I love to prepare food, and often just empty my fridge and throw together a meal based on the veggies and other healthy foods that I have on hand. I use a lot of herbs and spice in everything I prepare. Not only do these simple additions add wonderful and even exotic tastes to my dishes, but most provide added health benefits.
For example, I have written about avoiding food ruts on a gluten free, dairy free, raw foods diet. One of the strategies I offered for avoiding food ruts was to make friends with herbs and spices. If you didn’t read that, I encourage you to take some time at some point. It’s easy to become bored with your food unless you know how to use gluten free raw foods in interesting ways, using the magic of herbs and spices.
Another great benefit of many spices is digestive support. Today I will be talking about some of my favorites.
Spices help improve the efficiency of your digestive system
Spices have long been thought of as helpful digestive stimulants, and have been used throughout history in that regard. More recently, animal studies have shown that many spices do indeed stimulate the liver, resulting in it secreting bile that has a higher percentage of bile acids. Bile acids are important in fat digestion, as well as in absorption, so making sure you have enough is good!
Many spices also have been found to stimulate the activities of pancreatic lipase, protease, and amylase. These enzymes help support a more efficient digestive system.
Some spices also help improve food transit time in the gastrointestinal tract. A sluggish GI tract allows time for more water to be absorbed out of the digested food; this can result in painful constipation. Additionally, the longer digested food is allowed to sit in your system before it is eliminated, the more prone it is to be preyed upon by unhealthy bacteria.
Our tradition Western diet (processed and “white” foods) and all of our vices (sodas, sugar, alcohol, smoking, lack of sleep, gulping down our meals, stress…) can reduce the efficiency of our digestive system. So along with making better lifestyle decisions on all of those elements, and eating whole foods and a lot of greens, I really like to improve my digestion by adding flavorful spices that provide me some incremental digestive support. It’s easy – and it tastes good, too!
Spices can prevent gas and bloating!
Not to be too “TMI” (too much information!), but many of my clients routinely tell me they experience gas and bloating. Maybe you do, too.
Guess what? There are many spices that specifically have something called carminative properties. This means they help reduce bloating and flatulence – which is uncomfortable gas.
Some examples of carminative spices are cardamom, coriander, cumin, fennel, and ginger.
I’ll be talking more about some of these spices in this blog. The great thing, again, about using these is that it is so easy! You can use them to enhance the flavor of many protein dishes, as well as with veggie dishes, salads, and one of my personal favorites – soups!
Four “digestion friendly” spices that you should add to your cooking repertoire!
The first spice I want to encourage you to have on hand and use is ginger. If you haven’t ever seen fresh ginger, you should check it out at the grocery store. It is definitely an ugly root, but it is so good for you. I usually have the fresh root on hand, but also have it in a powder form. It is a super antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. And it is also a wonderful digestive stimulant, as well as having carminative properties – that means it's good at reducing gas!
Ginger contains phenolic compounds which are known to relieve gastrointestinal irritations. It stimulates saliva and bile production. Animal studies have also demonstrated that ginger prominently enhanced intestinal lipase activity, which is an enzyme used in digestion.
Ginger also reduces intestinal contractions by relaxing the intestinal muscles and allowing digested food to pass more easily. In fact, it reduces cramping of the stomach and bowels and may even help with menstrual cramping. Because of this, many of my clients drink ginger tea in the morning to wake up their sluggish digestion.
As mentioned above it also is good for reducing gas and bloating. Ginger is also pretty famous for addressing other gastrointestinal distress, such as nausea due to morning sickness and chemotherapy. It has been proven to be quite effective with nausea symptoms and, unlike Dramamine, will stop your nausea without making you sleepy.
The Zingiberaceae botanical family to which ginger is a part of also includes turmeric and cardamom, which are both incredibly healthy spices themselves.
My favorite dish to add ginger to is are my warming soups. I also sometimes add it to water, tea, or even hot water with lemon when I am traveling to settle things down after too much “hotel” food, or simply for a refreshing cleansing drink. I also use both fresh root as well as the dried spice in smoothies and juices.
Note that ginger does have a blood-thinning action so should be used with caution by those taking blood-thinning medications. And avoid consuming ginger for 2 weeks prior to surgery and another week following surgery. Check with your doctor.
Coriander seeds yield cilantro. Both coriander seeds and cilantro are healthy, but the seeds contain many more health benefits. Coriander seeds have been used for thousands of years to help with digestion.
Coriander has carminative properties, which means it helps with gas. It is also known to have anti-spasmodic and stomachic properties. It calms intestinal spasms that can lead to diarrhea so it may be helpful to some people having irritable bowel syndrome. Coriander can also help settle indigestion.
As an added benefit cilantro is packed with phytochemicals, which are super antioxidants. It is also used to lower blood sugar, and is being studied in animals for its potential cholesterol-lowering benefits.
Coriander is sold in whole seeds and in powdered form. I always buy the seeds as the oils dissipate very quickly once it's been ground, usually within a few months. Use coriander as a delicious rub in stews, pickled dishes, and marinades. You can also add it to soups and smoothies.
Fresh cilantro is wonderful in hot and spicy dishes because of its cooling effect. Just chop up a little cilantro and throw it in whatever dish you are cooking. It encourages the production of supportive digestive enzymes that breakdown your food.
Cilantro has also been researched as a heavy metal detoxifier. In rats it has shown to suppress lead accumulation.
Cardamom is part of the ginger family so no wonder it is helpful to your digestion! It has been used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries but is also backed by science as having actions that help relieve bloating and gas (aka: carminative properties). It also has anti-spasmodic properties, as it can slow the rate of stomach muscle cramping.
Cardamom also stimulates the appetite along with easing gas, nausea, indigestion, and cramping. It also helps to kill off any food borne bacteria in the digestive tract which helps to protect against food poisoning and gastric distress. Cardamom pods contain a compound called limonene which is usually found in citrus peels. It is known to dissolve cholesterol containing gallstones, as well as relieve heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux (GERD).
Cardamom works well as a diuretic and can reduce bloating, water retention, swelling, and edema. Cardamom pods can be chewed on in order to relieve tooth and gum pain, as well as prevent infection. Cardamom is often used in sweet and savory dishes, and can be prepared as a delicious, warming tea by placing 4 cardamom pods in 2 cups of water and simmer for 30 minutes. Sweeten with stevia, if desired.
Cardamom is another spice that has anti-oxidant benefits as well as being a good source of minerals, such as iron, manganese, calcium, and magnesium.
Fennel stimulates the production of gastric juices and is another great spice having carminative properties. It is often used as an after-dinner digestive aid. It also has anti-spasmodic properties.
Fennel seeds are a very rich source of dietary fiber as well. It consists of metabolically inert insoluble fiber, so increases the bulk of the food you eat as it goes through your digestive system. This eases constipation problems. Its fiber also helps protect the colon.
A good trick (thanks to my friend and peer, Dr. Alan Christianson) to reduce bloating and gas, it to take fennel seeds and heat them on low, in a skillet, with some sea salt. Let them get slightly brown, and then store them in a tightly closed container. You can add a few pinches of these slightly cooked seeds to any of your dishes. It really works!
Fennel also contains a variety of anti-oxidants, dietary fiber and minerals. Fennel contains quercetin, which you may have heard of. Quercetin, a powerful anti-oxidant, is thought to offer protection from aging and diseases, including cancer.
Do a little research and find some new favorites!
Cumin is another great spice for digestion and is great for heartburn. One of my digestive spice favorites is lemon balm! Garlic protects gut immunity. Warming cinnamon bark is a mild but useful remedy for sluggish digestion. The German Commission E recommends it for loss of appetite, dyspeptic complaints, bloating, and flatulence.There are so many other great options. Just go onto a reputable herb and spice shop online and do a little research. You’ll find that a lot of the Italian spices are also good for digestive support. Go wild! Find some new tastes that also will help your tummy and health.
You can use spices in drinks, salads, vinaigrettes, marinades, veggies – be creative!
Just remember to store your spices in clean, airtight containers away from the heat and light. I keep a few of my spices that seem to spoil too quickly in the fridge.