Many traditional views of healing from around the world view the digestive system as a key to overall health. This includes Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda and Western Herbalism.
One way to support complete and thorough digestion of our food is through the use of spices. These aromatic seeds and roots are seen as more energetic than nutritive. They are included in the diet for their ability to positively influence the warming – cooling and moistening – drying continuums used in energetic medicine.
They are not considered nutritive due to the fact that they do not contain significant amounts of protein, carbs, fat, vitamins or minerals. One exception to this is anti-oxidants. These spices, in general, are amazing sources of these beneficial compounds.
The plants included in this list mostly come from the region around India and the Indonesian archipelago although they are currently cultivated in other areas and readily available in many regions of the world.
In addition to their beneficial roles in our diets, they have become integral parts of many herbal healing traditions including TCM, Ayurveda and Western herbal traditions. One way they are used is to aid the body in absorbing and assimilating the herbal preparations being ingested and increasing their therapeutic qualities.
The following plants are described by their general Ayurvedic qualities. The information is focused on their role in the digestive process although they affect many other organ systems in the body. These are some of the spices I encourage people to include in their diet and herbal preparations on a regular basis.
Black Pepper – Piper nigrum (Piperaceae)
Its Sanskrit name, Marica, means the sun. This small ball of fire has drying, warming and stimulating energies. In Ayurveda, it is also considered light and penetrating. These characteristics make it especially good to increase the digestive fire, burn Ama and benefits Kapha the most. It can be used sparingly with Vata and is considered too hot for Pitta.
Pepper needs to be freshly ground to be effective. Most of the pre-ground pepper found on dinner tables has little to no therapeutic value. Pepper is commonly added to cold foods, such as salad, to warm them and make them more digestable. Pepper is also frequently added to meats to make their heavy nature more easily digested.
The pepper seeds progress in color from green to red to yellow and finally turn black as they ripen then dry. Green is the least heating. White fruits have had the skin removed and are the lowest in essential oil.
Black pepper is part of a classic Ayurvedic formula known as Trikatu that also includes Ginger and Pippali long pepper (Piper longum). This combination strongly increases digestive fire, known as Agni and reduces Ama (toxic buildup due to undigested food) and Kapha.
Cardamom – Elettaria cardamomum (Zingerberaceae)
These seed pods have a light, drying energy that is warming without being too heating. For this reason, cardamom is considered tridoshic and only aggravates Pitta if used in excess.
It is especially good for digestion and correctly directs the flow of vata downward. It is helpful for bloating, nausea, gas and helps clear excess Kapha from the stomach.
It is one of my favorite spices to use with dairy products as it reduces their tendency to increase mucous. Try sprinkling some freshly ground powder on yogurt or in warmed milk.
For these reasons, cardamom is traditionally added to the heavier tonic herbs of Ayurveda such as Ashwagandha and Shatavari and when milk is used in herbal preparations.
Cardamom can be used alone or combined with ginger, fennel and/or cumin for digestive support. It goes very well with both chocolate and/or rose preparations.
It is high in Sattva and Prana.
Cinnamon – Cinnamomum cassia, C. aromaticum and C. zeylanicum (Lauraceae)
C. cassia has been shown in research to support healthy blood sugar levels although it needs to be used in relatively large portions for this effect. It is considered to be more spicy and pungent.
C. zeylanicum, also known as ceylon cinnamon, has a more delicate and slightly sweet taste and is the preferred species to use in desserts.
The energy of the bark is hot, dry, light and penetrating. It is best for Kapha and Vata but aggravates Pitta.
It can be combined with ginger, cloves and/or cardamom in many foods, drinks and herbal preparations.
Cloves – Szyygium aromaticum (Myrtaceae)
These dried flower buds have a pungent and bitter taste and are light and very penetrating. These qualities help the flow of digestion, circulation and overall energy in the body and break up congestion.
Cloves are very hot and stimulating. They are best for Kapha and can be used with care for Vata. They should be avoided with Pitta. Use in small amounts as both the heat and the taste can be overpowering. This is not difficult as its strong flavor requires it to be used sparingly.
It is especially helpful for weak digestion with gas and a lack of appetite. It helps clear Ama caused by low digestive fire.
Use in small amounts with Ginger, Cardamom and Cinnamon.
Coriander – Coriandrum sativum (Apiaceae)
Coriander are the seeds from the same plant that produces cilantro leaves.
The taste is a delicate blend of pungent, bitter and sweet.
It is tridoshic but is especially effective for relieving excess Pitta. It has the ability to support a strong digestion without increasing the acidity of Pitta. Use in any type of digestive inflammation.
It combines well with fennel, cumin and cardamom for improved digestion.
Cumin – Cuminum cyminum (Apiaceae)
The Sanskrit name for these seeds, Jiraka, literally means “promotes digestion”. Cumin has a light, dry quality with a combination of pungent and bitter tastes.
It supports the downward flow of Apana vayu (downward action of Vata) so is helpful for nausea and is especially good for the excess digestive dampness that is common with Kapha.
Cumin combines well with fennel, coriander and cardamom for digestive support.
Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare (Apiaceae)
Its taste is a combination of sweet, pungent and bitter with light, drying qualities. Although the energy is slightly warming, it is considered balancing to all doshas as the sweet taste balances Pitta.
It increases Agni without aggravating Pitta and directs the flow of Apana vayu downwards.
Fennel is beneficial for congestion and digestive stagnation, gas and nausea.
It combines well with Ginger, Cumin and Cinnamon for low Agni and can be used with Coriander if there is excess Pitta.
Fenugreek – Trigonella foenum-graecum (Fabaceae)
This seed has the unusual combination of being bitter, warming and moistening (bitter herbs are traditionally considered cold and dry).
Use these seeds to balance the aggravated sluggishness of Kapha and the dryness of Vata. Its heating quality can aggravate Pitta.
The moistening effect makes it helpful for constipation due to dryness while the bitter taste makes it useful as a digestive bitter, acting on the liver.
Use carefully with blood sugar imbalances as it has a noticeable hypoglycemic influence.
Combines well with fennel, cumin and coriander for bloating and constipation
Ginger – Zingiber officinale (Zingerberaceae)
Its warming and drying qualities make ginger a classic digestive spice, increasing Agni and reducing Ama.
The fresh root is warming and more of a circulatory stimulant. The added moisture from its fresh juice make it better for Vata.
The dry root powder is hotter and warms the core. Its more concentrated heating energy makes it preferable for Kapha.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) says “fresh root walks, dry root stays home”.
Trikatu is a classic Ayurvedic formula of Ginger, Black Pepper and Pippali long pepper, mixed with honey to reduce Kapha dampness and cold in the digestive system.
Salt – Sodil chloridum (Yes, I know it is not an aromatic spice but it plays an important role in digestion)
Salt is warming, “salty”, heavy, wet (attracts moisture) and penetrating to the subtle channels of the body.
It is best for Vata as it attracts and absorbs water, Pitta and Kapha should use it sparingly.
Salt stimulates digestion by working on the taste buds.
Mineral salt has a wide array of trace minerals. Processed white salt has little to no nutritional value.