8 super herbs and spices for gut health

Humble herbs and spices can elevate dishes from dull to delicious – and it turns out they can also pack a punch when it comes to gut health.

It’s well known that our microbiome – the trillions of bacteria living in our gut – can have a major impact on our health, sleep and even mood.

But who would have thought the herbs and spices we cook with can influence our gut health?

How do herbs and spices help gut health?

According to clinical and sports dietitian Jane Freeman, herbs and spices can help the digestive system and influence how the gut breaks down food to be absorbed and used in the body.

Research has found they may also have potential health impacts through their antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, stimulating beneficial gut bacteria.

“Certain herbs and spices also have additional benefits such as improving regularity, reducing bloating, inflammation and gas,” naturopath Emma Drady adds.

“They can also help settle upset stomachs.”

Here are some of our favourite flavour boosters to help support healthy digestion:

Herbs and spices for gut health #1: ginger

A super-star spice, ginger may help alleviate nausea and vomiting, stimulate bile production, soothe the stomach and ease motion sickness.

Research has also shown it could help treat gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.

“Ginger is such a versatile spice, which can be added to curries, stir fries or consumed as a ginger tea,” Jane says.

“While I love fresh ginger, sometimes I might substitute it with the ground ginger or crushed ginger.”

Ginger may be worthwhile adding to your routine if you’re pregnant and prone to morning sickness.


Herbs and spices for gut health #2: turmeric

It’s the spice that gives curry its yellow colour and has been used for thousands of years in India as a medicinal herb.

Turmeric contains curcumin, a substance with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that has powerful healing potential.

“This can help pain associated with digestion,” Emma says.

“It can also support the liver for detoxification.”

Herbs and spices for gut health #3: cinnamon

Cinnamon is delicious and, luckily for those of us addicted to its warm and spicy sweetness, it has healing properties including an anti-inflammatory effect.

“It also has blood sugar regulating properties and can be used to support those with insulin resistance or diabetes,” Emma says.

A study of 41 healthy adults found consuming three to six grams of cinnamon daily was linked to a reduction in blood glucose.

Herbs and spices for gut health #4: bay leaves

From the plant Laurus nobilis, native to the Mediterranean region, the bay leaf is said to be full of antioxidants and a good source of minerals and dietary fibres, and has been traditionally used for gastrointestinal problems.

“There are enzymes that are unique to bay leaves that might help facilitate efficient digestion and digesting particular proteins,” Jane says.

Dried bay leaves are used in pickling, braising meats and flavouring stews.

They’re not to be eaten (they are stiff and bitter) but used whole and removed when serving.

Herbs and spices for gut health #5: cardamom

Cardamom is the seed pods that come from the same family of plants as ginger, Emma says.

It is widely used in Indian cuisine but may also have gastroprotective qualities.

“Traditionally, it has been used to calm gassy or upset tummies but can also be used if there is too much acid causing ulcers or heartburn,” Emma notes.

In a study on rats, cardamom was found to have therapeutic effects on gastric ulcers.

Herbs and spices for gut health #6: slippery elm

Native to North America, slippery elm is a tree, and its bark is used as a remedy for a range of conditions including wounds, burns, coughs and sore throats.

“When chewed or mixed with water, it becomes slippery and slimy,” Emma explains.

“This provides a protective coating along the digestive tract which is wonderful for reflux, heartburn or ulcers.

“It also helps to bulk up stools to improve constipation.”

Herbs and spices for gut health #7: cloves

The beautifully aromatic spice has been a popular addition to stews, soups, roasts and teas since the Middle Ages.

But its value isn’t limited to its flavour and smell.

“Cloves can be used to settle the stomach if there is gas or discomfort,” Emma says.

“They also have an anti-fungal and anti-parasitic effect, which can make it a natural option for eradicating worms.”

Herbs and spices for gut health #8: oregano

The leaves of the oregano plant not only make a wonderful addition to popular Mediterranean and Mexican dishes, researchers have identified oregano as being a food that can have an antimicrobial effect in the gut.

On top of that, it’s a herb particularly rich in antioxidants, with three to 20 times higher antioxidant activity than 38 other common herbs that were examined in a US study.

“However, oregano oil should only be used in small amounts so it doesn’t wipe out good bacteria,” Emma advises.

“But eating the herb fresh or dried in abundance is safe.”


What’s the difference between herbs and spices?

Herbs and spices are closely related.

Emma says to keep in mind herbs are typically the green leafy parts of plants that can be picked fresh or dried, while spices are every other part including roots, bark or seeds.

For more on how to boost your gut health:

Written by Liz McGrath, Claire Burke and Melissa Hong. First published in November 2018. Updated December 2023.