A user-friendly guide to herbs that can help settle your tummy.
If you’re the type of person who keeps Rolaids in her pocket and Pepto-Bismol in her desk drawer, consider adding herbal teas to your stash. Since what we eat and drink (especially dairy products, sugar, alcohol, and coffee) often triggers gas, bloating, indigestion, heartburn, constipation, and diarrhea, how better to treat these common gastrointestinal problems, herbalists say, than by ingesting herbs that naturally offset the culprits?
But with the ever growing variety of herbal teas and home remedies clogging the shelves of health food stores, it’s hard to know which ones will really help. There are numerous herbs that can affect the gastrointestinal system, according to Walter Kacera, Ph.D., an herbalist at the Apothecary Clinic in the Garden in London, Ontario. Luckily, you don’t need to buy out the entire store to get relief. Peppermint, chamomile, and ginger are the three herbs most commonly used to soothe abdominal symptoms. “They’re versatile and a good place to start,” says Jill Stansbury, N.D. (doctor of naturopathy), chair of the botanical medicine department at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Ore.
Peppermint can do a lot more after dinner than just freshen your breath. The herb’s essential oil contains menthol, a volatile substance that has a direct antispasmodic effect on the smooth muscle of the digestive tract. In addition, the pleasing smell of peppermint tea may help soothe nerves (and thus a nervous stomach). The ability to calm cramping stomach and intestinal muscles makes it a superb treatment, herbalists say, for symptoms of indigestion including heartburn, gas, stomachache, and the “I ate too much” feeling. It also makes peppermint a popular alternative treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), an intestinal disorder that causes abdominal pain, bloating, and irregular bowel movements in about 5 million Americans, most of them women.
Science is starting to back up some of mint’s claims. A study published in the Journal of Gastroenterology in 1997 found that IBS patients taking peppermint-oil capsules for symptom relief experienced an approximately 40% greater reduction in abdominal pain and a 50% greater reduction in bloating and flatulence than those patients receiving a placebo.
A carminative (gas-relieving) herb, peppermint in the form of tea has long been used as a home remedy for flatulence. A 1996 German study validates this usage, finding that patients with chronic indigestion not caused by an ulcer who were treated with an herbal preparation of peppermint oil combined with caraway oil (a bitter herb also believed to relieve gastrointestinal ailments) experienced about half as much abdominal pain due to gas as did people who received a placebo.
Even in the absence of abdominal symptoms, some herbalists recommend regular consumption of peppermint tea, saying it allows the entire gastrointestinal system to function more fluidly. But, despite the enthusiastic reports, many doctors say that peppermint can lower the sphincter pressure of the esophagus, actually causing some people to have more heartburn. Even Dr. Stansbury avoids treating heartburn with peppermint. If, however, people do experience relief from indigestion with peppermint or any other herbal therapy, Col. Peter McNally, D.O. (doctor of osteopathy), a gastroenterologist at the Evans Army Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colo., sees no harm in continuing to use the herb. “At the very least, the extra consumption of water (through the teas) can be quite helpful in aiding digestion,” he says.
Chamomile, considered to be one of the safest medicinal herbs, is frequently recommended as a gentle treatment for common gastrointestinal problems. In Germany, where herbalism has long been considered conventional, tradition holds chamomile to be so useful that it has been dubbed alles zutraut, or “capable of anything.” Indeed, for gastrointestinal ailments, it’s somewhat of a superherb. Antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, and carminative, chamomile can act upon the digestive system in a number of healing ways. It relieves flatulence and heartburn by mildly sedating and soothing the mucous membrane of the digestive tract. Its natural sedative properties can also relax the entire body, which may help if your digestive discomfort is caused by stress or worry.
A caveat: While some research has found chamomile to be effective in relieving diarrhea in young children, Dr. Stansbury strongly cautions against self-treating diarrhea with herbal remedies (for children or adults) until you have consulted with a medical professional. “The body may be trying to rid itself of a toxin or harmful substance, and you don’t want to interrupt that process,” she advises.
Though widely used and highly praised as a safe natural remedy, chamomile may cause allergic reactions in individuals with sensitivities to ragweed, asters, and chrysanthemums.
Ginger, like peppermint and chamomile, is a carminative and can be used to treat gas, along with its associated bloating and pain. In botanical medicine it’s considered a warming herb, one that causes the inside of the body to generate more heat. Herbalists say this can help regulate sluggish digestion, though Dr. Stansbury points out that some find this extra warmth uncomfortable and may instead prefer peppermint or chamomile teas.
But what makes ginger a standout among herbs is its effectiveness in treating nausea and vomiting. (Remember Mom giving you ginger ale when you had a stomachache?) Herbalists now know that ginger works against both nausea and vomiting, making it an excellent preventive against motion and morning sickness. And unlike its drug counterparts, ginger doesn’t cause drowsiness. Perhaps that’s why it’s a favorite in many a sailor’s first-aid kit.
Teas to Ease an Aching Stomach
“Teas are the best way to take herbal gastrointestinal remedies,” says Jill Stansbury, N.D. (doctor of naturopathy), chair of the botanical medicine department at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Ore. The warm liquid is easy to digest and allow the remedy direct contact with the stomach and intestinal walls. Herbs in pill form can be hard to digest, and most tinctures contain alcohol, causing them to be absorbed largely in the mouth. The one exception: Irritable bowel syndrome sufferers may use peppermint or chamomile tea and may also take peppermint in capsule form. The capsule allows the mint to maintain its potency until it reaches the intestines, where it calms the spasms characteristic of IBS. Look for enteric-coated capsules containing .2 milliliter of oil; take one or two, up to three times a day between meals.
How to Choose Tea
When selecting a tea, Walter Kacera, Ph.D., an herbalist at the Apothecary Clinic in the Garden, recommends looking for aromatic herbs: Can you smell the peppermint or ginger through the teabag? If not, the herb is probably past its prime. Look for a tea that has the date the herbs were harvested on the box; aromatic herbs should be less than a year old.
Next time your digestive system flares up, try one of these teas:
For a minty fresh herbal aid, the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colo., recommends the following ratio of peppermint to water: Steep one to two teaspoons of dried peppermint leaves, or one tablespoon of fresh leaves, in one cup of hot water for five to 10 minutes; sweeten as needed with honey; and drink in the morning and after dinner.
Substitute dried or fresh chamomile flowers for the peppermint leaves in the above tea preparation.
Steep ¼ to ½ teaspoon of dried gingerroot powder in one cup of hot water. Sweeten with honey and drink at night as a digestive aid, or prepare as needed to prevent motion sickness.
Fresh ginger is delicious and just as effective as the dried kind. Dr. Stansbury suggests simmering three ¼-in. peeled slices of the root in one cup of water for 10 minutes, or to desired strength. Flavor with lemon and honey.
If you need immediate help on hand for your next trip to the amusement park, dried or candied ginger will also do the trick.