If you’ve ever had an upset stomach, then you know how much it can ruin your day. Our digestive system is a complex network of 100 million neurons and 100 trillion microbes so sophisticated that it is often called the “second brain.” Scientific studies show that the gut microbiome is a fragile environment, and when it becomes unbalanced, it can lead to many different health issues.
In fact, a growing amount of research suggests that not only does our gut health impact our physical health, but it also plays a role in our mental well-being. Scientists are finding that supporting your gut health can help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and more, which is why it is often referred to as the gut-brain connection .
Historically, many common aromatic kitchen spices have been used to help support the digestive system and address digestive ailments. In this article, we’ll explore the history of digestive herbs, how to use them to support gut health, and which specific aromatic herbs are best for promoting healthy digestion. You’ll also receive a fun digestive bitters tincture recipe to try making at home.
History of Using Herbs for Digestion
Using herbs for digestive health is nothing new. In fact, herbs have been traditionally used for digestion for centuries. The Ebers Papyrus, circa 1500 BCE, is one of the oldest written records of Ancient Egyptian use of medicinal plants. It contains over 100 pages on anatomy and physiology, plant details, fine oils for perfumery and incense, toxicology, and treatment protocols. Many plants helpful for digestion are mentioned in this ancient text, including Bayberry, Caraway, Cardamom, Juniper, Dill, Henna, Myrrh, Mint, Sandalwood, and more .
Other examples include Dragon’s Blood, which has been traditionally used in Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador as both aromatic and topical medicine, and to address many digestive and intestinal issues . Historical records indicate that tribes in North Africa have used Frankincense and other plants to support healthy digestion . In the 19th century, aperitifs and digestifs – alcoholic beverages consumed before or after meals to stimulate appetite and aid digestion – became popular throughout Europe.
In Ayurveda, Juniper berries are commonly used to promote digestion and ease stomach upset. As a matter of fact, Juniper berries have long been a common ingredient in bitter recipes, meant to be consumed before a meal to aid in digestion. The list of examples of herbs used in digestive remedies over the centuries could really go on and on.
Ways to Use Herbs for Digestion
There are many aromatic plants that are traditionally used to help support digestion, and they all work in different ways. Some herbs classify as a ‘carminative’, meaning that they help prevent or relieve gas and bloating. Others help stimulate digestion, which supports your body's natural ability to digest.
Some herbs have properties that help address specific symptoms, like nausea, diarrhea, or constipation. Other plants may address a cause of a digestive issue, like warming up a sluggish digestive tract or calming an anxious tummy. Many herbs fall into several of these categories.
There are many ways you can incorporate herbs into your daily life for digestive support. The most common is to add digestive herbs into your cooking, or intentionally cook recipes that include these spices. Soups, curries, sauces, stir fries, vegetables, oatmeal, protein dishes, baked goods, and more – all of these dishes are delicious with added spices. You can also brew herbal tea for digestive support, which can be consumed both before and after a meal.
You may already be familiar with digestive bitters, which are commonly used in cocktails. Bitters are a time honored traditional botanical alcohol extraction for digestive support. They typically incorporate digestive herbs that help promote saliva production, which prepares your body for digestion and helps support the digestive fire. While bitters made for cocktails tend to contain added sugar and artificial ingredients, you can find traditional bitters tinctures for sale with just natural ingredients, or opt to make your own using the recipe at the end of this article.
Finding the Root Cause
Digestive health is intricate. While herbs can help support digestion, there are many potential underlying health issues that can arise within the digestive system. Depending on your symptoms and health history, you may need testing to determine if you have a digestion condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), leaky gut, lactose intolerance, Crohn's disease, celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, and so on.
The good news is that herbs can help ease symptoms from these chronic digestive ailments. However, you may need additional support with natural measures like probiotics, diet change, supplementation, or more. Plants are a powerful tool, but often they are only one part of the puzzle towards addressing health and wellness. It’s best to work with a medical professional or clinical herbalist when examining any health issues.
Aromatic Herbs for Digestive Health
When it comes to digestion, there may be many factors and ailments at play. While there are a lot of herbs to choose from, it is important to remember that everyone is different and will interact with plants in slightly unique ways – due to the root cause of the issue, as well as different energetics in plants and people. Keep this in mind as you consider incorporating these aromatic plants into your life.
Cardamom is in the Zingiberaceae, or Ginger, family. It is warm, spicy, and sweet, with carminative and antispasmodic qualities, meaning it can be helpful in addressing stomach cramps, heartburn, gas, bloating, and nausea. It is believed to help strengthen the digestive system and in India, the seeds are traditionally chewed for bad breath .
This warming spice helps to stimulate the appetite and circulation. It has been commonly used for heartburn and gastrointestinal issues, including Crohn’s and stomach ulcers. It has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown to help ease symptoms associated with IBS in scientific studies .
Coriander is the warm, spicy, and woody seeds from the Cilantro plant. It is in the Umbelliferae family, along with Caraway and Fennel, which all aid in digestion with their carminative properties. Coriander is also an antispasmodic and is indicated for a low appetite, heartburn, bloating, and gas .
This sweet, pungent plant smells and tastes like Anise or Licorice. Fennel is an antispasmodic known to help with constipation, indigestion, gas, bloating, and nausea . It has warming qualities that help stimulate digestion and is commonly used as an aperitif. In Indian culture it is common to chew a small handful of Fennel seeds before or after a meal to aid in digestion.
Ginger is probably one of the most well-known herbs for digestive support. This warming and spicy root helps stimulate and wake up the digestive system. It is indicated for poor appetite, heartburn, gas, and bloating. It is also an anti-nausea herb commonly used for both motion sickness and morning sickness during pregnancy .
The aroma of Juniper is both warming and invigorating. The berries have been traditionally used to ease gastrointestinal issues in many cultures due to its digestive, carminative, antispasmodic, and anti-bacterial qualities . It is also a classic key ingredient in many bitters recipes.
This cooling, highly aromatic plant has a sweet, citrus-like aroma and is an anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, carminative, and digestive stimulant. Lemon Balm has a unique ability to address digestive upset caused by anxiety and nervous tension.
Not only can it soothe stress and uneasiness, but it can also relieve nervous indigestion, nausea, and gas. It also has analgesic properties, which means it can help relieve mild pain often associated with digestive upset .
This warming and camphoraceous herb is an analgesic, antispasmodic, carminative, and digestive stimulant. Marjoram has the ability to both strengthen and calm the digestive tract .
Peppermint is a classic cooling and refreshing herb known to be one of the most effective herbs at addressing digestive issues. It is anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antispasmodic, carminative, and a digestive stimulant.
Peppermint can be helpful for soothing nausea, stomach cramps, gas, and bloating, as well as dyspepsia, when the cause for digestive upset is unknown. It is also indicated for easing symptoms of IBS . Spearmint has similar properties to Peppermint, and can be substituted for a more mild Mint flavor.
This aromatic herb is commonly used in food and tea recipes for its tasty Licorice-like flavor, its ability to promote healthy digestion, and help calm and prevent an upset stomach. It's known as an antispasmodic, which means it can help soothe stomach aches and calm diarrhea. It’s also a carminative, which helps relieve gas and indigestion.
Using Digestive Herbs
Using any of these digestive herbs and raw spices in all types of cooking will help to support your digestive system and reduce your chances of developing digestive upset after a meal. Incorporating these herbs into your daily routine also has a wide variety of long-term health benefits, including regulating the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, balancing your gut microbiome, supporting healthy blood sugar levels, and so on. Since much of our health resides in the gut, supporting this organ has far reaching effects – like a domino effect – promoting a healthy immune system, boosting mental health, and so much more.
Please note that we recommended using only the raw plant materials and spices – do not ingest any essential oils of these plants. Essential oils are extremely potent – they can be too strong and irritating for the digestive tract, and may cause more harm than good.
Digestive Bitters Recipe
This simple recipe is for a digestive bitters herbal tincture you can easily make at home. To use, add 1 dropperful of your finished product into a cocktail, mocktail, tea, or sparkling water, and enjoy. You can also take several drops directly on the tongue to stimulate the digestive system before or after a meal. In general, it is recommended to take bitters sparingly, or as needed, and not for long periods of time or as a tonic.
16 oz glass mason jar with lid
Cheesecloth or fine mesh strainer
Amber glass tincture bottle for storage
Label and pen
½ cup Dandelion root (fresh or dried)
½ cup fresh Citrus peel (Orange, Grapefruit, or Tangerine)
1 tsp dried Ginger root (or quarter-size chunk of fresh Ginger)
1 tsp dried Fennel
1 Cinnamon stick
12 oz alcohol (we recommend vodka or brandy)
*Feel free to add in any other digestive herbs you want!
1. Place all plant material in your glass mason jar, then pour the alcohol on top. Make sure the alcohol completely covers all of the herbs.
2. Cover the jar with the lid and store it in a cool, dark place. Visit every couple of days to gently shake the jar. It’s ok to top off with alcohol if needed to cover the herbs.
3. Allow the bitters to infuse for 2-4 weeks, until you reach your desired flavor.
4. When it’s ready, strain it through a cheesecloth or fine mesh sieve.
5. Transfer your finished product into a tincture bottle using a funnel and label it with the ingredients and date.
Article Written By Melissa Szaro
1. Carpenter, S. (2012) That gut feeling. Monitor on Psychology, 43(8), page 50. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/09/gut-feeling
2. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. http://www.crystalinks.com/egyptmedicine.html
3. Sylliassen, E. (2019). Materia Aromatica: an In-depth Guide to the Traditional Ritual, Aesthetic, and Medicinal Uses of the 20 Most Common Incense Plants. Chimacum, The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. E-book.
4. Mojay, G. (1997). Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit: Restoring Emotional and Mental Balance with Essential Oils. Rochester, Healing Arts Press.
5. Hagenlocher, Y., Satzinger, S., Civelek, M., Feilhauer, K., Köninger, J., Bischoff, S.C., & Lorentz, A. (2017). Cinnamon reduces inflammatory response in intestinal fibroblasts in vitro and in colitis in vivo leading to decreased fibrosis. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, 61(9). https://doi.org/10.1002/mnfr.201601085
6. Raina, R., Verma, P.K., Peshin, R., & Koura, H. (2019). Potential of Juniperus communis L as a nutraceutical in human and veterinary medicine. Heliyon, 5(8). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6726717/
© 2023 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.
*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.