Herbs and spices have long been used in food preparation in various cultural traditions. They not only improve digestion and assimilation, but often have antibacterial, antiparasitic, or antifungal effects, helping out the immune system in the process. In Western herbalism, digestive herbs are often stimulating, pungent or spicy, and have a hot energy. These most powerfully stimulate the digestive fire, and destroy or digest ama (toxins). They are, however, related to nerve stimulants and are not to be used as a compensation for abusing one’s digestive system! They are to support functional weakness in the digestive tract and to assist in digesting and assimilating foods so that more nutrients are available to build and repair the body. Overused, they can increase hypertension or cause insomnia, and are contraindicated where dehydration or inflammation of mucous membranes is present.
For nervous constitutions prone to schedule and sleeping irregularities and sporadic appetites, some digestives include ajwan (celery seed), asafoetida or hing, black pepper, prickly ash (trifolia), and ginger.
For a heavier, more congested and phlegmatic constitution with slow digestion and a tendency toward a coated tongue, the above are useful, but cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, horseradish, garlic, mustard, onion, and pippali (longpepper) are all the more effective.
In the West, herbal bitter tonics with a cold energy are also often used, the idea being that the body will respond by hyping up the heat internally. These are better for the constitution that is already fiery by nature, with tendencies toward inflammation and high blood pressure, as they are stimulating but do not provide heat directly. They are contraindicated for the thinner, weaker, more nervous and dry constitutional types, and for children in large amounts. Some examples include aloe vera, barberry, gentian, golden seal, peruvian bark, and kutki and neem in Ayurvedic herbs.
Another category of digestives that includes more gentle spices, as used in the Ayurvedic tradition, is carminatives. These help reduce gas and bloating, and settle digestion. In the process, they increase assimilation and help with appetite in those needing some stimulation. It is often the volatile oils in these aromatic spices that simulate the gastrointestinal nerves to encourage digestion and move accumulated undigested food particles along before they build up into ama, or toxins. These are especially good for weak digestion due to anxiety, nervousness, or depression. A great idea is to make these into a churna, or spice blend, in a shaker or dispenser that can be added to food instead of salt after cooking, or is readily accessible to be used while preparing the foods.
For those of the drier, more nervous nature or who tend to be of a colder body temperature, a savory mix can be made with ajwan, hing, garlic, ginger, oregano, thyme, basil, turmeric, bay leaves, and juniper berries, adding calamus or valerian if more calming is needed for the digestive or nervous system. A bit of sea or rock salt in the mix is acceptable as well. A sweeter mix of cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, and orange peel can be used on cooked cereals, in warmed milk, and with fruits or fruit purees.
For the hotter, more inflammatory nature, cooling carminatives are indicated. This churna can include herbs and spices like chamomile, catnip, cumin, peppermint or spearmint, fennel, dill, wintergreen, coriander, lime peel, and even chrysanthemum and nutgrass (musta). It is best for this “higher blood pressure” type to avoid salt, sorry! The sweet food version could contain the coriander, mint, and fennel, and could actually include vanilla.
The best way to include these herbs and spices into your health is in your food or in teas. A combination is often more beneficial than using one at a time. Use this information to make an educated choice based upon your constitutional tendencies, rather than just on your symptoms, and be sure to look for products that are either Certified Organic or Wildcrafted. Many herbs and spices come from places all over the world. Checking on the source becomes extremely important as it can directly affect your health, not to mention the future availability of these plants. Herbs, especially, draw all kinds of minerals and metals from their soil and can often exist where more tender vegetables fail. “Certified organic” means that no toxic and persistent pesticides or herbicides were used in a spice or an herb’s production. Organic standards require the use of organic seeds, natural fertilizers, and crop-rotation, among other farming practices that protect environmental health. And organic prohibits irradiation, a process that uses radioactive gamma rays to kill certain bacteria and pathogens and is often used on imported products. Wildcrafted herbs and spices were gathered at least a half-mile away from roadways in pollution-free habitats at low risk for erosion. The harvest was safe for other plant and animal life. Companies that carry bulk herbs and spices that are organic or wildcrafted are often dedicated to promoting sustainability and fair trade in the countries and communities they source from. Your local health food store may buy bulk herbs from one of these companies and make them available in their bulk section for you to buy a few ounces at a time and experiment. But check with the store directly.
You can see some brief instructions on cooking with spices on the video posted here on our site.
©Copyright 2012, By Amber Lynn Vitse for Taste For Life Magazine