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Herbs for a Healthy Gut

Jun 30, 2020 08:00AM ● By Kathleen Gould and Madalyn Johnson

Madalyn Johnson (left) and Kathleen Gould (right)

We have all been hearing that a healthy digestive system (gut health) is the first line of defense for our overall health, but what does that really mean and how can herbs help?

Stress is a driving force behind digestive imbalances, especially during these very trying times. When we are under chronic stress, our body remains in fight-or-flight mode, and in this “survival” state our energy is shunted from the body’s core, out to the big muscles of the legs (run or flee), our arms (fight), and our heads (intensifies sight, hearing). Little energy is left to support the body’s core functions, like digestion and elimination. This has a definite negative effect on the digestive tract, bowels, liver and urinary system.

Diet is of course very important, but that is easier said than done, because when we are under stress we are usually not eating as well as we normally would. Let’s look at some other, very effective, ways we can ease digestive symptoms and greatly improve our digestion using the healing plants of the Earth.

Because this is such a huge topic, we want to simplify it by sharing some amazing herbs and their benefits for digestion and allow you to pick and choose which are best for your particular physiology.

Let’s begin with a family of herbs called nervines. These beautiful herbs feed, nourish, relax, tone and strengthen the nervous system. It is a good idea to drink teas incorporating these herbs throughout the day to help you deal with stress before and while it is happening. These are herbs that many of us are familiar with and may have important bitter principles. This is significant because bitters stimulate the production of saliva, gastric juices and bile to balance the appetite and get the body prepared for digestion. Some examples are chamomile, passionflower, skullcap, valerian, oat straw, and lemon balm.

Demulcents are herbs with high mucilage content that protect the gut by lining the mucous membranes with this protective mucilaginous barrier. Examples are slippery elm root and marshmallow root.

Carminative herbs work to balance digestive system peristalsis to help relieve gas and bloating. Examples are herbs we often think of as culinary, such as ginger (good antimicrobial if you are dealing with pathogens), cinnamon, peppermint, licorice and anise.

There are several other protocols we can look at to help these herbs improve our health, like probiotics, fish oil, and even digestive enzymes. Fish oil (omega-3) as part of a healthy diet has been known to bring balance, or homeostasis, to the gut. Adding probiotics, good bacteria, to this healthy plan could be of big benefit as well. Eating yogurt, kefir, kimchi or sauerkraut is a way to get “good” bacteria in your gut if you aren’t a pill person. Supplementing with digestive enzymes is a good solution for many with digestive issues, as these enzymes help the body break down fats, carbohydrates and proteins, helping ease the pain of digestive discomfort. A tablespoon of apple cider vinegar before a meal will increase the acidity of your stomach, helping break down heavy proteins in many of our meals.

One great way to improve digestion is to increase circulation and “energy” to this area, and we do that by moving. Sitting and lying after a meal can lead to acid reflux, gas, bloating or constipation. A 15-minute walk after dinner can improve blood sugar levels and aid in food digestion by helping food move more quickly through the body. A few yoga stretches (cat cow, plank pose, downward dog; look them up on YouTube if these aren’t familiar), along with deep breathing, stretches and twists that target the stomach, may help relieve several digestive disturbances.

Last, but certainly not least, is learning to calm the mind, helping counterbalance our high stress levels. So grab a cup of tea, take a walk, and let the magic of a healthy gut be yours today!

Kathleen Gould, registered herbalist, and Madalyn Johnson are proprietors of SW Herb Shop and Gathering Place. Gould has been an herbalist for 30-plus years and has extensive experience in herbal medicine. For more information, call 480-694-9931, or visit or