprinkle some on your food or enjoy some in teas to spice up your health.
Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based freelance health writer.