When you’re searching for a prescription medication for your digestive condition, it’s pretty easy to tell whether or not any given treatment is safe to try: either it’s approved by the FDA and backed by clinical research, or it’s not. But when it comes to natural remedies, you’re pretty much on your own (unless you’re willing to take medical advice from a stranger on social media).
That’s why we put together this gastroenterologist-approved guide to every natural treatment for digestive health that’s worth trying—and a few that probably aren’t.
Indigestion and nausea
If you’ve looked into home remedies for almost any condition, you’ve probably come across someone recommending apple cider vinegar. Acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) happens when the little muscle between the esophagus and stomach relaxes and stays open when it shouldn’t. This allows for the acidic contents of the stomach to reflux up into the esophagus causing heartburn, indigestion, and many other symptoms. Drinking apple cider vinegar just adds more acid to the mix, can be an irritant to the throat and esophagus, and can also slow the stomach from emptying, causing nausea and bloating.
We’d advise against trying this particular home remedy, no matter how many times you see it mentioned on social media.
Heartburn, gas, and nausea
Even just one gram daily of aloe can cause kidney damage after several days, which can be fatal in some cases. To make things even scarier, the way aloe is processed can sometimes create cancer-causing compounds. In case you needed another reason to avoid this one, aloe vera has a potent laxative effect and can cause significant abdominal cramping and diarrhea.
This is not a safe product to take.
Bloating, nausea, and stomach pain
Artichokes aren’t just a tasty pizza topping—they’re also packed with antioxidants, which help protect your body from dangerous molecules called free radicals. That might be why artichoke leaf extract has been shown in clinical studies to help fight liver disease and reduce cholesterol.
A 2015 study looked specifically into artichoke leaf extract’s potential as a treatment for indigestion. One important note is that artichoke leaf extract can cause gas, upset stomach, diarrhea, and even allergic reactions in people who have allergies to plants such as marigolds, daisies, and other similar herbs.
A few studies aren’t enough to definitively prove that artichoke leaf extract works and it can cause unwanted side effects. You can go the old-fashioned route and just get more artichokes into your diet to gain any benefit the vegetable might have.
Heartburn and other symptoms of acid reflux
Looking for a reason to use that box of baking soda sitting in the back of your kitchen pantry? Here’s a good one: Baking soda’s active ingredient, sodium bicarbonate, can help protect your intestines, neutralize stomach acid, and relieve symptoms of acid reflux. That’s why sodium bicarbonate is a common ingredient in over-the-counter antacids.
But before you empty that box of baking soda into your water bottle, a word of caution—decreasing the levels of acid in your stomach too quickly will cause your body to try to compensate, generating even more acid (and acid reflux) and too much baking soda can cause abdominal cramping and diarrhea. For that reason, if you want to try using baking soda as a treatment, you should start slowly and never consume more than a quarter of a teaspoon of baking soda in a glass of water within a two-hour period. You also should never take baking soda within two hours of other medications as it can alter how those medications are absorbed.
Baking soda is a proven natural remedy for acid reflux—that’s why it’s added to so many medications. But you’ll need to watch your dosing carefully to avoid side effects. When in doubt, you’re always better off using an evidence-backed antacid.
Indigestion, cramps, and constipation
Fennel is an herb that’s been used in traditional medicine by people all around the world. Fennel has an antispasmodic effect. That’s the fancy way of saying it relaxes your digestive system, which possibly can help relieve indigestion, cramps, and constipation. Unfortunately, fennel also has an estrogenic effect and can mimic the effects of estrogen in the body (which can be dangerous for people with cancers that are sensitive to estrogen like breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers). Also, estragole, a key element found in fennel, has been identified as a potential carcinogen (a cancer-causing agent).
The risk of trying to consume fennel seeds for relief of digestive issues outweighs any benefit.
Indigestion, heartburn, and other acid reflux symptoms
Licorice root is another herbal remedy with a long history of traditional use, and a short history of clinical study. While studies have shown that licorice root extract may help treat indigestion, acid reflux, and heartburn, those trials included pretty small sample sizes. Until larger studies are completed, it’s tough to say whether or not licorice root really works.
Like baking soda, this natural remedy comes with a warning: Too much licorice root can mess with your sodium and potassium levels, and even increase your blood pressure. It has been shown to interfere with menstruation, decrease sexual libido, and even cause congestive heart failure.
You should avoid using licorice root for digestive issues.
Indigestion, diarrhea, nausea
Ginger or chamomile could have soothing effects on the digestive system. Studies show that chamomile can help prevent indigestion, diarrhea, and even ulcers in mice (the word’s still out on whether or not that holds true for people). Ginger, on the other hand, has been shown to effectively reduce nausea in trials with human participants.
If you’re a tea drinker, you know these are two of the most popular flavors out there, but that doesn’t mean you can drink as much as you want. If you’re taking a blood thinner, steer clear of chamomile because it contains an ingredient that can magnify the medication’s effect. As for ginger, be sure to limit yourself to no more than four grams per day—any more than that can cause heartburn and gas.
There’s a reason why your grandma always seems to have these teas on hand. They really can settle your stomach, so drink up (within reason).
Nausea and indigestion
For some people, peppermint oil (or tea, or even mints) can help relieve nausea, indigestion, and other gastrointestinal symptoms. That’s because it has an antispasmodic, or relaxing, effect on the digestive system.
So why is peppermint oil on our list of remedies to avoid? Like apple cider vinegar, this touted home remedy can backfire for people who have acid reflux or GERD. The relaxing effect of peppermint extends to your lower esophageal sphincter—the muscle that controls the “door” between your esophagus and your stomach—meaning that even more acid travels from your stomach to your throat. That’s the scientific way of saying peppermint makes acid reflux symptoms worse. For similar reasons, it’s also not recommended for people who have ulcers.
Steer clear of this home remedy if you have acid reflux. Not only will it not do you any good, it might actually worsen your symptoms. (Have GERD and wondering what you actually can try? Check out our guide to home remedies for acid reflux.) However, if you don’t suffer from GERD and you’re looking for a natural supplement to help relieve stomach cramps from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), peppermint oil caps may be beneficial for you.
Diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, and nausea
While you can find supplement forms of many of the foods on this list, we wanted to take a moment to call out a few supplements that are actually proven to help with digestive issues: fiber, magnesium, and probiotics.
These three supplements are some of the only GI home remedies you’ll find recommended on social media just as often as in doctor’s offices. That’s why these are the only natural treatments Evens offers.
Stomach pain, nausea, heartburn, and many other symptoms (gastrointestinal and otherwise!)
Here’s another set of remedies you can count on: These lifestyle changes have all been proven to help reduce discomfort from digestive disorders:
Changing up your lifestyle is never easy, but you can trust that these adjustments will be worth your effort. They also have health benefits that go beyond your digestive health.
Well, there you have it: some informative facts about common home remedies marketed for your digestive symptoms. Keep in mind that many of the natural remedies mentioned in this article are processed by your liver, which means they can sometimes cause liver damage or interfere with prescription medications.
While we get why you’d be interested in natural treatments for your GI symptoms, the truth is that none of these remedies are backed by long-term scientific evidence, and some of them can even cause harm if you take them regularly.
That’s why you’ll want to keep your doctor informed of any new treatments you’re considering adding to your regimen, including natural ones. Don’t have a doctor with experience treating digestive conditions? Evens might be able to help you.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
Photo by Maresa Smith via Death to Stock