(Below is an extract from my soon-to-be-published book on all things tubefeeding-related, since so many people are asking about herbs and spices lately)
Outside of the world of naturopaths, herbalists and other natural health practitioners, there are a great many everyday culinary herbs and spices that we have known for millenia assist digestion and can help to resolve issues faced by tubies. Such foodstuffs have been used as medicine in various cultures since well before the dawn of written history, and we can take much from both the traditional wisdom and what modern science has discovered about their benefits and uses. Also, they can make a blend smell and taste that much more pleasant.
Herbs and spices are, and are not, like modern medicines. Most modern medicines in fact trace their development back to plant materials, aspirin derived from the bark of a willow tree being perhaps the most famous example. Herbs and spices can be very complex in their actions, but may be used to target specific complaints too, in the same way modern drugs are. Many however are simply said to be 'supporting' digestion. Some are said to 'regulate' digestion. These descriptors might mean a herb has opposite effects on a different person or on the same person at different times depending on what the body requires to move back to its best possible state of health: for example, promoting looser or firmer stools, depending on what is going on at the time. So 'prescribing' is not the best way to think about using herbs, focussing instead on using a wider selection to promote overall wellbeing and digestive health.
Which to use, how much, how and when? There can be no one good answer, but tips are given for each below. Think of it this way – use the herbs and spices as you would in cooking: go for the same pleasing taste and aroma concentrations. It is no accident that coconut and curry spices go so well together; each component supports the digestion of the other. The aromatic sweetness of cardamom in a yoghurt lassi drink can eliminate the mucus-thickening effects of the dairy. Those classic Italian herbs like basil, oregano, and so forth are all perfect to stimulate digestion of their typical partners in pasta, olive oil, tomatoes and so on. The culinary traditions are our very best guide to combining herbs and spices with foods and blends, but don't be afraid to experiment! Keep in mind that herbs and spices are string-tasting and strong-smelling because they contain very powerful compounds, and you don't want to overdo it. Again, the kitchen traditions are your guide. Start out with ordinary 'recipe' amounts, and if you're wanting to increase the dosage for specific effect, do so slowly and keep a weather eye on any potential adverse reaction. And give your herbs and spices a break from time to time. As with foods, the very same thing over and over is not ideal for us, and taking a break acts to refresh our response to the medicinal and nutritive effects.
Do please keep in mind this is a general guide only; I am not offering medical advice. In fact in most countries it is not permissible by law to make any specific health claims about herbs, spices or foods. If you can, consider seeking out a good herbalist, naturopath or trusted professional to help guide you along the way with more specific advice.
Sometimes called aniseed, and not to be confused with star anise (something different entirely), anise is related to dill and fennel. The seeds have a sweet rich licorice taste and aroma and help to digest rich foods, promoting good gastric motility and lessening bloating, cramping and flatulence. It regulates digestion, making it useful for both diarrhea and constipation. You can blend the seeds or make a tea and use that in blends or (cooled) on its own.
As well as having a mild calming and soothing effect on the mood and mind, basil is the natural accompaniment to tomatoes; it may aid in their digestion and absorption. Also helpful for stimulating the appetite, used for promoting gastric motility and relieving nausea. Use the fresh or dried leaf.
Yes, common black peppercorns like you'll find in pretty much every kitchen in the developed world is a wonderful appetite and digestive stimulant; specifically it stimulates secretion of pancreatic enzymes. It also helps with constipation and flatulence and can help improve circulation. You can just toss a few peppercorns into the blender or grind them fresh from your pepper mill.
Caraway seeds are excellent for easing gas bloating and flatulence, can assist with colic symptoms and may aid in the prevention of reflux. The fresh leaves can be used also, directly in blends, as with the seeds. Caraway has been said to promote milk production in nursing mothers and assist with symptoms of bronchitis as well. It is ideal that caraway seeds be heated prior to ingestion, so either toss them in with cooking food (the perfect accompaniment to pumpkin) or give them a very quick dry-roast on a pan or skillet before grinding them. Uncooked caraway seeds may escape the blender blades and are just the perfect size to lodge sideways in a button valve, so consider grinding your dry-roasted seeds separately first.
Cardamom is a fantastic digestive tonic, aiding gas, bloating, and gastric motility, and can relieve stomach cramps. It can counteract the thickening of mucus secretions often associated with dairy products, and has been shown to have powerful anti-ulcer properties. Use the seeds freshly ground if possible, but powdered is fine and very easy to use too.
This is a powerful digestive and circulatory stimulant, and definitely take care when using with children or those with very sensitive systems. It is used to treat indigestion, and unlike the advice generally given about avoiding spicy foods it may be that a small amount of cayenne actually improves acid reflux.
Soothes digestive upsets and provides relief from nausea; best used as a tea, you can use chamomile tea as a thinning liquid for your blends or bolus it (cooled) on its own.
A wonderfully warming spice, cinnamon stimulates digestion at all levels, gently encouraging bowel movements but also acting to alleviate diarrhea. This seems to be the spice that makes for the best-smelling vomit as well strangely enough, with a little bit making any such unfortunate eruptions rather less unpleasant to deal with. The bark of a tree, you can throw the 'quills' it comes in straight in the blender or use the ready-powdered form. Great with fruity blends especially I find.
The fresh leaves are a good stomach tonic, and the ground seeds also stimulate digestion and can help alleviate diarrhea. Coriander seeds have been shown to have some anti-bacterial and anti-fungal effects (as well as smelling and tasting divine) so may be useful that way too. These seeds blend just fine.
The fresh or dried tips and also the seeds of dill are classic pairings for egg dishes and shellfish. It helps soothe digestive upsets, especially colicky gas and flatulence.
Fresh fennel leaves can act as both an appetite stimulant but also then promote a feeling of fullness, very helpful for those trying to lose weight or who suffer from hunger pangs. It lessens gas, cramping and flatulence, Can assist with nausea and also insomnia. The seeds or fresh leaves can be blended easily or a tea made from the seeds.
Fresh or dried ginger is a very useful digestive herb, helping to speed digestion along but also calming the stomach, soothing nauseas and acting to reduce or prevent gas, bloating, cramping and flatulence. The fresh root has more active compounds but there is some evidence that dried powdered ginger may be more gentle in its effects. It can be added to blends or made into a tea. A tea with ginger, cayenne, lemon, honey and garlic is an excellent tonic for colds and flus.
There are hundreds of member of the mint family, and all the culinary mints can assist with digestion, easing gas especially that associated with consuming beans. It also has an anti-inflammatory action. Add the fresh or dried leaves to blends.
Humble parsley, the ubiquitous garnish herb, stimulates appetite and may also help with the assimilation of nutrients. It is very high in iron and Vit C as well. Use freely fresh or dried in blends.
As well as being good for coughs, thyme stimulates production of gastric secretions and mucus, especially useful for irritated stomachs. It has antibacterial and antifungal properties, yet also acts to support a healthy intestinal flora.
The fresh or dried, powdered vibrant yellow root calms the digestive system and stimulates production of bile and digestive enzymes. It has antiseptic properties, and reduces intestinal gas and bloating, especially that associated with beans and legumes. Use the fresh root or powder in cooking or straight in the blend but take care – it can stain a nice happy yellow colour.
This really only scrapes the surface of the herbs and spices you might find in your kitchen already. Those who make their own curry powders will recognise that several of these are key ingredients in many curries, and indeed most curry mixes will assist with digestion also. Herbs and spices are best as fresh as possible, or in the case of powdered spices, freshly ground if you can. Buying in small quantities from a source with a high turnover of stock is ideal if you are able.