Herbs for Indigestion

Bitters   Carminatives   Demulcents   Overview

Three groups of herbs are helpful for indigestion, upset stomach and heartburn:

  • bitters, which stimulate digestion,
  • carminatives, which relieve gas, and
  • demulcents, which have a soothing quality.

Bitters - digestive stimulants

Bitter herbs are helpful for indigestion. It is thought that their bitter quality has the effect of stimulating digestive capacity through enhancing production of saliva and helping support both digestive enzymes and stomach acid.2 Bitter herbs are therefore effective when stomach acid is low. They are not recommended if the patient suffers from heartburn. In that case increasing already excessive stomach acid would aggrevate the heartburn condition.

Interestingly, in Europe and South America there is a tradition of drinking digestive bitters, as an alcoholic drink at the end of meals. In Ayurvedic medicine, a decoction of bitter herbs may be given just before a meal to enhance digestion.

  • Artichoke (Cynara scolymus) the edible plant Artichoke has mild bitter qualities. Research has demonstrated that artichoke extracts are helpful for those with indigestion.20 It is especially helpful when the cause of inadequate digestion is not enough production of bile from the gallbladder.21 Medical professionals generally recommend taking extracts which provide at least 500-1,000mg/daily of cynarin, which the main active component of artichoke. It is approved in Europe as a remedy for indigestion. Artichoke also contains many antioxidants.
  • Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) Research has demonstrated that celandine extractcan help relieve cramping, feeling full and nausea that result from indigestion more effectively than a placebo.3. The dosage in the double-blind study was 4mg of chelidonine/capsule with 1-2 tablets/three times a day for 6 weeks. Celandine is potentially harmful for liver disease and there have been reports of hepatitis after use of celandine - so safety concerns are an issue.4
  • Wormwood is sometimes combined with carminative herbs for patients who suffer from indigestion. A double-blind research trial reported that combining wormwood with caraway, fennel and peppermint helped lessen gas and cramping.7
  • Horehound contains flavonoids, alkaloids, diterpenes (extracted from resin, ie marrubiin), and traces of volatile oils.10 The primary active ingredient, marrubiin and perhaps its precursor, premarrubiin, have the effect of increasing saliva flow and creation of gastric juices, and thus stimulate both the appetite and the digestive process.11
  • Boldo is a South American herb traditionally helpful for many digestive problems. This use may have arisen from its benefit impact on intestinal infections and liver functioning. Germany has approved its use for indigestion and gastrointestinal spasms. One study combined boldo with other herbs as well as artichoke and celandine and found after 2 weeks of treatment it reduced indigestion symptoms.
  • Bitters used in American traditional medicine include yellow dock, yarrow, goldenseal, vervain, and Oregon grape. In Europe barberry is a traditional bitter, used for indigestion. Animal research demonstrates that that these herbs not only stimulate digestion but may relieve intestinal tract spasms causing cramps and gas.9
  • Picrorhiza, an Indian herb has similar functioning to boldo, although human studies have not yet confirmed its value.
  • Other bitter herbs include Andrographis, Bitter orange, Bitter melon, Blessed thistle, Centaury, Devil's claw, Dandelion, Elecampane, Gentian, Juniper, and Prickly ash.

Carminatives relieve gas

Carminatives, known as aromatic bitters, are helpful in relieving indigestion when the symptoms are belching and gas because they apparently reduce spasms in the intestinal system.12

  • Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Fennel(Foeniculum vulgare), Caraway (Carum carvi) These are probably the most well-studied carminatives and the best known and used. Double-blind trials demonstrate that combining peppermint with caraway oil, or peppermint, caraway, fennel, caraway, and wormwood reduce indigestion symptoms by reduceing cramping and gas.13-15 Dosage: 3-5 drops essential oils or 3-5ml tincture, consumed in water 2-3 times a day. Or you can may tea of the herbs by grinding 2-3 teaspoons seeds (fennel, caraway) or peppermint leaves and simmer them for 10 minutes in a cup of water. An alternative method is to add a teaspoon of each to a quart jar, poor in boiling water let it sit for at least 15 minutes, then sip it gradually through out the day. Peppermint is also available as enteric-coated capsules. Note: peppermint may not be helpful if you have heartburn because it apparently relaxes the muscular ring at the top of the stomach.
  • Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is very well known traditionally as an aid for many gastrointestinal complaints including indigestion, gas, and cramping. It reduces inflammation and nausea and helps with intestinal functioning.25
  • Linden (Tilia spp.) also has been traditionally used for indigestion. Research has demonstrated that linden flower tea benefits those who suffer from indigestion, upset stomach or excessive gas.16 17 Research has confirmed this antispasmodic action of linden, especially in the intestines.18 Linden is not only a carminative but it has relaxing qualities. You can make Linden tea by steeping 2-3 teaspoons of the flowers for 15 minutes, drinking several cups daily to relieve symptoms.
  • Tumeric (Curcuma longa) reduces inflammation as well as relieving indigestion. One double-blind trial involved 106 patients who received 500mg curcumin four times a day. Control groups were give a placebo or an over-the-counter anti-indigestion aid. After a week, 87% of the subjects reported full or partial relief of their symptoms (compared to slightly more than half of the placebo group).19 Two capsules containing 250 mg turmeric powder per capsule were given QID. Tumeric contains curcurmin which may stimulate gallbladder functioning.
  • Chamomile (German chamomile or Matricaria recutita) reduces inflammation and irritation and eases the digestive tract. Chamomile enhances proper digestion.20 Chamomile's inflammation- and irritation-reducing qualities may be helpful for the irritation caused by heartburn but there is not much research about this. Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) is used in a similar manner but has not been researched for indigestion.

    You can make chamomile tea by adding boiling water to dried chamomile flowers and steeping for a couple of minutes, 2-4 a day or more between meals. Or you can add 3-5 ml chamomile tincture to hot water or take 2-3 grams as tablets 2-4 times a day.
  • Lemon balm is another carminative herb used traditionally for indigestion.21 Lemon balm tea is made by steeping 2-3 teaspoons leaves for 10 to 15 minutes in a covered container or, alternatively you can take 3-5ml tincture twice a day
  • Sage (Salvia officinalis) is approved in Germany for indigestoin, but is not recommended for breastfeeding women. 4-6 grams/daily is the dosage.
  • Other carminatives include herbs and many common kitchen spices from which you can make tea: anise, European angelica root, basil, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, dill, cloves, oregano, lavender, rosemary, and thyme.22 Rosemary is sometimes used to treat indigestion in the elderly by European herbal practitioners.23
  • Pennyroyal is no longer recommended for use in people with indigestion due to potential side effects.

Demulcents - soothing qualities

Demulcent herbs reduce inflammation and create a barrier against stomach acid or other abdominal irritants.

  • Licorice protects the lining of the digestive tract by producing mucin, a gel-like compound that inhibits the effects of excessive stomach acid and other harmful irritants.26 Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) is most commonly used and is preferred because licorice's naturally occuring glycyrrhizin, has cortisone-like effects and can cause water retention, high blood pressure, and other problems for some people. However removing this component renders licorice root useful without damaging its helpfulness for indigestion and greatly reduces possible side effects. Medical professionals generally recommend 1-2 DGL chewable tablets (250-500mg), 15 minutes after meals and one to two hours before bed.27 It is known that DGL is useful for ulcers, but for indigestion/heartburn the evidence is anecdotal.
  • Slippery Elm contains mucilage which may help heartburn by acting as a barrier to acid effects on the esophagus. It sooths inflammation but is not anti-inflammatory. It is also an antioxidant and helps protect the digestive system from free radical damage. Medical professionals generally recommend 2-3 400-500mg capsules, 2-4 times a day. You can make tea by boiling 1/2-2 grams slippery elm bark in about 3/4 cup water for 10 to 15 minutes and cool it before drinking, 3-4 cups a day. Tinctures can also be taken are are considered to be less helpful.
  • Other Demulcents include bladderwrack and marshmallow, used like slippery elm.

Studies

See these references for footnotes and other information on herbs for indigestion.