There's a reason your mom gave you ginger ale for an upset tummy: For centuries, ginger has been used for its stomach-soothing properties. But it's not the only culinary spice or herb with such powers.
"Herbs and spices are typically used in cooking because they provide aroma," says registered dietitian Wahida Karmally, who has a doctorate in public health and is the director of nutrition at the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Columbia University. But they also contain phytochemicals (plant-based compounds) with healing properties that help decrease inflammation, stimulate the immune system, fight viruses and bacteria -- and, yes, soothe digestive distress, she says.
So if you're prone to stomach pain, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heartburn or other gastrointestinal upset, consider adding some of these stomach-soothing herbs and spices to your meals.
Although it's usually thought of as a breath-freshener, peppermint also has an antispasmodic effect on the gastrointestinal tract that helps relieve gas. As a result, it can calm stomach cramps, soothe indigestion and ease IBS. In fact, research from Italy found that treating IBS with peppermint oil improves symptoms by more than 50 percent after four weeks.
How to use it: Use fresh peppermint leaves to make tabbouleh, a refreshing Middle Eastern salad that features bulgur, parsley, tomato, onion, lemon juice and mint. You can also add fresh peppermint leaves to juice or iced tea, or you can brew a pot of peppermint tea.
Caution: If you have heartburn, avoid peppermint tea. It can relax the lower esophageal sphincter and make heartburn worse, says Dr. Cindy Yoshida, a gastroenterologist in Charlottesville, Va., and author of No More Digestive Problems.
For generations, fennel seeds have been used to ease heartburn, as well as soothe colic and gas in infants. While studies have yet to be done on how effectively fennel treats heartburn, Russian researchers have confirmed that it does in fact decrease the intensity of colic when compared to a placebo. It also works for adults, says Karmally, because "it has a very soothing effect on the stomach and helps digestion."
How to use it: Braise fresh fennel bulbs, chop or slice them, then eat them as a side dish. You can also add them to soups, stews or salads. Karmally recommends munching on a few fennel seeds after a meal to promote good digestion.
This ancient spice can improve sluggish digestion and reduce gas. But its real claim to fame is its ability to prevent and treat nausea and vomiting caused by pregnancy, motion sickness, chemotherapy or surgery.
How to use it: To soothe nausea, add a thin slice of fresh ginger to a glass of club soda, brew a cup of ginger tea, or suck on dried or candied ginger. To prevent flatulence and aid digestion, Karmally suggests adding slices of fresh ginger to gas-producing dishes -- like black bean soup or a veggie-rich stew -- or simply grating it into the pot while you're cooking.
While often used as a garnish, parsley also prevents indigestion and reduces the production of intestinal gas. It's also a natural diuretic that eases fluid retention, which can cause belly bloating.
How to use it: Parsley is one of the most versatile herbs around. Toss a handful of chopped parsley into a salad, or add fresh or dried parsley to soups, stews, pasta dishes and more.
A favorite spice in Spanish, French, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, saffron stimulates digestion and appetite, soothes the stomach and has anti-inflammatory properties, says Karmally.
How to use it: Crush saffron threads and use them in rice, fish stews, chicken dishes, soups or curries. You can also mix saffron with mayo and make chicken or turkey salad -- perfect for Thanksgiving leftovers!
Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Real Simple, Woman's Day, Self, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal.
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