5 Spices That Can Help with Digestion—Plus, How to Use Them
It's no secret that spices can take a dish from boring to mind-blowing. Not only do spices season food, but spices have also been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. In the past couple of decades, scientific research has validated the efficacy of spices in addressing a number of health concerns, which practices like ayurveda and Chinese medicine have implemented for millennia.
"I try to encourage people to add in a higher quantity of spices, as much as a dish can take," says Maribeth Evezich, M.S.N., R.D., an assistant professor at Bastyr University who teaches classes on food as medicine. Evezich suggests that we should treat spices like we treat produce—get as much variety as possible. "Different spices have different phytonutrients, and by having a variety of them, you're going to get a variety of benefits."
In particular, she says, our digestive system can seriously benefit from the use of spices. "Gastrointestinally, there's definitely a benefit because spices are coming into direct contact with the whole digestive tract," she says, adding that there are generally three ways that certain spices can benefit digestion. They can be carminative, which means they help reduce gas, they can be antispasmodic, meaning they relax muscles in the stomach and the intestines to reduce cramping, and some have antiseptic or antimicrobial benefits. Additionally, one recent study found that certain spices may serve as prebiotics, supporting a healthy gut microbiome.
If you're one of the 61% of Americans experiencing digestive issues, try incorporating these five spices more regularly in your diet. And even if you don't have digestive issues, these spices will add a whole new flavor profile to your cooking.
One pro tip: Buy whole spices whenever possible, and grind them yourself. The oils in the spices, which contain the nutritional benefits and flavor, start to degenerate as soon as they are ground. The shelf life on ground spices is about six months, while whole spices will last about two years.
Additionally, Evezich suggests that you "bloom" spices by toasting them in fat or at least combining them with fat in whatever dish you're eating, which will help your body more readily absorb the spices' nutrients.
5 Spices That May Help with Digestion
Coriander refers to the seeds that come from the same plant as cilantro. Coriander aids with digestion and, when given along with spearmint and lemon balm as part of an herbal supplement, has been shown to reduce gas, bloating and abdominal pain in people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. Animal studies also suggest that coriander can help reduce blood sugar. With its floral and citrus notes, coriander is a great addition to rubs and marinades, and it's also a staple in Indian curries. Evesich suggests combining it in a spice blend with cumin, ginger and cinnamon for maximum carminative benefits. We love tossing leafy greens in our tasty Coriander Vinaigrette or making our Coriander-&-Lemon-Crusted Salmon with Asparagus Salad & Poached Egg.
Cumin seeds contain thymoquinone, a phytonutrient that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Cumin also helps your body better absorb other nutrients, like iron and zinc, and may help stop diarrhea (according to animal research). Try adding ½ teaspoon of whole, toasted cumin seeds to the water when you're cooking rice for a fragrant dish, add toasted and ground cumin to chili or add it to your pork rub before slow-cooking a roast—it makes for excellent pulled pork tacos.
Ginger is a powerhouse spice that has a lot of known health benefits. Evesich calls it a "universal medicine." In addition to helping break up and expel gas, ginger has antiseptic properties. "It will help decrease infections in the gastrointestinal tract," says Evesich. "It's also really well-known for its use to prevent nausea and vomiting. There's a lot of research that shows that it's just as effective as over-the-counter medication or even prescription medication for nausea and vomiting, but without any side effects."
While ground ginger still has benefits, Evisich says it's better to use fresh ginger whenever possible, since the fresh root has a higher concentration of gingerol, the beneficial phytonutrient in ginger. Peel off the skin and grate ginger for use in stir-fries, soups and curries. You can also put the grated ginger in a nut-milk bag and squeeze out the juice, which you can add to salad dressings and smoothies.
Thanks to menthol, the active compound in mint, these fresh leaves are known for soothing upset stomachs. Mint has been shown to relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome by relaxing stomach and intestinal muscles. "It can decrease pain, gas and diarrhea," Evesich says. "It also works in one unique way; it's what's known as a cholagogue, which means that it increases the flow of bile from the gallbladder. And the reason that's important is because you need bile to digest fat. As a result, mint may help reduce intestinal gas and reduce cramping."
While mint is often used for tea, it also has a lot of other culinary uses. Chiffonade the leaves and add them to salads or rice, make chermoula, a North African sauce that's great as a marinade or dipping sauce, or make mint chutney or mint pesto.
There's a reason many Indian restaurants serve up candied fennel seeds at the end of the meal: fennel is great for preventing gas and is an anti-spasmodic, says Evesich. Additionally, studies show fennel seeds have antimicrobial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties.
Toast fennel seeds to add a somewhat sweet, licorice-like flavor to dishes. Mix it with cumin and cinnamon and use it to season roasted sweet potatoes. Add it to your favorite pork or chicken rub for an elevated flavor. Or, just lightly crush the seeds and pour hot water over them for a soothing herbal tea.