My IBS-y friend and I have a running joke. Whenever one of us (not saying who) indulges in an eccentric spice-filled feast, we text the other the movie poster for the fictional South Park universe film Terrence and Phillip: Asses of Fire.
I was thinking on that joke when I went to Butt Con the other month (what is my life) and tapped functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, MD to ask about the perceived link between spicy food and my digestive woes. Because honestly, I’m sick of getting literally burned by my love for Sri Lankan food.
However, I learned that while spicy food can cause problems for people with IBS (like my friend), in general they’re pretty good for your digestive health. “Spices can really be helpful for your gut because they help protect your gut flora,” Dr. Hyman says. “They help fertilize the good bugs; they kill the bad bugs.”
“I love spicy food for the taste, but I also love its effects for the GI tract,” agrees gastroentologist Niket Sonpal, MD. “One of the biggest misconceptions of spicy food is it gives people reflux or ulcers. Just because it burns a little bit on the way in doesn’t mean it causes any other burning.”
Not only that, but I learned that certain spices go the extra mile when it comes to better gut health and um, healthy and reasonable BMs. Read on to find which spices will Do The Most for you.
1. Cayenne pepper
Dr. Sonpal recommends cayenne pepper for his patients that have a lot of indigestion. “Cayenne stimulates the taste buds, which in turn stimulates saliva production,” Dr. Sonpal says. “Then, moving on down the digestive tract, cayenne stimulates three more things: hydrochloric acid secretion in the stomach, pancreatic enzymes from the pancreas into the small intestines, and bile secretion from the liver and gall bladder. All three chemicals help digestion and help patients feel less bloated after meals.” He suggests slipping it into some lemonade for an extra kick—and some gut-boosting benefits.
“Ginger is great for your health overall as helps boost your immunity, but it is particularly great for gut health because it can promote motility through your digestive tract, helping you go to the bathroom more easily to fight constipation and bloat,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, owner of BZ Nutrition in NYC . “It also works to relieve gut irritation.” Zeitlin says you can drink ginger as a tea, add it to your smoothies, or copy her trick and ask for double ginger on the side with your sushi.
Learn more about ginger’s major health benefits here:
3. Cumin seeds
“Cumin can help with bile production, which is what your body needs to break down fat so that your body can digest and absorb it,” says Zeitlin. “When your body has a hard time breaking down fat, you can feel sluggish and bloated.” Read: Constipated AF. Cumin is often found in curries and in taco seasoning; if you’re looking to test out a combo of spicy and sweet, cumin honey is now a A Thing you can try.
4. Fennel seeds
“Fennel seeds have been linked to promoting a healthy gut by fighting against the bad bacteria that can build up in the gut and cause indigestion and discomfort,” says Zeitlin, promoting healthier BMs. She suggests sprinkling some on top of your stir-fry and soups.
Girl, you know all about turmeric! “For me personally it’s something I take daily—in cooking as well as a supplement,” Dr. Sonpal says. “Besides being lauded for its natural anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric is a natural laxative. A [small] study in Japan found that volunteers who eat food with turmeric have a faster bowel transit time, which in turn means less constipation.” So know that your golden milk latte is MD-approved in more ways than one.