5 Herbs And Supplements That Can Seriously Improve Your Digestion

Because probiotics and fiber won't solve all your problems.

July 6, 2017
fennel seed
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By now, we’re all aware that eating yogurt and high-fiber foods is good for your gut. But if regular doses of probiotics and roughage don’t seem to be cutting it in the digestion department, you might want to think about bringing in some extra helpers.

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Turns out, there are plenty of natural remedies that can help your GI tract do its thing—and stave off unpleasantries like cramping, nausea, gas, diarrhea, constipation. 

Here are 5 expert-backed options to try.

ginger
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Ginger

Fun fact: Your GI tract uses a pumping motion called peristalsis to move food through your gut. But if the rhythm gets out of whack, you can end up with digestive woes. “Too much can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, while too little can cause constipation,” explains Ali Miller, RD, LD, CDE, integrative dietitian and author of Naturally Nourished: Food-As-Medicine for Optimal Health. That’s where ginger comes in. The spicy root contains the compounds gingerol and shogaol to help keep those pumping motions steady, so your food is digested at a smooth, even rate. (Here are 7 surprising benefits of eating more ginger, including easing migraine pain.)

How to take it: Steep fresh sliced ginger root in hot water to make a digestive tea, or add fresh grated ginger to your stir-fry or smoothie, says Miller. 

slippery elm
Photograph courtesy of Amazon
Slippery elm bark

The properties that make slippery elm bark good at soothing sore throats can also help your stomach. Its slick, gel-like texture sticks to inflamed areas of the gut, forming a physical barrier to protect your GI tract from abrasion caused by the passage of food and waste, explains Manisha Ghei, MD, founder of the Prana Integrative Medicine & Holistic Health Center. “Think of it like a bandage for the gut that gives the internal lining of the body a chance to heal itself,” she says.

How to take it: Slippery elm bark can be particularly helpful for inflammatory GI issues like diarrhea, acid reflux, inflammatory bowel disease, IBS, and Crohn’s disease, Ghei says. Quickly drink a teaspoon of slippery elm bark powder such as Anthony's Organic Slippery Elm Bark Powder Tea mixed into a tall glass of room temperature water 3 times daily (the mixture will turn gel-like within a minute or two), or stir it into oatmeal. 

Related: 5 Common Medications That Can Mess With Digestion And Damage Your Gut

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fennel seeds
DR NEIL OVERY/ Getty
Fennel seed

Some cultures have traditionally nibbled on fennel seeds after a heavy meal to stimulate digestion. And for good reason: The seeds contain volatile oils that can help ease gassiness, cramping, and bloating, says Miller. But if you suffer from heartburn, take note: Those same compounds could cause your esophagus to dilate, upping the odds for reflux. (Here are 9 simple tricks to fight heartburn naturally.)

How to take it: Toast fennel seeds in a skillet until fragrant and eat them after a meal. Half a teaspoon or so should do the trick.

apple cider vinegar
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Apple cider vinegar

Your stomach uses hydrochloric acid to break down food into small molecules, so the nutrients can be absorbed by your small intestine. But if your acid levels get too low (which can be the result of aging, stress, or from taking antacids), food can’t be digested properly. To make matters worse, too little acid can turn your GI tract into a breeding ground for bad bacteria, Miller says. Because it’s highly acidic, apple cider vinegar (ACV) is thought to support healthy stomach acid levels. (Here's the single biggest thing you can do for a healthier gut.)

How to take it: A little bit goes a long way, folks. Miller likes to make a shooter using 1 tablespoon of high quality, organic ACV (like Bragg's) mixed with an ounce of room temperature water. “Have it first thing in the morning, or prior to a heavy meal to stimulate digestive juices,” she says. 

betaine hydrochloride supplement
Photograph courtesy of Amazon
Betaine hydrochloride

Sure, the name might sound like something you’d find in a mad scientist’s lab. But betaine hydrochloride is just the supplemental form of hydrochloric acid—the digestive acid that’s already in your stomach. Like ACV, it can stimulate healthy digestion by bringing the stomach’s acidity levels back into balance, says Ghei. 

How to take it: Betaine hydrochloride is strong stuff, and it could cause heartburn or irritate the lining of your stomach—especially if you have peptic ulcers. So you should only take it under the direction of your doctor, Ghei says. He or she can help you determine whether it’s the right digestive supplement for you, and how much you should be taking.  

Related: 6 Signs Your Stomach Upset Isn't Normal