In Ayurveda we use spices or herbs in every meal, as they not only make food taste delicious but help to boost our enzyme function and digest our food. If food looks good, smells good and tastes good, we can savour it with all our senses, enjoy it more, and digest it better.
These are my top ten digestive and healing spices, along with their Ayurvedic properties (which dosha they balance, their taste, their quality, particular digestive effect, and when to avoid them). Since I am writing for Westerners, I have left out the hottest spices (chilli, cayenne, ginger powder and paprika), as most of us shouldn't eat these, certainly not regularly.
This is the best spice to get rid of gas or bloating. Use it for digestive problems caused by Vata, for variable agni, and to stimulate movement of stool in the colon. Use for constipation, low digestive power, worms, candida. Use it to help digest meat and beans (get it from Indian grocers). Only a quarter teaspoon per person is needed. (NOT for use medicinally by Pitta prakriti or those with high Pitta, but small amounts may be tolerated in cooking to help digest beans and meat.)
Prakriti: VK. Doshic effect: VK- P+. Gunas: light, oily, sharp. Taste: pungent. Heating. Dhatus: rasa, rakta, mamsa, ashti, majja. Caution in pregnancy, high Pitta, acidity, skin rash, fever, P prakriti, liver disorders.
A hot spice that opens the digestive channels, stimulates agni and helps clear toxins and excess Kapha. Use for indigestion, low digestive power, obesity. Helps digest raw food and mucus-forming foods such as dairy; decongests the sinuses and lungs, helps prevent colds, strengthens the nervous system, cleanses the plasma and lymph. Use one to two pinches only (especially Pitta, and avoid when your Pitta is aggravated).
Prakriti: KV. Doshic effect: KV- P+ Gunas; sharp, light, dry. Taste: pungent. Heating. Dhatus: rasa, rakta, meda, majja. Caution: high Pitta, inflammation.
Can’t give up the coffee? Add half a teaspoon of cardamom as an antidote to the effects of caffeine. (That's not a green light to drink coffee! It's a stepping stone while you get off it.) Cardamon is a super spice for dispelling gas and bloating, balancing Vata-caused digestive problems, increasing low digestive power and helping nutrient assimilation. Good for colds, cough, asthma and bronchitis; a remedy for nausea; and helps to digest milk and counteract its mucus-forming qualities. As a tea for nursing mothers it can help stop colic pain and gas in the baby. Stimulates pranavayu and promotes mental clarity and sattva.
Prakriti: VK. Doshic effect: VK- P= (P+ in excess). Gunas: light, dry, sharp. Taste: pungent, sweet. Cooling. Dhatus: rasa, rakta, majja. Caution: high P, ulcers.
Warming cinnamon boosts our digestive enzyme function and stimulates energy (prana) to move. Combine it with ginger for colds, coughs, flu and bronchitis. It's not just for use on your porridge: use it on muesli and cereals, in warm almond milk (good between meals if you are trying to give up snacking), and it goes surprisingly well in savoury dishes such as a butternut squash hotpot or sprinkled into sweet potato mash. Good for increasing agni when hotter spices are contraindicated. Harmonises vyanavayu (the Vata that governs circulation) and samanavayu (the Vata in the small intestine that governs digestion). Although Pittas shouldn't use large amounts, its sweet taste and antacid quality makes it OK for Pitta in small doses.
Prakriti: VK. Doshic effect: VK- P= (small amounts) P+ (large amounts). Gunas: sharp, light dry. Taste: pungent, sweet, astringent. Heating. Dhatus: rasa, rakta, mamsa, majja.
Balances the digestive enzyme function, is a mild carminative (helps gas and bloating), helps digest hard-to-digest foods, and a blood purifier. Has a unique ability to balance agni without aggravating Pitta. Indicated for cystitis and urinary infections. Use it in cooking, or make a juice from the leaves. If you’re a fiery type (easily irritated, prone to acne, loose digestion), coriander is great for you. A juice made from the leaves can be used to wash and soothe red, irritated skin or rashes, and is cooling to place on hot irritated eyes. Use as a douche for vaginal infection. Nursing mums can drink a tea of 50/50 coriander/fennel to stop colic pain in the baby.
Prakriti: PK. Doshic effect: PKV= Gunas: dry, light, sharp. Dhatus: rasa, rakta, mamsa. Taste: astringent, bitter, pungent. Mildly heating.
Cumin is used around the world as a digestive spice. It improves enzyme function (the power of digestion) in the digestive organs and liver, and balance agni for Vata and Pitta especially (it increases agni without increasing Pitta). Use it daily for malabsorption (when impaired digestion means you are not absorbing nutrients from food). Try it not only in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, but in pasta dishes and omelettes. it's also a mild uterine tonic and can help Vata- or Pitta-caused menstrual imbalances.
Prakriti: PVK. Doshic effect: KV- P= (P+ in excess). Taste: pungent, bitter. Mildly heating. Gunas: dry, light, sharp. Dhatus: rasa, rakta. Not black cumin (much more powerful and an abortive).
The best tridoshic spice for digestion. Helps digestion after eating, stimulates the appetite before eating, boosts low digestive power by stimulating blood flow to the stomach. Relieves bloating, gas, nausea, indigestion and burning urine. Fennel is mild enough for people who can’t take hotter spices. If you're bloated or have overeaten, roast one teaspoon each of fennel and coriander seeds with a pinch of salt, and eat.
Prakriti: VPK. Doshic effect: VK- P= Ginas: light, oily, sharp. Taste: sweet, pungent. Mildly heating. Dhatus: rasa, rakta, mamsa, majja.
Fresh ginger is the main digestive spice and can be used in most dishes. It is a rejuvenative and nourishing and has been used medicinally for probably thousands of years, for colds, coughs, flu, gas, burping, headaches, cramps, haemorrhoids, arthritis. Suck a piece of the peeled root for indigestion, nausea, vomiting, cols and sore throat. (Pitta people should take care with this, or only do it when there is some food in the stomach, or it can burn.)
Ginger tea helps to clear toxins (make with half an inch of roughly chopped ginger in a litre of water, boil, simmer for ten minutes, then drink throughout the day).
Prakriti: KV. Doshic effect: KV- P= in small amounts and in cooking P+ (large amounts). Gunas: sharp, light , oily. Taste: pungent, sweet. Heating. Dhatus: all. Caution: high Pitta, inflammation, acidity, fever, ulcer, internal bleeding.
The best spice to use if poor digestion means nutrients aren’t being absorbed. Use a quarter teaspoon maximum. Use for gas, bloating, diarrhoea. Regulates digestive strength and function by balancing samanavayu (the vata in the small intestine). Nutmeg is an important Vata-reducing spice and used in many nervous disorders, including nerve pain and insomnia. Add to a milky drink at night to help restful sleep. Also useful for Kapha, to liquefy and expel excess Kapha from the lungs and throat, treating cough and respiratory disorders. Nutmeg oil (NOT essential oil) can be applied to the forehead and temples to relieve the headache that accompanies cold or flu (or in a paste with ginger powder).
Prakriti: VK. Doshic effect: VK- P+ Gunas: heavy, oily, sharp. taste: pungent, bitter, astingent. Heating. Dhatus: rasa, mamsa, majja, sukra. Caution: pregnancy, intestinal inflammation, high Pitta.
Probably the best spice for helping remove toxins. Balances the intestinal flora, liver and pancreas, improves problem skin. It contains a phytochemical called curcumin, which reduces inflammation and helps liver detoxification. A stronger antioxidant than vitamin C.
Prakriti: K. Doshic effect: KVP- in moderation, PV+ in excess. Gunas: dry, light, sharp. Taste, bitter, astringent, pungent. Heating. Dhatus: all. Precautions: pregnancy, high P, acute jaundic or hepatitis.
PLUS: bonus spice
This is not one of my digestive superstars but is such a lovely spice with so many healing properties, I thought it worth an honorable mention!
A tonic for the blood and female reproductive system. A strong rejuvenative for woman of all ages, through its effect on raktadhatu (the blood) and thereby the uterus. It decreases toxins and phlegm in the liver and lungs. Use in cooking or drink a cup of warm raw milk with cardamom and raw sugar. it may help rejuvenate the liver when combined with turmeric and barberry. It has the special quality of increasing the strength of any herb it is combined with.
For prakriti: VPK. Doshic effect: VPK=. Caution in pregnancy. Gunas: oily, light, sharp. Dhatus: all, especially rakta. Taste: pungent, bitter, sweet. Heating.