Now that the trees have shed their leaves and winter coats and snow boots have made a comeback, the binging season has officially arrived. The good news is that during winters the digestive fire naturally peaks, according to Ayurveda. So the body is able to digest heavier foods better vis-à-vis in the other seasons. But prolonged exposure to lower temperatures can throw a wrench into the body’s metabolism and slow it down. So, integrating specific herbs and spices into your diet during winter can help you keep your digestion strong, despite the occasional binging sessions.
Today, scientists are discovering that there exist new associations between food, digestion, and certain conditions such as auto-immune conditions (rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis), autism, ADHD, allergies, and certain other degenerative disorders, most of which have one common problem—inflammation.
Inflammation is the body’s response against autoimmune, metabolic, and pathogenic invasions, but chronic low-level inflammation has been associated with a long list of diseases. Taking the right foods with the right herbs and spices can go a long way in managing these low-grade inflammations. Certain spices mentioned in ancient Ayurvedic texts can specifically help you heal digestive issues like heartburn, constipation, indigestion, and bloating.
Several studies in animals have now attested to the digestive stimulant action of spices. These spices invigorate digestion by essentially supporting the liver function in secreting bile acids and in the secretion of enzymes like pancreatic lipase, protease, and amylase. Amylases help digest assimilate starch in the body and lipase helps digest fats. Bile acids help digest and absorb fats. Spices also help increase what is called ‘food transit time’ in the GI tract. When the movement of food through the digestive tract is slow, it can use up more water out of the food, leading to constipation worries, and the longer the food remains in the system, it is more prone to bacterial attacks. Let us take a look at some of these spices!
This Asian root spice is rich in phenolic compounds that comfort and heal digestive irritation, stimulate saliva and boost the production of bile. Studies have shown ginger stimulates lipase secretion. Ginger also helps relax intestinal muscles, reduce stomach cramps and minimize food transit time. It also helps reduce bloating. Ginger has been also known to help in dealing with nausea and morning sickness in patients undergoing chemotherapy. Ginger is used in Asian cooking to reduce the vata vitiation that can be caused by the consumption of certain vegetables including potatoes, legumes like beans, pulses, or bottle gourd.
How to Use Ginger
Put ginger in herbal tea in the morning to deal with weak digestion.
Add chopped ginger to hot water with lemon.
Try this fun gingerbread man recipe for the holiday season!
Recipe: Gingerbread Man Cookies
140g Unsalted butter
3 Tbsp. Golden syrup
350g All-purpose flour
1 tsp. Baking soda
2 tsp. Ground ginger
1 tsp. Ground cinnamon
4 Ginger stems
50g Icing sugar
1. Heat the oven to 400ºF.
2. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
3. Melt the butter, syrup, and sugar in a pan.
4. Mix the flour, spices, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.
5. Add melted butter mixture and chopped ginger into the bowl and mix thoroughly. You should get a tight-ish dough.
6. Allow dough to cool off, the roll into about 1/4 inch thickness.
7. Cut out gingerbread man shapes from the roll—make sure the edges are smooth—and place on the baking sheets.
8. Bake them for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the dough turns golden in color.
9. Cool cookies completely before decorating.
For the decorations, mix a spoonful of water with icing sugar until it becomes a thick and smooth paste. Slice the cherries to make a smile on the gingerbread men’s faces. Add icing eyes and buttons.
The gingerbread men should survive for about a week in an air-tight container.
Cilantro comes from seeds of a popular Indian herb-coriander. It has been used in cooking for thousands of years to boost digestion. You can consume them both in seed form as well as in the form of coriander, but the seeds are said to have more digestive benefits. It also has carminative benefits, that is, reduces bloating; it helps reduce pain and boosts appetite. It is potentially helpful in treating irritable bowel syndrome for its antispasmodic properties. Cilantro comes packed with antioxidants that help fight oxidative stress. It can help lower sugar and also help in reducing bad cholesterol. Cilantro is known to detoxify the body from harmful toxicants and metals like lead.
How to Use Coriander and Cilantro
Coriander is used in making pickled preparations, marinades, and stew. It also goes well with soups and smoothies. Coriander soup can do wonders for days when the digestion is a bit iffy. Cilantro can also be used in preparations that are hot and spicy since cilantro has a cooling impact that neutralizes the spice. Having just 2 tsp. of fresh cilantro juice on an empty stomach, every morning aids digestion.
Cumin or jeera seeds are often used as a home remedy in resolving digestive problems like bloating and gas. Cumin also has anti-inflammatory properties that help deal with digestive issues with inflammatory origins. Cumin can help stimulate the secretion of digestive enzymes and speed up digestion by activating the release of bile acids.
How to Use Cumin
Start with having 1 tsp. of cumin powder with warm water every day, half an hour after your meals.
You can also soak 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds in a glass of water and leave it overnight. Drink the water on an empty stomach. You can chew the cumin seeds.
Roasted cumin powder can be used with yogurt, soups, and salads.
Recipe: CCF Tea (Cumin, Coriander, and Fennel)
Indian cooking is incomplete without a dash of turmeric in it. It not just adds color but has myriad healing properties. It is rich in antioxidants, is anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and anti-mutagenic. Curcumin is the most active compound present in turmeric, which is responsible for most of these properties. The powerful antioxidants in turmeric can help detoxify the liver and fight the damages from rogue free radical molecules.
It is used in curries for the taste it lends to the dish. But it also plays an important role for its digestive stimulant action. It is used in ayurvedic medicine as a digestive agent.
How to Use Turmeric
Our bodies are not very good at wholly absorbing turmeric and curcumin. These are quickly metabolized by the liver. To increase the absorption and its nutrients, you can have it with piperine, which is found in black pepper and chilies.
Use it in frittatas or scrambled tofu, or on roasted vegetables—particularly root veggies, potato, and cauliflower. You can also add it to rice or pilaf for color and taste.
Turmeric root can go well with your juices. You can also use ground turmeric powder. Coconut milk simmered nicely along with turmeric and honey makes for a delightful golden milk recipe.
Fenugreek seeds can be really helpful in dealing with stomach inflammation, acidity, loss of appetite, and heartburn. It boosts metabolism and supports your weight loss journey. It is loaded with antioxidants and fiber and helps detoxify the body, thereby strengthening digestive fire. Fenugreek has also been found helpful in dealing with constipation and stomach ulcers, since it is a natural digestive. It lubricates the intestinal linings, too.
How to Use Fenugreek
Simply soak 1 teaspoon of fenugreek seeds overnight in water. Strain the seeds in the morning and drink the water. You can also have fenugreek tea which is helpful in clearing our constipation issues. Check with an Ayurveda physician before having it on a regular basis for digestive issues.
Mint leaves are a potent herb for boosting your appetite. The oil of mint leaves has antiseptic, antispasmodic, and antibacterial benefits that help in dealing with stomach infections.
Studies have shown that having meals with peppermint oils helps reduce the food transition time, and reduce constipation. A combination of peppermint oil and caraway oil is known to help relieve indigestion, stomach ache, and other digestive symptoms. Mint also improves bile secretion. Peppermint tea is a timeless remedy for relieving pain and discomfort caused by bloating and gas.
How to use mint in your food?
One way is by chewing the leaves dry, or keep them overnight in water. You can have the water the following morning for its cooling effect and a clear bowel movement. You can also have it as tea. To make mint tea, all you need to do is, boil about 10 mint leaves in water for five minutes. Reduce the flame, strain the water, and pour it in a cup. You can add a teaspoon of honey to it. Have it warm.
You can also make mint lemonade which is extremely cooling for the body and digestive system. Just add some mint leaves plucked from the stem (thoroughly rinsed), 1 teaspoon of organic sugar or jaggery, black salt (about a pinch of it), ground black pepper and 2 teaspoons of lemon juice to a glass of water. Run it through a juicer, strain the liquid. Take some of the strained liquid into a separate glass and add more water to it to dilute the strong flavors. Have it chilled!
This is yet another spice that people tend to have strong feelings about. Whether you like it in your tea or not, cinnamon is a spice rich in healthy compounds including polyphenols, antioxidants, and compounds like cinnamaldehyde, cinnamate, and cinnamic acid. It is known to help balance blood sugar by boosting glucose absorption, thanks to the presence of cinnamaldehyde. Its potency is hot but it boosts digestion, reduces flatulence and related pain, is helpful in treating diarrhea, dyspepsia, IBS, and revs up the liver function.
How to use Cinnamon
Cinnamon tea is incredibly helpful in treating digestive problems and improving your appetite. To make cinnamon tea, all you need is
- 1 Cinnamon bark
- 1 C of water
- 1 Tbsp. Honey
- 1 Tbsp. Lemon juice
- 1/4 tsp. Black pepper powder
Boil the water in a pan; stir in the rest of the ingredients. Strain the water into a cup and have it warm!
Recipe: Agni Aid Spice Mix for Igniting Your Digestive Fire
Ajwain or Carom Seeds
If you complain to an Asian about a stomach ache, expect the majority of them to advise you to go for a glass of ajwain water. Every Indian household vouches for the superpowers of carom seeds in healing an irritated digestive tract. It helps give you almost instant relief from hyperacidity and poor digestion.
Ajwain has thymol that boosts the secretion of good gastric juices that support better digestion. Carom seed extracts have been useful in dealing with esophageal sores or intestinal wounds and ulcers.
How to Use Carom Seeds
You can have carom seeds and some salt in warm water to beat digestive blues.
To make ajwain water, roast two tablespoons of ajwain seeds on low flame until you start smelling the roasted herb. Boil the 200 ml of water. Add the roasted ajwain and a pinch of salt to it. Strain the water and sip it up!
You can add ajwain to heavier or fried foods for better digestion.
The sweet, nutty fennel seeds, known as one of the nine sacred herbs to be used in England, come with plenty of fiber to help with digestive cleansing and nourishment if you have a sensitive digestive system. These seeds have estragole, anethole, and fenchone that lend them antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties. For patients with irritated bowel syndrome of IBS, the oils can help rev up digestion by stimulating the release of gastric enzymes.
In Ayurveda, one of its unique properties is that fennel seeds promote the digestive fire without playing up pitta dosha. It is a tridosha balancing herb and equally efficient in handling discomfort related to excess vata.
How to use Fennel Seeds
Fennel seeds have been used in baking bread, soups, sweets, sauerkraut for ages, but one of its healthiest forms is the fennel tea. You can add fennel to other herbal teas as well for its cooling properties and sweet fragrance.
A popular Asian tradition is to chew on fennel seeds after meals to help digest food faster and better.
Here’s a mouth-watering recipe for Arugula Salad with fennel dressing.
Recipe: Fennel Tea
1/4 tsp. Honey
1/4 tsp crushed Ginger
1 Tbsp. crushed Fennel seeds
3 Mint leaves
1.5 C. Water
To make tea, boil the water in a pan. Add the crushed ginger and fennel seeds. Boil it on medium flame to reduce it to a cup. Remove from heat and strain the water. Add honey to taste. Use the mint leaves for garnish and flavor. Drink it warm!
Did you know there are herbal preparations in the form of churnas or powder that find mention in classical Ayurvedic formulated specifically to address digestive symptoms and to improve digestive metabolism in general?
‘Avipatti’ translates to getting rid of digestive problems. This Ayurvedic formulation is recommended for treating digestive anomalies and issues related to discharging of fecal matter from the body. It balances the acid secretion in the GI tract and promotes the release of digestive enzymes to support stronger digestion. It is a carminative, which reduces flatulence; rich in antioxidants, manages inflammations, and balances pitta dosha. It has been found useful in healing conditions like diarrhea, gastritis, constipation, and heartburn.
The churna is made using herbs and spices like black pepper, fruits of the avenue tree, ginger, gooseberries, cardamom, curry leaves, cloves, turmeric, pipalli, cypriol, and false black pepper.
You can mix the powder in a glass of buttermilk or water and have it after meals.
This popular combination of three superfruits-haritaki or myrobalan, bibhitaki or fruits from avenue tree and gooseberries, called Triphala churna, is a digestive powerhouse. The three fruits are dried and ground to make Triphala churna. Read more about how to make it and its digestive benefits here.
This one combines asafetida, pipal, carom seeds, rock salt, dried ginger, black pepper, black cumin seeds, and white cumin seeds. This combination helps detoxify the digestive system thoroughly and helps the body get rid of the accumulated ama deposits. It relieves gas and provides relief from digestive discomfort. It is usually recommended by Ayurveda physicians for cases of indigestion, colic, constipation, and gas.
Some of these formulations can be easily made at home to take care of your digestive health.
- Take equal quantities of cumin, carom, and fennel seeds. Roast them. Put it in a blender and make it into a fine powder. Add 1 tsp. of the powder in a glass of warm water. You can add a pinch of asafetida to it. Drink it half an hour post meals.
- Take fennel, cumin, and coriander seeds in equal measure. Roast the fennel and cumin seeds. Blend all the seeds into powder. Add unrefined sugar powder (double the measure of seeds) and mix it up with the seed powder. Take about half tsp. with meals, for smooth digestion.