Given how important gut health is for digestion, cognition, mood, and those telltale intuitive gut feelings, it’s crucial to take care of our gut. Cultivating good health in the digestive tract from top to bottom is probably the most important thing to focus on for anyone seeking to maintain or improve total bodily health and wellbeing.
Furthermore, it is obvious in these times of record food sensitivities and indigestion that a little gut care could go a long way when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Fortunately, now as ever, our elders the plants have some good help ready for us if we ask for it.
How Herbs Can Assist Digestion and Gut Health
The digestive tract is a top-down system, beginning in the mouth (don’t forget to chew thoroughly!), terminating at the anus, and taking many twists and turns along the way. This process engages the mouth, the esophagus, the stomach, the intestines, the spleen, the liver, and smooth muscle, and it does this more or less constantly.
Through this cooperative network, we assimilate minerals and information and, amazingly, turn external objects into the substance and energy of our bodies. Flow is all-important in this process, and in general we want things to flow downward.
Improving interoception, or the ability to feel the inner state of one’s body, is a very good way to begin any health practice. Sitting or lying down quietly and feeling your body processes and how they relate to each other can generate good, actionable information. Practicing interoception while healthy provides a baseline against which to compare discomfort as it arises, and doing this while ill can help a healthcare provider diagnose and treat ailments.
Since we want things to move downward through the digestive system, bitter herbs (like dandelion, burdock, angelica, coffee, or even chamomile that has been steeped too long) that promote downward movement and flow of food can support digestive function.
Dandelion Tea for Gut Health
Dandelion grows a mildly bitter taproot which, when roasted and infused into water, makes a delicious and easy-to-drink digestive remedy. This tea is excellent in advance of a good meal; bitter herbs and foods stimulate saliva production (recall that digestion begins in the mouth) and even generate a hungry feeling, perfect for just before eating. A bitter flavor can even help after overindulging, when sitting with a big, stagnant, uncomfortable belly full of food.
This tea is also only mildly bitter (try comparing it to gentian or yellow dock!) and is a bit bland. For some folks, it might feel a little blasé, but this simple foundational herb creates a perfect bedrock for accentuating a curated flavor palate in the meal to come. In order to best enjoy splendid seasoning, less is very often more.
Dandelions, whose name is French for “teeth of the lion” in honor of their severely shaped leaves, offer many gifts for gut health. What is digestion if not sloughing off the turbid and rejoicing in the nutritive? It is hard to find a more joyful plant than the dandelion, who thrives even from under cement slabs. You can’t stop them from sending a sunny yellow flower up toward the sky! The dandelion actually prefers growing in a disrupted ecosystem, doing its duty to help restore balance, wholeness, and flourishing to places where those things have been squashed by the concrete jungle.
In a historical moment in which our collective gut health ecosystem seems deeply disrupted, perhaps the lowly, unassuming, weedy dandelion has some worthwhile medicine for us. The root makes a delicious tea, the leaves add depth to a salad or cook down beautifully with collards, and the flower, once finished smiling cheerfully up at the sun, grants a wish to the one who would ask. What a friend indeed!
You can enjoy a hot cup of dandelion root tea by steeping a few teaspoons in a mug of just-boiled water for 5-10 minutes, or using a tea bag from your favorite brand, like Traditional Medicinals. If you’re a coffee drinker, you may enjoy a dandelion-based coffee substitute like Dandy Blend.
Fennel Tea for Gut Health
Another excellent friend for digestion is fennel. Fennel seed is full of its own robust flavor, akin to licorice root but spicier, similar to anise seed but sweet. Fennel makes a good complement to bitter herbs because it balances cold bitterness with carminative action. You may enjoy a mug of fennel tea after a meal.
Fennel is lightly warming, which can help to stoke the fires of digestion: traditional Chinese medical thought compares the gut to a pot of soup, which needs a certain amount of fire under it to keep things flowing the way we like. Cold, bitter things can help us move in the direction we want, but in order to preserve flow and avoid bloating and stagnation, there needs to be a bit of heat in the system. Peppers offer plenty of heat, but they often aim too high for this purpose. Fennel hits the gut just right.
It’s a superstar of gently stimulating the gut, and sorely underrated because of its unassuming nature. (Some people like the laxative senna, which moves things much more forcefully, sometimes causing cramps. Although senna has a role in more extreme cases and emergencies, the gentleness of fennel tea is a good choice for many, and the tea can be enjoyed for maintenance and simple delicious enjoyment.)
To delight in the goodness that fennel tea has to offer, steep a couple teaspoons of fennel seeds in a mug of hot water for 5-10 minutes (or to taste), or use a pre-bagged fennel tea.
Mild teas can be of enormous value when working with long-term gut remedies. Gentle flow and a familiarity with bitterness can help us to maintain healthy gut operations, as well as help to generate a deeper appreciation of all the rest of the flavors that are available to us.
Need more digestive support? Try cooking with these Ayurvedic digestive spices.