A growing use for herbs in digestive health

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 24 No. 3
Volume 24
Issue 3

Botanical ingredients that have been linked to digestive support are carving out a strong niche in the market, and they’re expected to continue flourishing in the years to come.

Photo © AdobeStock.com/LuckyStep

Photo © AdobeStock.com/LuckyStep

The digestive tract is a complex system that controls the digestion of food while also influencing brain and immune health. Unfortunately, complications can occur in the gut, causing a manifestation of many common and rare health symptoms.

Dietary supplements intended to support gut health are in high demand. For digestive support, the market is full of probiotics, prebiotics, fibers, digestive enzymes, and many other ingredients. Populating the gut with good bacteria, alone or in combination with prebiotics, has been shown to beneficially alter the human microbiome and related health factors. Probiotics still account for a large share of digestive health products and are driving much of the overall category’s growth.

Herbs, however, should not be overlooked. Botanical ingredients that have been linked to digestive support are carving out a strong niche in the digestive health market, and they’re expected to continue flourishing in the years to come. But manufacturers need to choose their herbs wisely and format them into the most desirable products in order to compete for market share.

Traditional Use

Because many herbalists consider the digestive tract to be the cornerstone of health, numerous herbs have been traditionally used to keep the digestive tract in good working form. Susan Hirsch, MS, CNS, formulation manager at dietary supplements brand Gaia Herbs, says that some of these herbs, though not all of them, are backed by modern research.

“In the area of digestion, while there are some great clinical studies on ginger, chamomile, fennel, and larch, there are not as many on other herbs like black walnut which have a rich history of use,” she says. “There are many complex factors involved in digestion, and not as much financial benefit to be gained by studying herbs for this purpose, so science has a long way to go here.”

Herbs often become the subject of modern research inevitably because of their long histories of reported traditional use, so it’s prudent to consider ingredients that aren’t yet backed by well-powered clinical research.

Modern Science

In light of the rich history of using traditional herbs for digestive ailments, and today’s customer demand for corroborative research, successful brands are striving to find a balance between these two factors when it comes to product formulation, and will continue to do so. In Hirsch’s words, “This bridge between ancient wisdom and modern science is what creates the most effective formulas to support health.”

Ingredients that have been studied under well-funded projects offer immediate leverage for brands and can help them to promote very specific use cases for digestive health products.

Bloating, for example, is a health issue that may affect as many as 30% of people after meals.1 Brands like Life Extension, which recently launched a Bloat Relief dietary supplement featuring relevant ingredients, can benefit from research already in existence.

“Artichoke, ginger, curcumin, and fennel all have roots in traditional use,” says Michael Smith, MD, the company’s education director, “but the decision to use these ingredients [in our product] was based on solid clinical studies showing efficacy.”

Bloating, peristalsis, cramping, constipation, and gas are just a few of the many distinct digestive health issues for which products can be formulated with herbs based on very specific scientific research that’s already in the public domain.

Calming Formulas

It may seem an indirect approach to digestive health, but formulating digestive health products with calming ingredients has its own logic, too. “People experience stress in different ways, and some people manifest symptoms of stress in their digestive systems,” says Hirsch. “This is particularly true for children and the elderly; however, many body types have a strong connection between their emotional state and their digestive state throughout their whole lives.”

Hirsch explains that stress can interfere with blood flow, causing it to be directed away from the digestive system and towards cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. This may result in trouble digesting food. Herbs such as chamomile, lemon balm, and catnip have shown anxiolytic effects in scientific studies. Some of these are the basis for Gaia Herbs’ new GI Feel Good calming blend and are worth considering in similar digestive health formulas.

Delivery Systems

Digestive health dietary supplements are, like many other dietary supplements, diversifying into other lifestyle-friendly formats beyond just capsules and softgels. If capsules and softgels aren’t needed to protect an ingredient’s stability or mask strong flavor or odor, alternatives have proven attractive to some consumers and may increase compliance.

“Gummies are now the most popular delivery format for the 18 to 34 age group, and some analysts predict gummies to become the overall preferred format for all age groups within a few years,” says Alicia Richman, Gaia Herbs’ director of brand strategy and innovation. She says consumers are looking not just for digestive health benefits but also for products that fit into their lifestyles. It’s reasonable to expect digestive herbs to be infused into powders, candies, coffee, and other products in the foreseeable future.

Looking Forward

Despite the ongoing potential for probiotics in the digestive health space, experts believe there’s sufficient room for herbal products to grow in the digestive health market. Some even project that sales of herbal formulas will double in the space over the next few years. Certainly, there’s plenty of market opportunities to go around for probiotics, herbs, and other offerings.


  1. Naseri M et al. “Bloating: Avicenna’s perspective and modern medicine.” Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine, vol. 21, no. 2 (April 2016): 154–159
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