Digestion Perfection: Herbs Make Great Allies When it Comes to Keeping Your Body Running Smoothly.

Digestion is one of those things you’d rather not think about if you don’t have to. When our digestive system is working properly, we take it for granted, but when it runs into problems, it can’t be ignored. Gas, constipation, heartburn-these symptoms can make one miserable. Happily, there are several steps we can take to ensure that things run efficiently. By using some simple culinary herbs and following a few basic lifestyle rules, you can prevent many of these symptoms from occurring. And if trouble does come your way, some effective, natural remedies can put you right in no time.

Digestion 101

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Your digestive tract is a tube {upwards of 24 feet} that have been assigned a pretty simple job: get food from one end to the other. When food traverses the imposing territory between the mouth and the rectum, it meets with several biological processes. Food enters the mouth, where both your teeth and enzymes in your saliva start to break it down. Food disintegrates even further thanks to acid in the stomach, and then it’s on to the small intestine, bacteria finish the job, while the bloodstream absorbs nutrients. Anything left over…well, you know the rest.
Special muscles called sphincters separate each section of the gastrointestinal tract. When not in use, these muscles are tightly closed. They open to allow food residue to pass from one section to the next. Contractions move food slowly through the small intestine, inexorably marching towards the large intestine. Normally, the first part of a meal requires about 90 to 120 minutes to reach the large intestine. {The last portion of the meal may not make it there for five hours.} Thankfully, each special section has corresponding herbal remedies to help things move along at an efficient clip.

The Stomach

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This first stop in the digestive journey involves powerful chemicals, including hydrochloric acid and enzymes. If these digestive juices fall short, though, the whole process gets off to a bad start, giving you that overly full, Thanksgiving dinner feeling.
Herbs with bitter flavor promote digestive secretions and speed up the processes in the upper GI tract.
Gentian root is the most popular digestive bitter in the U.S. and in Europe, often an ingredient in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic aperitifs. An ounce or so of any bitter herbal beverage taken before the first bite of a meal spurs digestive secretions and keeps food passing through on schedule. In general, bitter herbs reduce gas, bloating, allergic responses, and indigestion. Barberry root, dandelion, and artichoke are other effective bitter herbs.
In traditional Chinese Medicine {TCM}, the use of “hot” herbs can also help. Essential oils {often derived from a plant’s seeds} of carminative herbs like cardamom, dill, cumin, caraway, and lemon balm warm up the digestive tract, helping to expel gas, while speeding up and improving the efficiency of the digestive process. Use these herbs in teas.Lemon balm, and  Dill
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Popular in Europe, herbal “gripe water” {griping is another word for intestinal cramping} relies on dill seed, chamomile, lemon balm, or ginger. Fennel is a stand-out in this regard, and probably the world’s most popular gas remedy, even for kids. In one study, published in Phytotherapy Research, 121 colicky infants randomly received 5 to 20 ml of a 0.1 percent fennel seed oil emulsion or placebo, up to four times daily for one week. Parents kept symptom diaries for the week, as well as the week before and the week after. The kids taking the fennel formula had a 45 percent decrease in colic symptoms, compared to a 5 percent drop in the placebo group.
In 2005, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial looked at 93 healthy breastfed infants with colic. For one week, they consumed a dose of fennel mixture twice daily before breastfeeding. Crying time dropped {by an average of two hours per day} in 85 percent of infants in the fennel group, compared to 48 percent in the placebo group.

The Intestines

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Comfortable, regular, bulky, and soft bowel movements are critical for good health. And, as the Ayurvedic aphorism explains, “If your stool is sinking, you’re sinking.” Of course, if nothing is passing through, you have a bigger problem: constipation. The medical community defines constipation as eliminating waste less than three times a week, or in low quantity.
Transit time and regularity are the key concepts behind proper bowel timing. Transit time is the time it takes a meal to be eliminated from the body after it has entered the mouth. For a person who eats a healthy, unprocessed, whole foods diet, 30 hours is an average transit time, although Ayurveda maintains that the ideal time falls between 18 and 24 hours. In our constipation-prone society, 48 hours, or considerably more, is common. {Clock your transit time by swallowing something to tint the stool, such as charcoal powder, beets, or chlorophyll. Mark the time from when you’ve ingested this matter to when you see this color show up upon elimination.}
The longer waste stays in the colon, the more chance it has of decomposing into unhealthy compounds. This waste matter tends to absorb more water, too, as it sits in the body, making it harder and smaller. The body has a tougher time moving it onward. The potential long-term complications include the development of gallstones and even colon cancer.
Regularity, on the other hand, is defined as the interval between bowel movements. The gamut of recommendations runs from two or three bowel movements a week to one a day, depending on whom you ask. However, like all mammals, humans automatically start the digestive process every time they chew. Each meal stimulates this process and initiates elimination. So as a rule, natural healing practitioners insist on at least one bowel movement per day, or up to one per meal.
Success in the intestinal process depends mainly on three pillars: Peristalsis, fiber, and moisture. When everything goes right with peristalsis, the wave-like motion of muscles that impels waste out of the large intestine, muscles squeeze briefly every few seconds and then relax, propelling it toward the rectum. Stimulant laxatives can promote this wave. Among the best are senna leaf, cascara bark, and aloe leaf in capsule form. Use these only for short-term episodes of acute constipation. Start with a very small dose {500 mg} and adjust the dose as necessary. Since these herbs can sometimes produce intestinal cramps, especially in excess doses, they’re often combined with warming herbs, such as ginger and fennel. Expect these herbs to facilitate elimination in about six hours.
Fiber helps out by absorbing excess moisture, making the stool softer and increasing its size, essentially giving the muscles in the intestinal walls something to push along. Natural bulk fiber laxatives provide soluble fiber, which includes pectin from fruit, flaxseed, chia seed, and oat bran. Use these each day as necessary. Make a point of increasing your fiber intake from whole foods {fruit, vegetables, dried legumes}, as well. Aim for as much as 35 grams of fiber per day.
Psyllium seed, a well known bulk fiber laxative, balances bowel function and relieves the pain of irritable bowels. As psyllium travels through the gut, its slimy mucilage offers soothing benefit, which may relieve cramping. An English study revealed that constipation significantly improved in patients taking psyllium. Eighty-two percent of the subjects had irritable bowel symptom relief. The optimum dose appears to be 20 grams per day.
The third factor, moisture, is a common issue for constipation sufferers. Proper moisture content is critical for efficient elimination. The large intestine pumps about five gallons of fluid every day, from what we drink, plus our digestive secretions. Most of this must be reabsorbed, or else we would quickly become dehydrated.
Demulcents are herbs that contain mucilage, which coats and soothes the gut wall and helps waste exit smoothly. These herbs include marshmallow root {Althea officinalis} and slippery elm bark {Ulmusspp.}. To use either herb, stir 1 tablespoon of powdered bulk herb into a bite of food, such as applesauce, with each meal. Magnesium, a natural mineral, is an osmotic laxative that draws moisture into the bowels and softens waste. Most people can tolerate up to about 1,200 mg of magnesium per day.

Other Helpful Herbs

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Herbal medicine is quite beneficial for keeping digestion perking along, as shown in the results of a study from Europe. Twenty-four patients took an herbal mixture containing dandelion, St. John’s wort, lemon balm, calendula, and fennel. Of the group, 95 percent had total relief of colitis symptoms within 15 days.
Triphala, an Ayurvedic combination of the fruits amla, haritaki and bibitaki  is the classic herbal remedy for long term digestive help. It tones the intestinal walls, detoxifies the system, and promotes elimination. It has a high tannin content, so it treats diarrhea in low doses {1 gram per day}. In higher doses, it treats constipation in a very slow, gentle way, tightening the walls of the gut while it works. Triphala is suitable for children and ideal for older folks who need a little daily help with regularity. For maintenance, take 2 grams per day. As a short-term laxative, use 6 grams. An easy bowel movement should occur in about 8 hours.
Turmeric root {Curcuma longa} is widely used to improve digestion. A common curry spice, it keeps GI tract inflammation under control. One of its active ingredients, curcumin, the pigment that gives turmeric its distinctive yellow color, has anti-inflammatory effects comparable to cortisone and phenylbutazone, widely used anti-inflammatory drugs. And curcumin is non-steroidal, so it has none of the devastating side effects of steroids.
Like another medicinal spice, cayenne, it relieves pain by depleting nerve endings of substance P, the pain receptor neurotransmitter. Historically, this herb has been used to reduce gas, a benefit that is now getting increasing scientific support. Curcumin stimulates gallbladder contractions, promoting better digestion. Ptolymethlcarbinol, another compound in turmeric, boosts the production of several important secretions in the digestive tract.
Turmeric also increases mucin secretion, which protects mucous membranes against damage by stomach acid and other digestive juices. With its ability to suppress inflammation, increase mucin content of the stomach, and stop bleeding, turmeric prevents ulcerations of all types, including gastritis, peptic ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, and colitis. Take 1 to 2 grams powdered herb in capsules, or as a spice, with each meal. Higher doses are quite safe and may produce better and faster results.
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Licorice Root {Glycyrrhiza uralensis},

also, guards digestive mucous membranes by escalating the production of mucin. Deglycyrrhizinated licorice root {DGL} has the glycyrrhizic acid removed-glycyrrhizic acid is the ingredient in licorice root associated with increasing blood pressure and water retention but retains its soothing properties. One to two chewable wafers of DGL with a meal will usually do the job.
Use 1 teaspoon of the chopped root, brewed as a tea, three times a day, or one to two chewable wafers of DGL {250-500 mg} 15 minutes before meals and one to two hours before bedtime.
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Peppermint Leaf {Mentha piperita},

is a well-known digestion herb. Peppermint oil works well to prevent dyspepsia because the oil relaxes the muscles of the intestinal wall. Enteric coated capsules postpone the release of this oil until the remedy is further down in the digestive tract so that the medicine works in the right spot. They also reduce those minty burps. In one double-blind trial from Taiwan, four out of every five patients experienced reduced symptoms when given enteric-coated peppermint oil. In 1999, a study from Germany used peppermint and caraway oils to treat 223 people, and the combination brought about a significant reduction in discomfort. Another German study, published in Phytotherapy Research, from February 2000, again confirmed that a combination of peppermint and caraway oils effectively reduced unwanted intestinal symptoms. Take 1 teaspoon of chopped herb brewed as tea, three times a day, or 0.2 to 0.4 ml, three times a day, of an enteric-coated capsule.
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Ginger Root {Zingiber officinale},

a warming herb works better for some folks than the cold herbs. Tasty and aromatic, this root is an eternal remedy for stomach upset. Ginger’s benefits for motion sickness and nausea has been consistently proven, and European practitioners routinely use ginger in tea for indigestion. A 2008 study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, had chemotherapy patients consume ginger for nausea. In 28 patients, ginger reduced the nausea of chemotherapy and the need for antiemetic medications {pharmaceutical drugs that treat nausea and vomiting}. The herb also reduces gut spasms, absorbs and neutralizes toxins in the GI tract, and boosts digestive juice secretions, including bile and saliva. Use 1 teaspoon chopped herb brewed as a tea, three times a day.
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Cinnamon Bark {Cinnamomum cassia},

another warming digestive star is a mild but useful remedy for lethargic digestion. Commission E in Germany, the European standard for herbal medicines, recommends cinnamon for loss of appetite, dyspeptic complaints, mild gastrointestinal spasms, bloating, and flatulence. Use 1 teaspoon chopped herb brewed as a tea, three times a day.
Making sure your digestion perks right along is as easy as cooking with delicious, intriguing spices, sipping some tasty teas, and turning to a few notable herbal medicines. Keep the digestive fires burning: Turn to herbal aids for a smooth, comfortable digestive experience and you’ll have the stomach for just about anything life throws your way.

Dandy Tummy Bitters Recipe

These homemade bitters with fennel seeds and dandelion root should be taken before or after a meal to help stimulate digestion.

Take a drop or two of these dandelion bitters before or after a meal to help with digestion.

Is your digestive system ready for a big feast? Just a drop or two of any bitter herb on the tongue will help stimulate healthy digestion before or after a meal. In addition to dandelion’s bitterness, the aromatics from the fennel, ginger, and orange will help with uncomfortable post-dessert bloat.

Learn more about bitter plants, and which ones you can plant in your home garden, in the article Health Benefits Of Bitters.

Ingredients:

• 2 parts dandelion root
• 1 part fennel seed
• 1/2 part ginger root
• 1/2 part orange peel
• 1 glass jar with lid
• Enough 100-proof vodka to fill your glass jar
• Cheesecloth

Instructions:

1. If using fresh plants, harvest and clean your herbs before chopping and grinding them.
2. Fill a clean glass jar halfway with the fresh, ground herbs. If tincturing dried herbs, only fill the glass jar one-third of the way because dried roots will expand.
3. Pour the vodka over the herbs until the jar is full, and be sure your herb mixture is completely covered.
4. Label your jar with the name of the herbs, date, alcohol strength, and plant parts used.
5. Allow the tincture to sit for 6 to 8 weeks, shaking the jar often to keep all the plant material submerged.
6. Strain the finished tincture through cheesecloth to separate the herbs from the liquid, bottle the liquid in amber dropper bottles, and label.