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9 Best Herbs and Spices for Promoting Gut Health

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • Herbs and spices contain polyphenols and other active compounds that may benefit gut health. 
  • Options like ginger, turmeric, and fennel can reduce inflammation and improve chronic digestive symptoms.
  • Most of the research on the health benefits of herbs and spices has been done on supplements, but some studies have shown that culinary herbs and spices can improve gut health.

Herbs and spices are more than just a way to flavor your food.

They have long been used by alternative medicine providers to treat various health concerns due to their rich polyphenol and antioxidant content. 

Emerging research shows that certain herbs and spices may improve gut health and reduce symptoms of digestive diseases like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Continue reading to learn what the research says about the most beneficial herbs and spices for gut health. 

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Can Herbs and Spices Help Gut Health?

Many herbs and spices are rich in polyphenols–compounds with antioxidant qualities.

In addition to fighting inflammation, research shows that these polyphenols may act as prebiotics.

This means the gut bacteria can digest the polyphenols, helping the healthy strains of bacteria thrive.  

Much of this research has been on herbs and spices in the form of supplements–as capsules, extracts, or essential oils.

These do not typically reflect the concentration or amount of herbs people may consume naturally through diet. 

However, a 2022 study identified that a high intake of different culinary herbs (defined as more than three times per week) was associated with the growth of certain healthy gut bacteria strains. 

9 Top Herbs and Spices for Gut Health, Recommended by Dietitians

Discover the best herbs and spices for improving the balance of your gut microbiome and reducing chronic digestive symptoms. 

Remember to speak with your doctor before starting any herbal supplements, as these are much more concentrated than culinary herbs and spices. 

1. Ginger

Used worldwide for culinary and medicinal purposes, ginger root can be consumed fresh, powdered, in capsules, or as an extract.

Ginger root contains many polyphenols, including gingerol, that give it anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities. 

Ginger is perhaps most known for its ability to reduce nausea and vomiting.

Research shows that consuming one gram of ginger daily (in the form of capsules) is effective for managing nausea in pregnancy

Ginger may also support healthy gastrointestinal motility (movement of food through the digestive tract).

As a result, it can improve symptoms related to gastroparesis (delayed stomach emptying), including: 

  • Upset stomach.
  • Gas.
  • Bloating.
  • Abdominal pain. 
  • Early satiety. 

2. Turmeric

Turmeric is another root well-known for its anti-inflammatory qualities.

The bright yellow spice contains the active compound curcumin. 

Research shows that curcumin supplementation can reduce intestinal inflammation markers in people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

It may also improve their digestive symptoms and quality of life. 

Additionally, curcumin can improve symptoms of irritable bowel disease (IBS), including abdominal pain.

According to a 2022 review, a supplement containing curcumin and fennel oil improved IBS-related digestive symptoms by 40-60% after just four weeks. 

A 2021 study found that curcumin extract supplements resulted in fewer gastrointestinal (GI) complaints in people with chronic self-reported digestive symptoms.

The study also examined the gut microbiome but did not find significant differences between the curcumin and placebo groups.

3. Peppermint

While peppermint is known as an herb with many culinary uses, it may also be prescribed as a supplement to manage IBS.

Peppermint contains a substance called L-menthol, which can relax the smooth muscle of the digestive tract. 

Studies show that enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules may reduce IBS symptoms by 40% in four weeks and may start working within one day. 

However, because peppermint can relax the lower esophageal sphincter that keeps stomach contents from coming back up, some people experience an increase in acid reflux after consuming peppermint products. 

4. Chamomile

Flowers from the chamomile plant are commonly consumed as chamomile tea, but they have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years.

Chamomile can be taken as a supplement in the form of powder, extracts, or tinctures. 

Chamomile may benefit digestion in a few different ways, including:

  • Easing an upset stomach.
  • Reducing gas.
  • Relaxing the muscles of the digestive tract.

As part of a commercial preparation mixed with other herbs, chamomile may help reduce the risk of stomach ulcers.

Chamomile is thought to help prevent the growth of H. pylori, the bacteria related to stomach ulcers. 

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5. Fennel

The seeds of the fennel plant are commonly used as a spice for culinary purposes.

Interestingly, fennel is one of the oldest medicinal herbs used throughout history to treat numerous ailments, including digestive conditions.

Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, researchers are studying fennel seed extract as a possible treatment for IBD.

A 2022 mouse study found it may decrease inflammation and improve the health of the gut lining.

Some countries already use fennel seed supplements as an alternative IBD treatment, but clinical trials are lacking. 

6. Oregano

Oregano is a common herb used worldwide, and it’s also available as a supplement (via capsules containing powder or an essential oil). 

Oregano contains compounds that have antibiotic qualities, which may have a role as a natural treatment for small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), a condition that is usually managed with antibiotics.

A 2014 study found that an herbal preparation including oil of oregano was well-tolerated and just as effective as antibiotic therapy.

In addition, studies show that consuming oregano may help decrease harmful gut bacteria and support the growth of healthy bacteria. 

7. Cocoa

Cocoa beans from the Theobroma cacao tree can be processed in different ways to make well-loved products like chocolate and cocoa powder.

Cocoa is very dense in nutrients and beneficial plant compounds like polyphenols and flavonoids. 

The polyphenols found in cocoa have prebiotic qualities, which encourage the growth of healthy gut bacteria and decrease the number of harmful bacteria.

Cocoa polyphenols can also reduce inflammation.

Similarly, a small 2011 study found that after four weeks of consuming a beverage high in cocoa flavanols, participants experienced the growth of healthy, anti-inflammatory gut bacteria. 

8. Cumin

Cumin comes from the dried seeds of the Cuminum cyminum plant and is used to season food across many cuisines. 

Essential oil made from the fruit of the cumin plant may be a natural treatment option for IBS.

A 2013 pilot study examined the effect of giving cumin extract mixed with water twice daily to people with IBS.

The researchers found that the patients experienced improvements in symptoms, including less: 

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Bloating.
  • Fecal urgency.
  • Constipation. 

However, some people experience worse constipation and diarrhea when taking cumin extract at higher doses, making it essential to talk to your healthcare provider before starting this supplement. 

9. Garlic

Garlic is perhaps one of the most popular ways to flavor food. Garlic is also known for its possible health benefits.

Allicin, the primary active compound in garlic, has antibacterial properties and may protect the gut from harmful pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli. It also has antiviral properties and may help fight rotavirus, a digestive condition that causes severe diarrhea. 

Allicin may also play a role in preventing colon cancer, but more research is needed. 

Additionally, garlic contains fructans, which act as prebiotics that help healthy gut bacteria grow.

However, garlic is considered a high FODMAP food and may not be well-tolerated by people with IBS.

Tips for Adding Herbs and Spices Into Your Diet

Though more research is needed to understand the amount of culinary herbs and spices to include in your diet for gut health, you can start by adding some of the above seasonings to your favorite meals a few times per week. 

  • Use fresh ginger root to make a homemade stir-fry sauce or brew ginger tea. 
  • Make a refreshing mint-infused water out of peppermint leaves or extract.
  • Try turmeric rice or add turmeric to a curry dish. 
  • Enjoy chamomile tea. 
  • Use cumin to season black beans for vegetarian tacos. 
  • Make a homemade Italian seasoning blend with oregano and other herbs. 

When considering herbs and spices in the supplement form, talk with your doctor before starting any alternative treatments.

Certain herbal therapies can have unwanted side effects or may interact with medications and make them less effective. 

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Takeaway

Herbs and spices can improve gut health because they are rich in polyphenols and other active compounds that may play a role in improving the balance of gut bacteria, decreasing chronic digestive symptoms, and reducing inflammation.

Though much of the research on herbs and spices has been done on supplement forms, some studies have identified gut health benefits from herbs and spices used to flavor food. 

How a Dietitian Can Help

A registered dietitian can recommend specific diet and lifestyle changes for improving your overall gut health and well-being.

Find a registered dietitian specializing in digestive health through Nourish who can help you incorporate polyphenol-rich foods, such as herbs and spices, into your diet.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best herb for gut health?

Specific herbs have been shown to improve gut health by improving the balance of gut bacteria, reducing inflammation, or improving digestive symptoms. These include:

It’s important to note that most of the studies on the gut health benefits of these herbs have been done on supplement or extract forms of the plant rather than culinary use.

Talk to your doctor before starting any herbal supplements.

What herbs are good for detoxing the gut?

Many herbs and spices have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties that may benefit gut health. Examples include: 

More human research is needed to understand the impact of culinary herbs and spices on gut health versus those in the supplement form.

How can I fix my gut health naturally?

While medical treatment is essential in improving gut health in certain digestive conditions, you can also make diet and lifestyle changes to influence gut health. Examples include: 

  • Limiting the intake of added sugars, saturated fat, and ultra-processed foods. 
  • Eating more polyphenol-rich foods, like berries and green tea.
  • Increasing fiber intake.
  • Managing stress.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Quitting smoking. 

Talk to your doctor or dietitian before making significant dietary changes, as certain digestive diseases require special diets.

References

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