Photo of a glass of peppermint tea
Peppermint leaves form the basis of a simple recipe for a digestive tonic tea

Medicinal cookery for healthy digestion

22 July, 2011

The digestive system is undoubtedly one of the most used and abused of body systems.

Consisting of the digestive tract (the hollow tube that runs from mouth to anus), the liver, and the pancreas, the digestive system is the gateway for the abundance of beautiful foods out there to nourish us and help us grow and evolve.

Digestion starts in the mouth. Our teeth give us mechanical breakdown of large pieces of food. There are also some simple carbohydrate-digesting enzymes present in our saliva that start the process off.

The next stop is the stomach. This is a highly acidic environment that churns food round and round to assist its breakdown. The stomach is the primary location for protein digestion.

Using digestive fluids such as pepsin and hydrochloric acid, proteins begin to be broken down into their individual amino-acid components. These fluids also help to kill any nasty bacteria that may have been lurking in our food.

Once our stomach has done its work, the food then gets sent on to the small intestine. The intestine is an alkaline environment, so as soon as the acidic chyme (the acidic, partially digested food stuff that leaves the stomach) enters the intestine, bile salts are released from the liver to buffer the acid, and small spurts of enzymes are released from the pancreas.

The small intestine doesn’t secrete any of its own digestive fluids, so relies solely on those produced by the pancreas and the liver.

These enzymes help to digest dietary fats and carbohydrates, and break them down into small enough units for our body to absorb. Lining the walls of the intestine are billions of tiny finger-like projections known as villi. These little projections are porous, and absorb digested food and nutrients, and carry them in the blood to our liver.

It takes about 3-5 hours for the food that leaves our stomach to become a thin, watery nutrient soup. Anything that cannot be absorbed by the villi, then makes its way to the large intestine.

The large intestine, or colon, is the final stage of the digestive journey. The watery leftovers that exit the small intestine slowly move through.

As this watery mix moves through the large intestine, most of the water gets absorbed Gas in the digestive tract, like it or not, is a perfectly normal thing. It is caused by several factors, but the most common is an incomplete digestion of certain food stuffs.

In most cases, it is specific carbohydrates that can cause the problem, especially if they are refined, heavily cooked, or eaten in close proximity to simple refined sugar. These particular carbohydrates are particularly taxing for the enzymes in the small intestine (where most digestion and absorption takes place), which leads to an incomplete breakdown and digestion of the carbs in question.

Now, this can vary from individual to individual, as we are all slightly different with regard to the levels of specific enzymes we have, so a food that upsets one person may be completely fine for another. Just one of life’s little nuances.

When the incompletely broken down foods get to the large intestine, the good bacteria in the gut finish off the job and set to work on breaking down these food stuffs. This process causes the release of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and, in about one third of people, methane.

Stimulating digestion

Sometimes, we can find ourselves with weakened or impaired digestion, or feeling like we have no appetite whatsoever. This can happen for a number of reasons.

Illness, stress, poor diet, excessive alcohol, etc, can all cause a reduction in digestive secretions, which can leave us feeling heavy after meals, or cause us to lose any inclination to eat. Sometimes these symptoms can also be a sign of liver problems.

There are some foods that cause an increase in the production of these digestive fluids, and can really stimulate appetite and wake things up a little bit. For instance:

Peppermint A powerful digestive tonic. The essential oil menthol helps to regulate the normal rhythmical contractions of the gut wall. It can used in both diarrhoea and constipation, because rather than slowing down or speeding up these contractions, it seems to actually regulate them either way that they may need.

Bay Leaf A herb with a very long medicinal history. Once believed to magical, this humble leaf is a very powerful carminative. This means that helps to break down excessive gas in the digestive system and allow it to be reabsorbed by the body,

Fennel seeds Another of nature’s most powerful carminatives. Nor only are they highly effective, but they are also incredibly safe and gen.tie. So much so that they make a fantastic tea for infant colic and griping

Caraway seeds These are especially adept at easing painful flatulence, and are also mildly antispasmodic, so can be a great ingredient for problems such as colic and painful trapped wind.

Liquorice root A powerful anti-inflammatory. Many digestive complaints, such as 1BS and colitis, involve a lot of inflammation. Liquorice contains a chemical called glycyrrhetinic acid, which works in a similar way to common steroid medications to reduce the severity of the inflammatory response, and can quite rapidly soothe swollen surfaces.

The simple recipe below combines all these powerful ingredients in an aromatic tea. Drunk regularly, can strengthen and regulate digestive functions. It will help to regulate motility (the passage of digested food through the gut), increase transit time, increase the production of digestive fluids, reduce inflammation, and reduce bloating and gas.

Digestive Tonic Tea

For this tea you will need equal parts of each of the following:


Bay leaf

Fennel seeds

Caraway seeds

Dried liquorice root

Blend all the dry ingredients and put in a jar as a loose tea to use daily.

Probably the most complex recipe I have ever written! 4 teaspoons of dry mix per cup. Add to a teapot or cafetiere (French press), and allow to brew for 10 minutes. That’s it!

  • Excerpted from Medicinal Cookery – How you can benefit from nature’s edible pharmacy by Dale Pinnock (Right Way). Dale’s book contains a wealth of health advice and recipes for delicious healing foods. Find out more here.

A full range of medicinal organic and wild-crafted herbs, carefully dried to preserve their healing qualities, can be purchased at Neal’s Yard Remedies.


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