chamomile + dried plum nut butter bars

Last week I shared about the connection between the gut and the nervous system. After hearing from several that it was helpful, I’ve been thinking about the use of herbs in particular for nervous system and gut support.

Herbs in the category called nervines really shine here. They are the herbs that specifically affect the nervous system. While there is a giant list of herbs that can be used for nervous system support depending on where and what type of symptoms are showing up for an individual as well as the person’s energetics, chamomile, skullcap, lavender, holy basil / tulsi, lemon balm, and California poppy are some of my personal favorites. When we get to the point of really using herbs medicinally to promote balance, we often need them in larger amounts such as at least three cups of tea daily for several weeks, or an herbal tincture, large amounts of herbal powders, etc. It becomes like taking medicine, only with no side effects, nutritional interactions or depletions (when administered correctly).

But before we get to that stage where it’s best to have either more personal experience or guidance by a trained professional to take herbs at a medicinal level, many of us can benefit from incorporating more herbs into our everyday foods. This is what a lot of our ancestors did by collecting herbs that grew nearby and incorporating them into household remedies and cooking. And that’s what I’ve done here.

This is a base recipe for a nut/seed butter and dried fruit bar that I routinely make to enjoy as a snack. In this particular version, I added chamomile flowers and dried plums, two foods with a particular affinity for gut health. Many individuals enjoy chamomile as an evening wind-down tea but if you steep it long enough or bite into a whole chamomile flower, you’ll notice a definite bitter taste. That bitter component is important for gut health! We need bitter flavors to help the digestive system function properly, since the bitter taste stimulates the digestive system by activating gastric juices and the liver so we can break down and absorb our food.

Additionally, you might have noticed the strong, fragrant smell of chamomile in freshly brewed tea. The volatile oils in herbs which have an intense smell gives them an action that is called carminative, giving them the ability to promote a healthy digestive system by soothing inflamed tissues, giving relief from GI cramps and spasms, and helping relieve indigestion, bloating, gas, and nervous/anxious tummys. A couple other of my favorite carminative herbs/spices are fennel seeds, cardamom, and lemon balm, which can all be added to these bars instead of and/or in addition to the chamomile (amounts would need to be adjusted for taste, however).

A couple other ways to incorporate more chamomile into your days is in chamomile tea with ginger and licorice, chamomile tea simply by itself, and chamomile added to morning oatmeal. This apple, walnut, chamomile version is pretty outstanding. Overall, I highly encourage you to incorporate more nervous and digestive system supporting herbs into your meals.

Chamomile + Dried Plum Nut Butter Bars, makes 4
This is a great base recipe to experiment with different flavor combinations and incorporate various herbs into your daily snacks. If you’d rather skip the protein powder, try an equal amount of hemp seeds instead since they’re high in protein compared to many other nuts and seeds. Remember, protein is important in small to medium amounts throughout the day, and helps to balance out the heavy sugar and fat that most snacks contain. These also work great both before and after athletic activity as a quick fueling option, as they’re balanced in their carbohydrate to protein ratio.

3 Tbs. / 50 grams nut butter of choice (cashew or coconut work great here)
1/4 cup / 45 grams dried plums
1/3 cup / 45 grams dates, pitted
3 Tbs. / 30 grams hemp protein (or similar unflavored protein powder, such as plain pea protein)
3 Tbs. loose chamomile flowers
1 cup / 30 grams crispy rice cereal (or 1/3 cup oatmeal)
1 tsp. honey or maple syrup
1/8 tsp. salt

  • In a food processor, combine all ingredients except for a small amount of the rice cereal or oatmeal. Puree all the ingredients until they come together and are slightly sticky to the touch. You might need to add up to 1 Tablespoon water.
  • Then add the final amount of cereal or oatmeal and pulse until it is incorporated but not finely pureed.
  • Turn out into a small rectangular dish and press in. Cut into bars and eat, or store in the fridge and cut and eat as needed. Otherwise, you can certainly make these into energy balls instead if you’d like a circular shape.
  • These keep well for at least a couple weeks.

The nervous system is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I’ll explain the other categories of digestive imbalance in future articles. And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

connecting the gut and the nervous system

I had an emotional couple of days last week. If you know anything about the Enneagram personality archetyping, I’m most definitely a type 4, so deep and vast emotions are a familiarity for me. That aside, I was emotional. I cried a fair bit and felt my own little volcano of melancholy come out in periodic waves. One such wave was on a run last Thursday morning. Most long-term runners know certain runs can be incredibly therapeutic and where we work through challenging emotions. This was one of those.

When I returned to the house after finishing and began my cool down stretch, I had a familiar mild, dull pain in my abdomen set in, and it continued throughout the day. As an old familiar, I knew exactly the cause of the pain when I first noticed it. As a sensitive child, I grew up with routine anxious ‘tummy aches,’ on Sundays before a new school week began, couldn’t eat before stressful events, and generally would feel knots in my middle when emotionally distraught.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a reason for this.

For anyone that likes to show up to an athletic race early in the morning, stand in line at the porta potty, and then hope to put your best foot forward in your event of choice, or perhaps engage in a similar nervous-inducing event in another area of life like a job interview, you know that when you’re anxious, nervous, or otherwise stressed, digestion is quite a bit off. That’s because the gut and the brain are intimately connected. The nervous system has several branches and one section, the enteric nervous system (ENS), is often called ‘the second brain.’ The ENS is the section that runs through our digestive system and is connected to the actual brain through a large nerve that runs through are central body and communicates in both directions. This is called the vagus nerve.  When we have a really emotional episode, like I did, our brain can send chemical messages to the gut that change our gut bacteria, leading to low-grade gut inflammation and possibly GI distress. Similarly, if we have a particular imbalance in the gut itself—through food that doesn’t sit well or isn’t best for us, or inflammation and excessive permeability to the gut lining for another reason, we often notice behavioral changes as well. For example, persons that have chronic GI distress often also experience one or several mental health symptoms, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, confusion, brain fog, poor memory, migraines, and more.


When we have continued stress, whether in our body or in our mind, the nervous system slows down or impairs digestive function. This is why it’s best to not eat when we’re in a stressful mindset or running out the door in the morning before work or while rushing between meetings. And why one simple way to improve digestion is to single-task while we eat. That is, eat in a quiet, peaceful environment and do only that. Just eat, enjoy, and actually chew the meal. And its why major stressful life events often precede major health symptoms and then diagnoses. If you struggle with digestive conditions such as one of the Irritable Bowel Diseases (Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, Diverticulitis, etc.), IBS, GERD, ulcers, chronic constipation or diarrhea, and any autoimmune disease, your condition will often respond favorably to stress-reduction techniques. For athletes with any of these conditions, we often argue that our physical activity is our source of stress reduction. That may be true—in theory—but often our activity load is contributing stress when our physical and mental systems are way out of balance.

True rest and relaxation, such as spending an hour or more per day doing absolutely nothing, deep breathing, meditation or prayer practices, spending quiet time in nature, gardening, yoga, painting, or other quiet activities without a screen are sometimes exactly what we need most to begin digestive healing – not a fancy, stressful, rigid new eating plan. (Gasp! I know; how dare I say that as someone that works with people on food!)

Otherwise, I love to work with herbs for the nervous system. In fact, nervines, the category of herbs that work on the nervous system, are by far the ones I work with and recommend the most. Lavender in this blueberry lavender smoothie bowl, and skullcap, tulsi / Holy Basil, lemon balm, and lavender in this stress-reduction tea or herbal latte are just a couple relax-inducing herbal ideas to consider.

The nervous system is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I’ll explain the other categories of digestive imbalance in future articles. And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

References:
1: Lipski, L. (2012). Digestive Wellness (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Gingered Sweet Potato Dal + tips for better digestion

Every few months or when I notice a trend in increased GI upset, not digesting foods or absorbing nutrients properly, I strip my meals way back to simplicity so most of the hard work is done for me (in the cooking process). With the turn from late summer into fall, I noticed an uptick in the above symptoms, and since this tends to fall in a pattern each year, I decided to make the last last few weeks about eating primarily very simple, easy to digest meals. Conveniently, and also not so conveniently, these simple meals tend to be needed more as running mileage goes up – which also means less cooking time, planning and prep! If you’re busy and having trouble with digestion — or just enjoy easy, dreamy meals this time of year, the recipe below is one to add to your rotation.

Taking from Ayurvedic medicine, which has much to offer in terms of treating and preventing just the type of malabsorption and upset I tend to experience, I chose to make meal-in-a-pot dishes such as kitchari and lots of dal. Kitchari is a rice and lentil or split mung bean combination that’s perfect for these occasions. Dal, in my opinion may even be more so, as it often eliminates the grain component for even easier food break-down and assimilation.

Plus it’s incredibly delicious on a cold, blustery fall or winter day. And with the addition of sweet potato or other root vegetables, it’s still hearty and fulfilling like kitchari.

The classic dal that I make features red lentils, which I find to be the most digestible bean/legume there is, other than split mung beans, which can be difficult to track down. Red lentils break down and cook quickly, and they don’t usually need soaking or planning ahead. However, if one is already having tummy troubles, soaking is still a good idea. Here are a few more tips to help make lentils and beans more digestible:

– Soak and rinse in a big bowl of water, ideally for a few hours. Discard the soaking water before using the lentils in your recipe.

– If there is foam that rises to the top of the pot while cooking, skim it off. The foam contains a type of protein that is hard on our digestive system. When in nutrition school, my cooking instructor Eleonora constantly repeated, ‘skim your beans’ so often that that’s the one line I associate most with her!

– Make sure the lentils – or other beans – are cooked thoroughly. This means they are soft, not al dente. One of the biggest problems with canned beans, in my opinion, is that most of them are not actually cooked as well as they should be for proper digestion. Cooking until the lentils or beans begin to break apart, or in the case of red lentils, turn into mush completely, is the best way to know they’re done.

– Add spices! Carminative spices, meaning they boost the digestive capacity, is a long-held way in traditional cooking to make meals more digestible. This is why a big soup pot with beans and meat often contains a bay leaf. Other carminative spices include ginger, cumin, coriander, fennel seed, thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil, allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, and more. Virtually every cuisine of the world is ripe with carminatives in the traditional recipes for the exact purpose of not only adding flavor, but also boosting digestion!

– Add a squeeze of lemon, lime juice, or vinegar. Ideally every meal contains a slightly sour flavor addition, since sour helps to activate digestive enzymes. Most meals don’t need to taste outright sour, however. A little addition at the end of cooking goes a long way and often balances the recipe that’s missing ‘just a little something.’

– Lastly, eat your foods warm, especially this time of year. If you think of an ideal digestive scenario as a nice little cozy fire in the digestive system, eating cold foods is like throwing cold water on it. Not so great for turning food into nutrients and energy! In the summer months when we can be overheated, eating cold and raw meals makes much more sense and is seasonally appropriate. But this is rarely the case as we turn into fall and winter.


One other little tip that I find incredibly helpful is to reduce stimulus, particularly around meal time, but perhaps throughout the day too to help rebalance digestion. Constantly checking our phones and computers, keeping up with what everyone else is doing while they’re avoiding being present themselves, and eating in a loud, overstimulated environment or while upset or anxious is a recipe for continued GI problems. Our gut and brain are incredibly closely linked. We can go a long way to improve tolerance to the foods we eat just by eating slowly, chewing each bite upwards of 30 times (yes, really!), and not doing anything else while eating, other than eating. If you try these tips, you might also find you enjoy your food more, which is always an added bonus.

Now, onto the dal!


Gingered Sweet Potato Dal, serves 3-4
adapted from Everyday Ayurveda Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind by Kate O’Donnell

Use the larger amount of coconut oil if you tend to have dry skin, variable hunger, feel often bloated, gassy, or constipated, and less if you tend to accumulate extra congestion, have oily skin, and slow metabolism.

1-2 Tbs. coconut oil
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground turmeric
½ tsp. cinnamon, optional but delicious
1/8 tsp. fennel seeds
1 3-inch piece of ginger, finely grated
1 cup red lentils
4-5 cups water
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced small
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
a squeeze or two of fresh lemon or lime juice

  • Warm the coconut oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the spices including fresh grated ginger, and stir just until they start to smell.
  • Add the lentils and sauté for 1-2 minutes, making sure they’re nicely coated. Then add the water and diced sweet potato. Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer until the mixture is creamy and soupy, about 20 to 30 minutes. Stir occasionally. The lentils will be broken down, making a nice porridge-like consistency. Add more water if you need to.
  • Near the end of the cooking time, add the salt and pepper, and a squeeze of citrus. Remove from heat and enjoy!