Peter Rabbit’s mother knew the therapeutic value of natural digestive aids. She dosed Peter with a cup of strong camomile tea after his overeating escapades in Mr. McGregor’s garden gave him a bad case of indigestion.

In the real world, herbs are still used, along with nutritional and enzymatic supplements, to safely and effectively improve digestion. Here’s a quick reference guide to the best traditional and modern remedies for relieving the many symptoms of digestive distress. They’re all available at your local health food store.

Natural Digestive Aids: Your Quick Reference Guide

Aloe vera: Juice from the aloe vera plant is used as a general digestive aid and to soothe inflamed mucous membranes.

Artichoke extract (Cynara scolymus): A popular, traditional European remedy used to calm upset stomach, stimulate digestion, and reduce
constipation.

Betaine Hydrochloride: This beet-based source of hydrochloric acid increases stomach acid and is one of the most effective supplements for indigestion caused by hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid). Most common in those over the age of 50, low stomach acid causes poor nutrient digestion and absorption and leads to fatigue.

Calcium and magnesium chewable tablets: Calcium carbonate is a natural antacid and magnesium is essential for relaxation of smooth muscles, including the large intestine. Natural mint-flavoured, chewable tablets are ideal.

Camomile: Camomile tea, made from the dried flowers, is an excellent home remedy for upset stomachs. It relieves heartburn, indigestion, colic, and general stress. It also has mild relaxant and sedative properties. Brew the tea in a covered container to prevent loss of the active constituents in steam. Let the flowers steep at least 10 minutes before pouring.

Dandelion: The dried roots and fresh greens are both used traditionally as an overall digestive and liver tonic.

Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL): This herbal extract soothes the digestive tract by increasing the mucosal lining. The best form to use is a chewable tablet that can provide quick relief.

Digestive bitters: A variety of pre-mixed herbs with bitter compounds help stimulate digestion, increase bile production in the gallbladder and bile flow from the liver, while strengthening bowel function.

Digestive enzymes: Supplemental enzymes are made from a variety of sources including animal, plant, microbial fermentations (also called plant-derived), and concentrated food or plant extracts. Microbial fermentation is the most common source of enzymes. There are three major categories of digestive enzymes, one category for each of the three macronutrients we eat: protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Some enzymes, such as pancreatin, overlap into all three categories. Choosing the most appropriate digestive enzymes depends largely on the types of foods that cause digestive difficulties, but most people find multiple enzyme formulations most helpful.

The three categories of digestive enzymes:

  • Protease enzymes digest proteins. This category includes the enzymes bromelain, papain, pancreatin (a multifunctional enzyme that contains trypsin, chymotrypsin, amylase, and lipase), carboxypeptidase, chymosin, pepsin, and rennin.
  • Amylase enzymes digest carbohydrates. This category includes the enzymes alpha-galactosidase (especially good for digesting beans), lactase (specific to digesting milk sugar), invertase (for digesting sucrose), beta-glucosidase, cellulose (for digesting fibre from fruits and vegetables), malt diastase, glucoamylase, hemicellulase, lysozyme, maltase, pancreatin, pectinase, phytase, and sucrase.
  • Lipase enzymes digest fats. This category primarily includes lipase and pancreatin.

Fennel seed: This culinary herb is a carminative (expels gas from the intestinal tract). Chew 1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) of fennel seeds at the end of a meal or any time you feel the beginnings of indigestion.

Fenugreek seed: Used as a tea or in powder or tablets, fenugreek is a mucilaginous (slippery, soothing) source of fibre. It soothes gastrointestinal spasms, pain, and irritation.

Fibre: One of the best digestive aids, fibre relieves constipation, adds bulk to the stool, eliminates toxins, and satisfies the appetite. Eat at least 1 1/2 oz (40 g) of fibre daily from whole grains, beans, and raw fruits and vegetables. If you require a fibre supplement, freshly ground flaxseeds are beneficial.

Ginger: This wonderful digestive aid alleviates nausea, strengthens the lining of the upper gastrointestinal tract, and protects against ulcers and parasites.

Homeopathic remedies: Arsenicum album for burning pain that feels better with warmth; Carbo vegetabilis for bloating and indigestion that is worse when lying down, especially with flatulence and fatigue; Lycopodium for heartburn that feels worse with eating; and Nux vomica for heartburn with cramping and constipation.

Peppermint: A soothing and refreshing traditional digestive remedy with powerful, fast-acting therapeutic properties for the entire gastrointestinal tract; it is nontoxic.
Steep peppermint leaves for hot or cool tea. Peppermint oil is available in enteric-coated capsules and is especially beneficial for those with irritable bowel syndrome.

Probiotics and prebiotics: Probiotic bacteria and prebiotic oligosaccharides (such as larch arabinogalactan) promote a healthy digestive system and are beneficial for relieving irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, and diarrhea. They also enhance immune function.

Slippery elm bark powder: This traditional herbal remedy is next to none for the immediate, soothing relief of heartburn. It’s also ideal for promoting healing of the mucosal lining of the digestive tract and relieving constipation.

Triphala: This Ayurvedic constipation remedy is a combination of three fruits that tone the large intestine. Triphala is safe for regular daily use.

Rx for Better Digestion from “The Enzyme Doctor”

According to Dr. Anthony Cichoke, also known as “The Enzyme Doctor” and author of The Complete Book of Enzyme Therapy (Avery, 1998), eating enzyme-rich, fresh raw fruits and vegetables is the best prescription for good digestion. But Dr. Cichoke peppers his dietary advice with a gentle reminder. “Improving your diet can cause indigestion.

Remember, it takes time for your body to adjust when you drastically change your diet to include the extra fibre consumed when you eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and decrease your intake of meats and fats. Fibre-rich foods can cause gas and bloating until your body adjusts. Digestive enzymes help,” he promises.

About the Author

Lucretia Schanfarber is a writer and editor who lives and gardens organically on Quadra Island, BC, with her husband.