Herbs for the health of the gastrointestinal tract; herbs to strengthen, relax, tone and/or stimulate the digestive tract and organs, to improve absorption, assimilation and elimination of food and relief from indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, and other digestive woes. Following are some herbs specifically beneficial to the gastrointestinal system.
Angelica (Angelica archangelica) root is a warming digestive bitter that can be used as a tincture before meals to stimulate the production of digestive acids and therefore more efficient digestion. The difference between using angelica and dandelion root before a meal to stimulate digestive juices is that dandelion is cooling and beneficial to the liver and lymph while angelica is quite warming and antibacterial in the digestive tract. The choice of which to use could be a combination of which plant is available to one and which better matches constitution and needs. When taking a plant regularly, or suggest a plant to be taken regularly (as opposed to a one-time, in-the-moment use for an acute situation) always try to use plants that touch on a number of concerns rather than just one symptom or condition.
Burdock is an overall aid to the gastrointestinal system, helping normalize bowel movements and stimulate them as necessary. Burdock root strengthens the liver and gall bladder and moistens the mucous membranes of the intestines. Burdock root can be taken in any number of ways for this purpose; it can be eaten raw or cooked, dried and prepared as an infusion, consumed as infused vinegar, or taken as an alcohol tincture in water.
Chamomile (Matricaria species) is deservedly famous as a relaxing, antibacterial, gut-healing tea. Use it as a simple, and find it underrated as an antispasmodic. It seems so gentle that its potency may seem imperceptible, but it is helpful for cramps and spasms in the belly—even intense ones, sometimes called gripes. People who are allergic to chamomile, start slowly to make sure it suits. Most people do just fine with it, but some find it makes their eyes itch and/or nose run, as if they were having a hay-fever or pollen attack. These symptoms subside as soon as the chamomile is removed.
Chickweed (Stellaria media and other species) is a nourishing plant that is delicious to eat as well as highly medicinal. People with rectal bleeding achieved great success with no known cause, or sometimes where there was a cause, such as when a colonoscopy damaged tissue, causing bleeding. Chickweed can used for hemorrhoids, too, taken orally as a tincture and applied topically as infused oil. It is soothing and cooling, and helpful when mixed with more astringent, tissue-tightening plantain, yarrow, or witch hazel. Chickweed is good as a tincture, as it extracts well into alcohol. Eat fresh chickweed leaves, stalks, and flowers in season to benefit from an abundance of minerals and to enjoy the sweet taste as the cooling, moistening juices soothe inflammation in the gut. Chickweed helps to emulsify fats, so is also a useful ally for releasing excess pounds.
Cinnamon makes a delicious tea that is helpful for nausea or indigestion. If stomach is still doing flip-flops and your digestive acids are working overtime, it’s time for some cinnamon tea. Any species can be used for this purpose—Cinnamomum cassia or the so-called “true” cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum (formerly zeylanicum). Use about six bruised cinnamon sticks per quart of boiled water, steeped for about an hour.
Dandelion is an all-around supporter of healthy digestion. The root in particular helps the liver to do its many jobs involved in breaking down and assimilating food, stimulating healthy bile production and helping the liver and lymph work together to detoxify metabolic wastes. The root can be eaten in moderate quantities and/or used as tincture or infusion. This plant is gently aperient (slightly laxative).
Dandelion also supports the health of the pancreas, helping to balance blood sugars and stimulate the release of pancreatic enzymes to help absorption and assimilation of food. Dandelion root is rich in inulin (a sugar molecule that is called “nature’s insulin”), which supports healthy bacteria in the small and large intestines.
Taking dandelion root tincture (about 25–30 drops in water) just before or after a heavy meal (15–30 minutes in either direction), will help stimulate digestive juices such as hydrochloric acid and strengthen the digestive fire. At the same time, dandelion cools down any area of the system that may be overheating.
Every part of dandelion except the yellow flower petals is bitter, arguably the most important flavor for the digestive health, and often the missing link in many Western diets. Dandelion greens make great nourishing bitters in salads, and hold up well when sautéed, steamed or boiled. If included the green parts of the flowers (the sepals and bracts behind the petals) then the flowers are bitter, too. Bitters stimulate the production of digestive juices such as bile, leading to a digestive system in good working order.
In terms of nourishment, dandelion root is a great tonic to take in rhythmic waves of 2–6 weeks at a time, or seasonally, rather than daily, whereas the leaves and flowers are good eaten or drunk as tea, or used as vinegars, any time at all. (If dandelion root is being used to heal liver disease or some other chronic problem, it may be used for longer periods of time; it’s simply not practice to do so when using it as a tonic for general digestive-system health.)
Dandelion flower infused oil is sweet-smelling, and very nice to massage around your whole belly to bring relaxation and pain relief when there is cramping, indigestion or bellyache.
Ginger is a great warming root that raises the fire of the digestive system. This tropical plant is most useful for easing cramps, indigestion, and nausea. Use fresh ginger as an infusion, steeped for about an hour; and also infuse it in honey or glycerin for a sweet yet hot gingery treat that aids assimilation and counters nausea and inflammation.
Marshmallow (Althaea spp.) leaves, roots, and flowers are sweet, carbohydrate-rich, and somewhat akin to slippery elm bark in their effects in the body. Marshmallow is very mucilaginous, and is a perennial plant that can easily be grown in a garden, whereas elm tree populations have declined due to Dutch elm disease, so marshmallow provides another option. Marshmallow infusion, made from any part of the plant, can be helpful for soothing damaged tissue and moistening a dry digestive tract. In this case, make sure one is drinking enough water and other fluids.
Marshmallow is best prepared by soaking 1 cup of dry root per quart in cold water overnight, then heating the liquid gently after squeezing out the roots. This preserves and brings out the medicinal properties of the roots, whereas high temperatures can damage them, making the medicine less effective. Prepare the leaves and flowers together as a regular infusion, covering them with boiling water and letting them sit, steeping, overnight.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is a bitter mint-family plant. This tincture is my remedy of choice for constipation brought on by nervousness or traveling (having difficulty moving one’s bowels in new and unfamiliar locations is not an uncommon challenge).
Mugwort/cronewort is an aromatic bitter that stimulates the flow of bile from the liver and tones and strengthens the liver as well. Use the leaves in cooking, or use the infused vinegar in meals. One or two tablespoons of the infused vinegar can be taken in water to aid digestion, and can be used successfully to forestall a hangover if one is overindulged in alcohol.
Oat straw makes a fine infusion to nourish digestion and balance blood sugar, with the sole warning that this infusion might not be for those with gluten allergies. Some people who find gluten irritating but are not allergic to it can drink oat straw without any problems. Oat straw is a great boon, as it is soothing and moistening to the digestive tract; although it doesn’t provide the fiber of oatmeal, it nourishes the nervous system in the gut as well as its tissue, and can be helpful as a nourishing tonic to build and maintain the overall health as well as specific challenges of the digestive system.
Orange (Citrus species) peels from both sweet and bitter oranges make good digestive bitters, with bitter orange being more intensely bitter, naturally! Tincture the peels, and also dry them for tasty teas. Orange peels taste great added into other infusions too.
Plantain leaves nourish, tone, and heal the digestive system with a combination of astringency, soothing demulcent action, and fiber. Our wild plantains are a close relative to psyllium, and the seeds provide a bulk laxative that, when mixed with water, brings a gel-like bulky moisture into the intestines, improving elimination. If use the leaves in food, infusions, vinegars, or even as tincture, plantain will slowly but surely improve the tone of the intestinal tissue and peristaltic contractions, reducing the need for the more laxative seeds or for synthetic laxatives and enemas. The seeds make a tasty addition to salads with a texture akin to sunflower seeds and their own unique, nutty taste.
Red clover blossoms make delicious infusions. Value red clover as an alkalinizing plant for the digestion, and find it to be most helpful for someone who suffers with acid indigestion and/or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) and heartburn. As an alterative, it slowly helps turn the situation around. Fresh red clover blossoms can also be eaten freely in salads.
Rosemary tea is an invaluable aid in liver-related digestive distress, stimulating circulation throughout the body including the digestive tract. It has proven helpful in cases of gas, bloating and irritable bowels, and it is one of my favorite teas or tinctures for digestive headaches. Rosemary-infused vinegars and oils used in meals are lovely for gently stimulating a sluggish liver.
Yarrow flowers and leaves can be used as a cooling, aromatic tea, infusion or tincture to help when there is a bacterial infection in the digestive tract. This tea can also be drunk as a simple bitter, to stimulate the liver and aid digestion. It can be helpful to relieve nausea, including nausea from post-nasal drip.
Yellow dock root (Rumex crispus and other species) is my go-to plant for healing serious constipation. It is bitter and drying—not suitable for everyday use—but can be used for extended periods of time when the need is there. It is used this for single incidents of constipation, but even more so for people who’ve had difficulty moving their bowels for years. People have also used it successfully for people who were ill and suffering from impacted feces. It facilitates bowel movements, and is classified as an aperient rather than a true laxative. (An aperient opens and relaxes the bowels, and a laxative stimulates them.) Yellow dock restores tone and function to the entire digestive system and is an astringent tonic for the liver and also encourages lymphatic circulation.
It’s important to know what is causing hemorrhoids, and whether it is situation-specific and acute, as in pregnancy, or whether there is an ongoing, chronic challenge that results in these anal varicosities. Generally speaking, it is important to nourish the veins and vascular circulation, and to make sure that if constipation is causing them the constipation itself is addressed. Constant straining to move one’s bowels is a common cause of this problem.
To summarize, the most helpful herbs for use externally as oils or as fresh or dried leaf poultices or sitz baths are: plantain, witch hazel, chickweed, yarrow, lady’s mantle, and white oak bark.
Internally, nourish the circulation with abundant greens and dark berries, and for good vascular health drink grape leaf, nettle, rose, plantain, and hawthorn berry infusions, all of which can also be used preventatively or simply as nourishing tonics. You can include herbs like white oak bark or witch hazel as tinctures or infusions, internally and externally, when you need strong astringency to cool down and shrink inflamed hemorrhoids. If hemorrhoids (or, as I like to call them, “assteroids”) are bleeding, then yarrow, witch hazel, and/or lady’s mantle should be included.
Results have been mixed with it, but one of the most famous herbs for piles is stone root (Collinsonia canadensis) a mint-family plant with lovely lemony flowers, one of the few mint plants whose root is tinctured for medicine.
It’s important to resolve any issues with constipation, as this can lead to many other problems in addition to hemorrhoids. Slippery, moistening, fiber-rich foods such as seaweeds, and infusions of burdock, dandelion, and yellow dock roots, are most helpful, as well as making sure you are moving your body, whether through walking, dancing, yoga, sports, or whatever pleases you.
Finally, fermented foods are a potent ally for feeding healthy gut bacteria, and important to include in your diet on a daily basis. Yogurt was mentioned earlier. Other important fermented foods that can be included are: kefir (a fermented grain drink), sauerkraut, pickles, beet kvass (fermented beets), miso (soybean paste), tamari, kimchee, and more.