How often have you pushed yourself away from the dinner table with a sour taste in your mouth or an ache in your belly? If you are like most Americans, you may not eat at a table – many of us eat our meals in cars, driving 65 miles an hour and chewing at the same time. Fast foods are convenient, but the quality of the food and the way we eat may minimize the nutrients we absorb.

The first and easiest way to improve digestion is to chew. Most of us take a large bite of food, chew once or twice, and swallow. The first stage of digestion occurs in the mouth, where enzymes in the saliva begin to break down carbohydrates. Chewing also breaks the food into smaller pieces, making the nutrients more available to the rest of the digestive tract. “Chew your drink and drink your food” – in other words, chew food until it becomes liquid, and swish liquid around in the mouth to mix with saliva before swallowing.

Consider sitting still while eating. Create a relaxed environment – play soothing music and choose a beautiful place setting. Our digestive system functions best when we are relaxed. Under stress the body shunts blood away from the digestive tract and into the muscles. Peristalsis, the rhythmic movement of the digestive tract muscles, stops. If the digestive system shuts down for a period of time, food begins to putrefy. When the body is relaxed, blood flow increases to the digestive tract, and more digestive juices flow. The stomach secretes more hydrochloric acid (see below). The digestive tract also eliminates wastes more easily in this relaxed state.

After we chew food, it passes through the esophagus into the stomach. From Chinese medical perspective, the stomach “cooks” food, preparing it for absorption in the rest of the digestive tract. Keep in mind the Chinese describe the body more poetically than western medicine does. In a sense, though, our western understanding of stomach acid breaking down proteins parallels the Chinese view of “cooking” food in the stomach. Recent research suggests that some stomach ulcers result from lack of, rather than excess, acid production. If the stomach does not produce enough hydrochloric acid, certain bacteria (e.g.Helicobacter pylori) may overgrow and colonize the stomach wall, leading to a stomach ulcer and chronic stomach irritation.(1) We need adequate levels of hydrochloric acid production for the stomach to function optimally.

In order to maximize the stomach’s cooking activity, the Chinese suggest eating warm, cooked foods. Excessively cold or fatty foods “dampen” the stomach’s fire. “Cold” foods include ice water, ice cream, and lots of raw vegetables. Fatty foods such as butter, pork, heavy sauces, and gravies also compromise the stomach’s cooking fire.

From the stomach, food moves into the small intestine. The pancreas secretes enzymes into the small intestine to digest carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and the gallbladder releases bile to break down fats. The majority of our food’s nutrients enter the body through the small intestine.

The food passes next into the large intestine, where water and certain nutrients are reabsorbed into the body. If the food waste tarries too long in the large intestine, waste products or “toxins” also re-enter the body. Ideally the food wastes remain no longer than 16-18 hours in the large intestine.

Some people react poorly to certain foods, even though they may be nutritious for someone else. Some of the most common food allergens include dairy, wheat, citrus, soy, and eggs. If you have followed the above suggestions, incorporated the herbs mentioned below, and still have digestive problems, please see your doctor to discuss food allergies and more extensive laboratory tests. If you vomit blood or see blood in your stool (dark, tarry bowel movements), see your physician immediately. These may be signs of more serious digestive problems that require immediate medical attention. For more information go to Food Testing.

The following herbs have long been used to soothe and support the digestive system:

Ginger root (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger warms the body. As mentioned earlier, the Chinese emphasize the importance of warming the stomach to improve digestion. Elderly people, from Chinese perspective, often suffer from a lack of internal warmth. In western medicine we know many elders do not produce enough stomach acid, and they may benefit from adding ginger to their food. Research has demonstrated that ginger is more effective than Dramamine in alleviating motion sickness (2). Ginger also reduces inflammation by inhibiting prostaglandin production (3). CAUTION: some people with extremely sensitive stomachs do not tolerate ginger well. If ginger aggravates symptoms, discontinue use.

Recommended use:

Tincture: 10-20 drops with meals. (4)

Capsules: One 00 capsule of dried ginger with each meal.

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)

Scientists are learning what Peter Rabbit’s mother knew: chamomile improves many digestive conditions, including stomach ulcers. Chamomile reduces spasms, decreases inflammation, and alleviates flatulence (intestinal gas). Animal studies demonstrate that chamomile protects against ulcer formation (5). Children with digestive upsets especially may benefit from chamomile because of its ability to soothe anxiousness and irritability.

Recommended use:

Tea: a strong cup of chamomile tea (2 or 3 teaspoons of dried herb per cup of boiling water, left to steep for 10 minutes) four times a day.

Tincture: 30 drops of chamomile tincture in water, four times a day.

For stomach ulcer: take one cup of chamomile tea with 30 drops of chamomile tincture added on an empty stomach four times a day (e.g. upon awakening, one hour before lunch, one hour before dinner, and at bedtime). Spend 5 minutes lying on the back, then five minutes on each side, and finally 5 minutes lying on the stomach. This “roll-over” method ensures the chamomile is exposed to the entire surface of the stomach to promote healing. (6)

CAUTION: if you have a stomach ulcer, discuss this and all other treatments with your physician.

Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

Peppermint is another important ally for the digestive system. Peppermint reduces nausea and vomiting, including nausea associated with morning sickness, through its mild anaesthetizing action on the lining of the stomach. Peppermint promotes liver and gallbladder function by increasing bile secretion. Like chamomile, peppermint relieves gas and reduces stomach spasms. (7)

Recommended use:

Tea: two teaspoons of dried peppermint in a cup of boiling water, left to steep for 10 minutes, 3-4 times a day.

Tincture: 10 drops of tincture in water, taken with meals.

Slippery elm bark (Ulmus fulva)

Collected from the inner bark of the tree, slippery elm acts as a “demulcent,” soothing and nourishing the digestive tract. Rich in nutrients, slippery elm is an excellent food for people recovering from an illness or for infants who are unable to take milk. For diarrhea, slippery elm both soothes and astringes the intestines.

Recommended use:

In food: add one tablespoon of slippery elm powder to cooked cereal such as oatmeal or creamed rice.

Tea: Use one part of powered bark in 8 parts of water, mixing well before heating. Simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. Drink half a cup three times a day. (8)

Skullcap (Scutellaria sp.)

Skullcap helps alleviate digestive discomfort by calming the nervous system and reducing pain. Skullcap is particularly effective in treating digestive disorders that are worse with worry or “nervous irritability.” (9) Rich in magnesium, calcium, and potassium (10), skullcap is a “nervine,” both calming and nourishing the nervous system. Skullcap also alleviates spasms, a common problem in digestive disorders.

Recommended use:

Tea: 2 teaspoons in a cup of boiling water, steeped for 10 minutes. Drink 3-4 cups a day.

Tincture: 5-30 drops, 3-4 times a day.

Gentian (Gentian lutea)

Gentiopicrin, one of the constituents in gentian, is one of the most bitter substances known. Bitter foods and herbs encourage the secretion of hydrochloric acid in the stomach and enzymes from the pancreas. Gentian strengthens the digestive system by increasing gastric secretions. Because gentian has such strong bitter properties, gentian works best when combined with other more soothing herbs such as slippery elm and chamomile.

CAUTION: Do not use gentian for digestive problems caused by excessive acid production

Recommended use:

Tincture: 5-30 drops before meals (start with 5, slowly increase only as needed)

Tea: 1/2 teaspoon of dried herb in one cup of boiling water, steeped for 5-10 minutes. Drink tea before or with meals.

Flax seeds (Linum ussitatissimum)

Flaxseeds promote normal bowel movements by increasing bulk in the stool. Flax also lubricates and soothes the digestive tract. Drink lots of water, at least 2 -3 glasses within a couple of hours of eating the flaxseeds. If you take a bulk laxative and do not increase water intake, the roughage simply binds up the stool and makes it more difficult to pass. Usually mornings are the best time to take a bulk laxatives. Flaxseeds may be cooked in breakfast cereal, such as oatmeal, or ground and sprinkled on other food.

Recommended use: 1 tablespoon of flaxseeds in the morning, followed by 2-3 glasses of water.

The first steps to improving digestion include choosing fresh, nutritious food; eating in a relaxed environment; chewing food; and maintaining good elimination to minimize the reabsorption of waste products. When you need extra support, these botanicals are powerful allies for your digestive system.

1) Isselbacher, K. et al. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994, p. 1379.
2) Mowrey, D and Clayson, D. “Motion sickness, ginger, and psychophysics.” Lancet i:655-7, 1982.
3) Kiuchi, F; Shibuyu M. et al. “Inhibitors of prostaglandin biosynthesis from ginger.” Chem Pharm Bull 30:754-7, 1982..
4) Weiss, Rudolf Fritz. Herbal Medicine. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd., 1988, p. 48
5) Weiss, pp. 25-26.
6) Weiss, p. 58.
7) Hoffmann, David. The Holistic Herbal. Longmead, England: Element Books, 1988, p. 211.
8) Hoffman, p. 221.
9) Felter, H.W. The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Cincinnati, Ohio: John K. Scudder, 1922, p. 625.
10) Tierra, Michael. The Way of Herbs. New York: Pocket Books, 1983, p. 154.