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, wealth and even mood. 

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

“Herbs and spices can help with digestive function, and how our gut is able to break down the food we eat and need to get absorbed and used in the body,” clinical and sports dietitian Jane Freeman says.

Dietitian Rebecca Flavel says that’s because diet is one of the most influential factors on that kilogram or so of alien bacteria living in our digestive systems.

“They play a key role in helping to break down food our bodies can’t digest, in producing important nutrients and influencing the function of our immune system and much more,” Rebecca says.

Here are a few of our favourite food flavour-boosters that also support healthy digestion:

1. Ginger

A super-star spice, ginger can reduce nausea, stimulate saliva and bile production, soothe the stomach and help ease motion-sickness. It’s also good for reducing gas and bloating.

“Ginger is such a versatile spice, you can add it to curries, stir fries, or have a ginger tea,” Jane says.

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

Try a ginger tea to wake up your sluggish digestion in the morning or toss minced ginger into your stir-fries or curries. While fresh is best, you can also use dried, ground ginger.


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 which has powerful healing potential.

A 2019 study analysed the prebiotic potential of four spices – turmeric, ginger, long pepper and black pepper – and found turmeric stood out for its ability to influence positive change in the gut microbiome community.

Try popping turmeric into soups and smoothies or adding it to scrambled eggs, rice and even your morning latte.

3. Cinnamon

Cinnamon is delicious and, luckily for those of us addicted to its warm and spicy sweetness, among its powerful healing properties is its anti-inflammatory effect.

Jane says it may help lower gut inflammation, though more research is needed to assess if it can have a clinical effect, while an animal study into the effect of cinnamon essential oil on gut microbiota found it may have a protective role against inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Cinnamon is also loaded with powerful antioxidants, such as polyphenols, which Jane says can assist with oxidation and damage that occurs in the body.

4. Bay leaves

From the plant Laurus nobilis, commonly found in parts of Asia and America, the bay leaf is said to have strong effects on the gastrointestinal system, helping to decrease the toxicity of our bodies and even soothing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

“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 and marinating, to flavour stews, stuffings and fish.

For the rookies among us, they’re not eaten but used whole and removed when serving.

5. Cardamom

A beautiful, aromatic spice, cardamom is widely used in Indian cuisine, but may also have gastroprotective qualities according to a study on rats that combined cardamom with other herbs to heal stomach ulcers

Rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, another study found cardamom extract was effective in reducing inflammatory responses in rats.


6. Slippery elm

Native to the US and Canada, slippery elm was reportedly used for its bark by Native Americans to remedy fevers, wounds and sore throats.

Slippery elm was included in studies analysing the prebiotic potential of herbal medicine which found it to be effective in influencing gut microbiota in a way that improved colonic function, reduced inflammation and guarded against infection.

7. Cloves

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

But its value isn’t limited to its flavour and smell – and among its therapeutic qualities is helping to balance gut bacteria thanks to its antimicrobial actions.

8. Oregano

The beautifully aromatic 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 common herbs in a US study.

Fun fact

If you’re wondering about the difference between herbs and spices you’re not alone!

Herbs are the plant leaves (whether fresh or dry) while spices are every other part including roots, stems, flowers, seeds and berries.

Other things you can do to boost your gut health

  • Reduce your stress levels: Stress can reduce your appetite and slow digestion, and potentially lead to problems like diarrhea, indigestion or constipation.
  • Lay off sugar and highly processed foods: Overloading on this type of nutrients creates ideal conditions for bad bacteria to grow.
  • Eat plenty of fibre: Optimal colon function requires at least 25gm of fibre a day. Stock up on whole grains, leafy greens, lean protein, and low-fructose fruits.
  • Get plenty of sleep:  Research suggests poor sleep can negatively affect your gut microbiome.
  • Get into probiotics and prebiotics: These support the friendly bacteria in your gut.
  • Eat fermented foods that have beneficial bacteria: Think yoghurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and some pickles.

Learn more about the power of probiotics for gut health and the spice that’s key to a happy life.

Watch Ed Phillips and Jo Stanley discuss gut health with our panel of experts on House of Wellness TV:

Written by Liz McGrath. Updated April 2021. Additional reporting by Claire Burke.