Holiday feasting is all too often followed by the refrain, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." Herbal remedies, such as chamomile, ginger, licorice and peppermint, as well as bitter digestive tonics, can quickly alleviate the symptoms of indigestion, including bloating, gas and heartburn.
Made from bitter herbs such as gentian or artichoke leaf combined with good-tasting herbal digestives such as cardamom, caraway, fennel and ginger, herbal bitters are designed to improve digestion. There's a simple physiological explanation for how herbal bitters work: When bitter substances come into contact with taste buds on the tongue, digestive enzymes and stomach acids necessary for proper digestion are secreted. Taking herbal bitters prior to a holiday feast can facilitate digestion and prevent post-meal discomfort. A typical dosage of herbal bitters is half a teaspoon diluted in a quarter-cup of water, sipped 15 minutes before meals.
A natural hybrid of spearmint (Mentha spicata) and water mint (Mentha aquatica), peppermint (Mentha piperita) is a popular flavoring for herbal teas and after-dinner mints. But mint is much more than just a quick way to curb bad breath. Ancient Egyptians prescribed mint to ease upset stomachs, and it was also served after meals in Greece and Rome as a digestive aid.
Peppermint leaves contain menthol, a compound that gives the plant its recognizable flavor and healing properties. Menthol stimulates the flow of digestive secretions, and helps relieve cramping by relaxing the smooth muscles of the intestinal tract.
Peppermint can be enjoyed as an after-dinner tea (steep 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried herb in 1 cup of freshly boiled water for 10 minutes), or taken as an alcohol or glycerin extract. A typical dosage of an extract is 15 to 30 drops diluted in one-quarter cup of water.
Gentle enough to soothe a child's stomachache, chamomile is potent enough to relieve indigestion in adults too. The fragrant essential oils in the chamomile flowers contain compounds (especially bisabolol) that have a calming, antispasmodic effect on the digestive tract. As a bonus, chamomile also helps to calm the emotional stress that contributes to digestive distress.
The delicious apple-like flavor of chamomile makes it a popular tea. To preserve the aromatic compounds, chamomile should be steeped in a covered pot (use 2 teaspoons of dried herb to 1 cup of boiling water and steep for 10 minutes). As an alternative, an alcohol or glycerin extract is a convenient way to take the herb. A typical dosage is 30 to 60 drops of extract diluted in water.
Spicy ginger has long been used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine as a digestive aid, and is used in everyday cooking in those cultures to promote good digestion. In Western folk medicine, ginger ale is often prescribed as a simple home remedy to ease an upset stomach. Ginger is laden with pungent, aromatic compounds called gingerol and shogaol that researchers believe are responsible for the therapeutic effects.
In addition to relieving intestinal spasms, ginger increases the secretion of digestive fluids and contains enzymes that help to digest food. To make a tea, steep 2 teaspoons of powdered or fresh grated ginger root in 1 cup of water in a covered pot for 10 minutes. As an alternative, use an alcohol or glycerin extract: 15 drops diluted in one-quarter cup of water.
When simple indigestion becomes painful heartburn, one of the best herbal remedies is deglycyrrizinated licorice. Popular for centuries as both a food and medicine, licorice root has traditionally been used for coughs and stomachaches. When scientists realized that glycyrrhizin, a compound in licorice root, raises blood pressure, they created DGL, a safer form of the herb.
Numerous studies have shown that DGL steps up the secretion of mucus that lines and protects the gastrointestinal tract and also stimulates healing of the gastrointestinal lining. DGL has been shown to be as effective as drugs that suppress or neutralize excess gastric acids, but without negative side effects such as rebound acid production, diarrhea and heart rhythm disturbances.
Because DGL needs to mix with saliva to be effective, tablets need to be thoroughly chewed and should be taken between meals or 20 minutes before eating. A typical dosage is one to two tablets as needed.
Laurel Vukovic is an Oregon-based herbalist. Contact her at [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 12/p.45