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Spices for Digestion: Benefits


The digestive tract is essentially a tube running from mouth to anus that is responsible for digestion, absorption and transportation of nutrients. The digestive tract’s function enables us to grow, develop, and maintain health. Since the digestive tract is often the first organ exposed to environmental toxins, pathogens, and dietary components, and is closely linked with brain activity, stress and our emotional state via the vagus nerve, digestive discomfort and symptoms are incredibly common worldwide.

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with a digestive condition or not, have had symptoms for years or only recently, the good news is science can now confirm what traditional medicine has been practicing for thousands of years – plants have the power to heal a wide variety of conditions and ailments and improve overall health.

Digestive benefits of ginger

Ginger root is the rhizome (underground root) of a flowering perennial herb closely related to other aromatic plants like turmeric, galangal and cardamom - all of which have therapeutic and medicinal benefits, and are widely used in cuisines around the world.

Ginger’s primary bioactive substances include gingerols and shogaols. Therapeutic uses of ginger traditionally target inflammatory and digestive ailments and are frequently used for indigestion, nausea, slow motility and vomiting.

Research finds ginger accelerates gastric emptying and gastric contractions - two functions that are compromised in those with delayed gastric emptying, hypomotility and gastroparesis – and is an effective alternative to high-risk motility/prokinetic drugs like domperidone and metoclopramide.

Randomized, controlled trials find that 1.0-2.0 grams a day of ginger reduces nausea and vomiting, and improves gastric function over placebo. A dose of 0.5-2.0g per day was found to be effective at reducing chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

Consider drinking ginger tea multiple times a day (2.0 grams per serving), or taking 0.5-2.0 grams a day of ginger root extract for relief.

Digestive benefits of turmeric

Turmeric spice is a bright yellow spice obtained from the root of the flowering turmeric plant within the ginger family. It’s been used for thousands of years in cultures around the world for medicinal purposes and is a common spice in Indian, Asian, Thai and Middle Eastern cuisine. The bioactive components of turmeric root are known as curcuminoids, curcumin being the most well-known compound, which exerts powerful anti-inflammatory, pain-reducing, anti-cancer, neuroprotective, and blood-sugar balancing benefits.

While turmeric spice added to food is likely not concentrated enough for therapeutic benefits, many studies have found curcumin and turmeric root extract – in both supplement and tea form – to improve digestive symptoms and pain.

Ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease are both inflammatory bowel diseases associated with chronic pain, diarrhea, reduced quality of life, elevated inflammatory markers and other distressing symptoms. One study found those with UC that combined drug therapy with curcumin extract, at a dose of 1500mg per day for 8 weeks, experienced improved inflammatory markers (CRP and ESR). They also showed improved scores on disease questionnaires and quality of life compared to those on drug therapy plus placebo.

Consider taking 500mg curcumin (paired with a fat-containing meal for improved absorption) three times a day for relief.

Digestive benefits of senna

Senna alexandrina is a woody shrub with edible fruit and leaves that produce a stimulatory laxative effect when consumed. Senna is an FDA-approved over-the-counter laxative for short-term treatment of constipation or for bowel prep before surgery or a colonoscopy. Senna stimulates the colon to contract which helps to produce bowel movements.

One randomized-controlled trial (STIMULAX trial) found that colorectal surgery patients receiving both stimulant (including senna) and osmotic laxatives recovered gastrointestinal function earlier with less post-surgery complications compared to those with placebo.

When used long-term or at high doses, senna may cause discoloration of colorectal tissue which may increase colorectal cancer risk, so only short-term use is recommended.

You can find senna in tea, powder, tablets and chewable form. It is usually taken before bedtime to produce a bowel movement the next morning.

Digestive benefits of flaxseed

Though flaxseed is not a spice, it’s a worthwhile food to enjoy regularly. Flaxseed, commonly called linseed or flax, are small seeds rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, lignans, fibers and unique bioactive compounds that help to improve digestive function and reduce inflammation, especially for those with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

According to one study, flaxseed oil appears superior to ground flaxseed for reducing ulcer size and pathogenic bacteria. Flaxseed extract (which can be obtained through ground flaxseed) is superior to the oil in reducing intestinal mucosal damage and spasms.

An animal study shows that flaxseed extract yields both anti-motility and anti-diarrheal effects, as well as reduces diarrhea-inducing pathogenic bacteria in the colon. This led the researchers to report therefore that flaxseed is an effective medicinal treatment for both infectious and non-infectious bacteria.

Consider adding ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil to smoothies, cooked grains, oatmeal, and salads.

Other helpful plants for digestion

Lemon Balm – an herb related to the mint family that exerts a calming effect that may help with anxiety and anxiety-related digestive discomfort. It’s also anti-bacterial and has been shown to improve indigestion. It can be consumed up to 3 times a day as tea (1.5-4.5g dried lemon balm steeped in 8 ounces of hot water), supplement form (500mg), or applied topically.

Fenugreek – an annual herb that helps preserve beneficial microbes in the digestive tract even in the presence of a standard American or western-style high fat diet. This is especially helpful in preserving metabolic function and reducing risk of metabolic syndrome, though more human research is needed to determine therapeutic dosing.

Cardamom – related to the ginger family, cardamom offers similar benefits, including helping to relieve gas and bloating, as well as relaxing smooth muscles – the major muscles in the digestive tract. Drinking cardamom tea is a common therapeutic practice.

Marshmallow Root – the root of the flowering marshmallow plant that has mucilaginous properties that help to coat and protect the intestinal mucosal layer from inflammation and prevent ulcer formation. Tea and powdered form may be best for digestive symptoms.

Key takeaways

Ginger root is closely related to the turmeric plant. It helps to reduce inflammation and improve gastric and colonic motility, nausea and vomiting.

Curcumin exerts many biologically-active benefits for those with digestive symptoms - including inflammation and pain reduction.

Senna is an edible woody plant that causes a stimulatory laxative effect in the colon which increases bowel movements.

Flaxseed (ground and oil) exerts both anti-spasmodic and laxative properties, and is a beneficial aid for those with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Many other spices, herbs, and plants have been shown to improve digestive function such as lemon balm, fenugreek, cardamom and marshmallow root.

Conclusion

Nearly everyone in the world experiences digestive discomfort at some point in life. Specific plants have been used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes. Research shows specific spices and plants like ginger, turmeric, senna and flaxseed can help reduce digestive symptoms and improve quality of life.

Resources:

Chang, Wen P, and Yu X Peng. (2019). Does the oral administration of ginger reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting?: A meta-analysis of 10 randomized controlled trials. Cancer Nursing.

Giacosa, A., Morazzoni, P., Bombardelli, E., Riva, A., Bianchi Porro, G., Rondanelli, M. (2015). Can nausea and vomiting be treated with ginger extract. European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences.

Sadeghi, N., Mansoori, A., Shayesteh, A., & Hashemi, S. J. (2020). The effect of curcumin supplementation on clinical outcomes and inflammatory markers in patients with ulcerative colitis. Phytotherapy Research.

Mount Sinai. Lemon balm.

Bruce-Keller, A. J., Richard, A. J., Fernandez-Kim, S. O., Ribnicky, D. M., Salbaum, J. M., Newman, S., Carmouche, R., & Stephens, J. M. (2020). Fenugreek Counters the Effects of High Fat Diet on Gut Microbiota in Mice: Links to Metabolic Benefit. Scientific Reports.

Medline Plus. Senna.

van Gorkom, B. A., Karrenbeld, A., van Der Sluis, T., Koudstaal, J., de Vries, E. G., & Kleibeuker, J. H. (2000). Influence of a highly purified senna extract on colonic epithelium. Digestion.

Dudi-Venkata, N. N., Kroon, H. M., Bedrikovetski, S., Lewis, M., Lawrence, M. J., Hunter, R. A., Moore, J. W., Thomas, M. L., & Sammour, T. (2021). Impact of STIMUlant and osmotic LAXatives (STIMULAX trial) on gastrointestinal recovery after colorectal surgery: randomized clinical trial. The British Journal of Surgery.

Hanif Palla, A., Gilani, A., Bashir, S., Rehman, N.U. (2020). Multiple Mechanisms of Flaxseed: Effectiveness in Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Palla, A. H., Khan, N. A., Bashir, S., Ur-Rehman, N., Iqbal, J., & Gilani, A. H. (2015). Pharmacological basis for the medicinal use of Linum usitatissimum (Flaxseed) in infectious and non-infectious diarrhea. Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

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