Even the strongest stomachs among us sometimes deal with gas, diarrhea, constipation, and bloating. It could be something we ate, how fast we ate it, our periods—who knows. Even regular stress can throw digestion off, and let’s face it, we’re all pretty stressed these days.
Enter your secret weapon: carminative herbs. Carminatives are, simply put, natural gas relievers. Their power lies in their volatile oils, which are the part of a plant that often give it its scent and also the part extracted to produce essential oils. Carminatives show up in the spice aisle, in beauty products, in teas, and in supplements. In this article, we explore some of our stomach’s favorites, the carminatives lemon balm, fennel, and peppermint leaf. Here's a closer look at all three.
You wouldn't know it from its name, but lemon balm is actually part of the mint family. Native to the Mediterranean it's also called Melissa, the Greek word for honey bee — because honey bees love it. No wonder — lemon balm has been a part of herbal medicine dating since 60 A.D. in Ancient Greece, when it was used for fever relief, gas relief, and even in “magic spells” for healing broken hearts and attracting love. No matter what brings on your digestive issues, lemon balm will calm GI discomfort, but it's been shown in clinical studies to be especially effective when that discomfort is triggered by stress. Research has found it also relieves period cramps, stress-induced headaches, insomnia, and anxiety, and boosts cognitive function.
Fennel's rich history goes way back — it was used by ancient Egyptians as a food and medicine, in ancient China for snake bites, and in the Middle Ages to ward away evil spirits. And in Ancient Athens, Pheidippides carried a fennel stalk for 150 miles, over his two-day run to Sparta. You don't have to bring fennel along on your next jog to get its benefits (1), though. The seeds and stalk can both be eaten, and the oil is added to everything from drinks to baked goods. Fennel especially benefits those with ongoing stomach conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, since they help relieve gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. It acts as an antispasmodic in the colon to reduce bloating, and also relaxes the smooth muscles of the digestive system to stimulate bile flow and reduce pain during digestion.
As we all know, Peppermint Leaf is used to flavor mints and toothpaste. It has actually been used for thousands of years for its minty taste. It's part of the Mentha species, named so from Minthe from Roman Mythology, turned into a plant by the jealous Persephone. Its use goes back a long way — dried peppermint leaves were found in ancient tombs in Egypt, and it first appeared in pharmacy documentation in 1721. Its secret ingredient is the high naturally occurring concentration of the essential oil menthol, which has antispasmodic properties, relaxing the intestinal smooth muscle and causing the pain-sensing fibers in the gut to become temporarily less sensitive. In clinical studies, it has also been shown to reduce bloating.
To learn more about essential oils and how they affect your gut, check out this article.
1. Danielle Gaffen, MS, RDN.