37 Herbs for Leaky Gut & Digestive Health

37 Herbs for Leaky Gut by Jenna Volpe

Leaky gut syndrome is a modern-day health epidemic on-the-rise. If left unchecked, a leaky gut can and will spiral into a cascade of other chronic issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and/or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), allergies, adverse food reactions, nutritional deficiencies, autoimmune disorders, hormonal imbalance, skin breakouts, and more.  

While nutrition is fundamental and should be a primary intervention for supporting digestive health, there’s also a bounty of herbs for leaky gut and digestion which are readily available and waiting to be discovered by those who can benefit!

As a licensed functional dietitian-nutritionist and clinical herbalist who has been in the trenches of leaky gut first-hand and made it out on the other side, my mission is to pave the way and improve the trajectory of healthcare by sharing my knowledge and expertise in the realm of clinical and holistic nutrition and herbal medicine for gut health.

All of that said, if you’re looking for more natural, evidence-based holistic ways to support your digestion according to a clinician who has been there and done that, read on to learn more about leaky gut syndrome and herbs for leaky gut than you ever cared to know. 😉

First things first…

Leaky gut 101

What exactly IS a leaky gut?  While you may have heard the term “leaky gut” tossed around online or among holistic health practitioners, it’s important to understand what’s really going on so you can make informed choices.

The gut is our internal barrier (like the skin, which is our external barrier), serving to separate the inside of our body from the outside world.  

The gut is naturally designed to be “semi-permeable” or “selectively permeable”, meaning it allows nutrients from food to get absorbed into the body, while keeping out and eliminating harmful substances that don’t serve us.

Leaky gut syndrome is a functional medicine term that describes a subclically damaged or impaired gut lining.  A leaky gut is overly permeable or “hyper-permeable”, which means it is letting harmful unwanted substances “leak” into the bloodstream instead of excreting those substances out as waste.

Over time, the unwanted particles “leaking” into the body begin to accumulate, over-burden the liver, impair natural detoxification, and ultimately wreak havoc in the immune system, hormonal regulation and more.

Since leaky gut is not correlated with acute clinical conditions, it’s not routinely assessed or addressed in hospitals or mainstream medicine; however, leaky gut is a major focus among those of us who practice functional medicine and functional nutrition.

(Learn more about leaky gut here!)

Herbal medicine 101

I believe herbs are one of Mother Nature’s many gifts to humans!  The effectiveness of herbs for gut health issues (and for many other types of ailments) has been documented and also practiced among indigenous healers for hundreds if not thousands of years, worldwide.

  • In eastern cultures (such as India and China), herbs are the primary form of medicine used in healthcare.  
  • In the western world (such as in the U.S.), we typically integrate herbs as a form of complementary alternative medicine – which means herbs can complement and enhance (versus replace) mainstream medical interventions.

Herbs can also be supportive for both acute and chronic health conditions. Herbs may be taken internally or applied topically, depending on what is going on.

Do herbs work?

In my experience, the right herbs in many cases can sometimes be just as effective (if not more effective) than their pharmaceutical counterparts. 

While herbs might take longer than medications to provide a comparable level of relief, I find herbs usually also tend to be safer. 

  • Herbs can be effective at helping to treat and manage symptoms with less collateral damage, and in many cases they can also help support a person’s health at the root-cause level.

Herbal medicine can be integrated into pretty much any aspect of health, including digestive health and leaky gut!

Herbal medicine delivery methods

Depending on the person and the ailment being addressed, herbal medicine can be applied/administered as tea infusions, tea decoctions, tinctures (alcohol extracts of the herb), glycerites (non-alcohol extractions), percolations (overnight tinctures), elixirs/cordials (pleasant-tasting extractions), capsules, spagyrics, salves, oils, hydrosols, essential oils, and more!

Types of herbs for leaky gut and digestion

There’s a variety of herbs that can be integrated into a leaky gut healing protocol, alongside medical and functional nutrition interventions.

While everyone is different, if you’re dealing with IBS and leaky gut syndrome you’ll likely be able to benefit from at least a few (if not more) herbs from each of the following categories:

  • Digestive bitters
  • Vulnerary astringents
  • Dispersive and pungent aromatics
  • Herbal antimicrobials
  • Mucilaginous soothers

Disclaimers

  • The information included in this article is educational and informative, not to replace medical advice.  While most herbs are relatively safe, there are some potential medical contraindications and/or herb-drug interactions not mentioned in this article. 
  • Some of these herbs are not recommended during pregnancy or for children/infants.
  • It’s important to remember that one size never fits all. The type, combination and dose of herbal medicine that works for another person will likely not be the same protocol that works for you!
  • Consult a clinical herbalist and/or functional medicine practitioner to determine the best herbs for your gut-healing journey.

(Note:  There’s a lot to say about each individual herb for leaky gut and digestion, so I’ll be continuing to add information to this article over the coming months! But as a recovering perfectionist, I didn’t want to wait any longer to share this article with you. Done is better than perfect!)

Bitter herbs for leaky gut and digestive health

Tinctures of bitter herbs for digestion are often referred to as “digestive bitters” and they have been used for hundreds if not thousands of years!  

Digestive health benefits of bitter herbs

Bitter herbs support digestion in that the bitter taste helps to stimulate the secretion of digestive juices (such as stomach acid) in the stomach before a meal, making it easier for the gut to break down foods and nutrients appropriately. (Altered stomach acid levels are common among many people with IBS and leaky gut!)

Digestive bitters are known to often stimulate liver function, which can mean more bile production for better emulsifying (breaking down) fatty foods in the gut (1).

Bitter herbs also support digestion and leaky gut by helping to control the overgrowth of bacteria in the gut, which translates to supporting a healthier gut microbiome (1).

Which bitters are best?

There are infinite ways to make and take digestive bitters.  The decision around which herbs and/or which combination of herbs to use may depend on what’s available, and what’s going on in the body from a constitutional standpoint.

Generally speaking, advised to take a dropperful (about 15 to 30 droplets) of digestive bitters within 10 to 20 minutes before a meal to help optimize digestion.

  • Working with a clinical herbalist is a great way to narrow down and identify the best type and dosing of bitter herbs for supporting your individual digestive health needs!

Types of bitter herbs for leaky gut and digestion

The most commonly used bitter herbs for supporting digestive health include but are certainly not limited to:

  • Artichoke leaf (Cynara cardunculus)
  • Burdock root (Arctium lappa)
  • Chamomile flowers (Matricaria chamomilla)
  • Coffee (Coffea arabica)
  • Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale)
  • Gentian root (Gentiana lutea)
  • Grapefruit peel (Citrus Racemosa)
  • Lemon peel (Citrus limon)
  • Milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum)
  • Orange peel (Citrus x sinensis)
  • Yellow dock root (Rumex crispus)

Vulnerary Astringents

“Vulnerary” means containing wound-healing properties, and “astringent” means causing the contraction or tightening of cells/body tissues.

While vulnerary astringent herbs are more well known for topical use (such as in cases of Witch hazel for itchy skin), they work wonders for healing the gut as well! (As within, so without.)

Digestive health benefits of vulnerary astrinngent herbs

That said, when it comes to leaky gut, vulnerary astringent herbs are known for their ability to heal, tone, and tighten the cells making up a leaky gut (2)!  

Vulnerary astringent herbs also serve to help reduce the size of spaces or gaps in between cells that make up the gut lining, which are often referred to as the “tight junctions”.

  • You may notice some of the herbs on this list will overlap with herbs listed as digestive bitters, and/or any of the other categories below.  That is because herbs are all unique and not cookie-cutter! They each have their own personality and set of benefits, tendencies, uses, etc.

Over the past four years since bringing herbal medicine into my clinic, I’ve observed that for upper-GI issues, vulnerary astringent herbs are best and most effective when made into tea, since tea covers exponentially more surface area of the gut compared to a tincture.

I’ve also found that capsules are better for cases of lower-GI issues, since capsules allow the herbs to travel farther down into the gut before getting released.

Types of vulnerary astringent herbs for leaky gut

The most well-known and popular vulnerary astringent herbs for leaky gut (based on my experiences and findings) include:

  • Calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis)
  • Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)
  • Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)
  • Plantain leaf (Plantago major)
  • Rose petals (Rosa Centifolia)
  • Schisandra berries (Schisandra chinensis)
  • Shatavari root (Asparagus racemosus)
  • Violet leaves (Viola spp.)

Dispersive and pungent aromatics for digestion and leaky gut

When it comes to unwanted digestive symptoms such as gas and bloating, dispersive aromatic herbs make wonderful allies!

Dispersive herbs have a tendency to be aromatic and pungent in nature. These types of herbs help to break up stagnant energy, which is essentially what’s going on in cases of gas and bloating among people with IBS and/or leaky gut (1).

Gas and bloating symptoms are most often caused by stagnant waste and food particles which get fermented by unwanted “bad” pathogens (microbes such as bacteria or fungus) which produce methane as a by-product (3).

Dispersive, aromatic, pungent herbs (such as those listed below) contain essential oils which help to expel stuck gas/air, while also keeping those troublesome methane-producing microbes responsible for gas and bloating in check (1).

Pungent herbs may be effective when taken as a tea, tincture or capsules. (Don’t ever take any of these herbs in the form of essential oils internally – even organic or “therapeutic grade” – as it can be very toxic to the liver!)

  • Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)
  • Fennel seeds (Foeniculum vulgare)
  • Ginger root (Zingiber officinale)
  • Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
  • Oregano leaf  (Origanum vulgare)
  • Peppermint leaf (Mentha × piperita)
  • Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
  • Thyme leaf (Thymus vulgaris)

Herbal antimicrobials for digestion and dysbiosis

Again, you’ll notice a lot of overlap between the aromatic pungent dispersive herbs and the herbs listed below, which possess antimicrobial properties. 

It’s no coincidence!  The “bad” pathogenic microbes have an aversion to pungent, aromatic herbs as those listed below, which makes sense that many of these help to manage gas and bloating (4).

These types of herbal antimicrobials listed below are also very effective in helping to reduce/manage cases of dysbiosis (an underlying root-cause of leaky gut and IBS), in that they help to keep the overgrowth of “bad” fungus and bacteria under control in the gut (4).

  • Agarita/Algerita root (Mahonia trifoliolata)
  • Bayberry bark (Morella cerifera)
  • Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)
  • Garlic (Allium sativum)
  • Ginger root (Zingiber officinale)
  • Oregon grape root (Berberis aquifolium) 
  • Oregano leaf  (Origanum vulgare)
  • Pau D’Arco / “pink trumpet tree” bark (Handroanthus impetiginosus)
  • Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
  • Thyme leaf (Thymus vulgaris)

This list of antimicrobial herbs for leaky gut and dysbiosis is not exhaustive. To go more in-depth is far beyond the scope of what I can include in just an article!

  • The third pillar of complete gut repair, which I refer to as a “Microbiome Makeover”, is covered extensively in my Complete Gut Repair Roadmap online course for those who are on a gut-healing journey and would like to learn more.

Either way, you’ll want to keep in mind the specific types and combinations of herbal antimicrobials that will work (or not work) best for you will depend on what is going on in your gut microbiome, since certain microbes can become resistant to certain types of herbal antibiotics/herbal antifungals.

That said, if you’re looking for a customized herbal antimicrobial protocol, you may want to work 1:1 with a functional dietitian-nutritionist and/or a functional medicine doctor to run testing and narrow down your options – so you don’t spend years throwing things at the wall until something sticks!

Mucilaginous soothing herbs for leaky gut

Wouldn’t it be nice to have herbs that provide pretty fast relief for a leaky gut?  Look no further!  Mucilaginous herbs are slippery and slimy, making them great candidates for tissue that is raw, wounded and/or compromised (5, 6).

Some of these are used more in western herbalism, while others are most popular in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or Ayurveda.  Nonetheless, each of the herbs on this list can all do wonders for coating and supporting the mucous membranes of the gut!

Mucilaginous herbs are best taken as tea or capsules, versus tinctures – since alcohol does not extract the mucilage (slippery, slimy, healing constituents) very efficiently. 

Note: I included slippery elm bark on the list, since it’s technically a mucilaginous herb.  However, I’ve been taught by all of my mentors NOT to work with slippery elm since it’s been overharvested the last few decades and is now at risk of going extinct in the wild. 

Please don’t use slippery elm given all of these other wonderful options readily available!

  • Aloe vera leaf juice (Aloe barbadensis miller)
  • Amla / Amalaki / Indian gooseberry (Phyllanthus emblica)
  • Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
  • Plantain leaf (Plantago major)
  • Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis)
  • Slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra)
  • Triphala (“three fruits”) – Amalaki (Emblica officinalis) + Vibhitaka (Terminalia bellerica) + Haritaki (Terminalia chebula)

Herbs for leaky gut: a complete list

Below is a comprehensive, alphabetized list of the herbs for leaky gut and digestion mentioned above, with their latin name included!

  1. Agarita/Algerita root (Mahonia trifoliolata)
  2. Aloe vera leaf (Aloe barbadensis miller)
  3. Amla / Amalaki / Indian gooseberry (Phyllanthus emblica)
  4. Artichoke leaf (Cynara cardunculus)
  5. Bayberry bark (Morella cerifera)
  6. Burdock root (Arctium lappa)
  7. Calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis)
  8. Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)
  9. Chamomile flowers (Matricaria chamomilla)
  10. Coffee (Coffea arabica)
  11. Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale)
  12. Fennel seeds (Foeniculum vulgare)
  13. Garlic (Allium sativum)
  14. Gentian root (Gentiana lutea)
  15. Ginger root (Zingiber officinale)
  16. Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)
  17. Grapefruit peel (Citrus Racemosa)
  18. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
  19. Lemon peel (Citrus limon)
  20. Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
  21. Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis)
  22. Milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum)
  23. Orange peel (Citrus x sinensis)
  24. Oregon grape root (Berberis aquifolium) 
  25. Oregano leaf  (Origanum vulgare)
  26. Pau D’Arco bark (Handroanthus impetiginosus)
  27. Peppermint leaf (Mentha × piperita)
  28. Plantain leaf (Plantago major)
  29. Rose petals (Rosa Centifolia)
  30. Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
  31. Schisandra berries (Schisandra chinensis)
  32. Shatavari root (Asparagus racemosus)
  33. Slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra)
  34. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
  35. Triphala (“three fruits”) – Amalaki (Emblica officinalis) + Vibhitaka (Terminalia bellerica) + Haritaki (Terminalia chebula)
  36. Violet leaves (Viola spp.)
  37. Yellow dock root (Rumex crispus)

Herbal medicine for health: additional resources

As I mentioned earlier, leaky gut often is often accompanied by IBS, dysbiosis, nutritional deficiencies, and immune system imbalance.  If you’d like to learn more about how to support your health holistically with herbs, make sure to check out the resources below, and/or feel free to enroll in my Complete Gut Repair Roadmap online course where we can go down the gut-healing rabbit hole together at your own pace!

Complete Gut Repair Roadmap with Jenna Volpe - Learn More

Herbs for digestion and IBS

Herbs for iron deficiency anemia

Herbs for immunity

Herbalism books

Herbs for leaky gut and digestion: final thoughts

Herbs are best and most effective when used alongside functional nutrition, medical nutrition therapy interventions, and energy healing as a multi-dimensional way to support conditions such as IBS, leaky gut and digestive health at the root-cause level.

Working 1:1 with a holistic healthcare team which includes a functional medicine doctor, functional dietitian nutritionist, clinical herbalist, and energy healing practitioner (alongside other types of practitioners, as needed) is a great way to start addressing your gut health from all angles.

If you’re a holistic-minded and motivated action-taker and implementer, and you’d like to simplify and speed up your gut-healing journey, I invite you to enroll in my Complete Gut Repair Roadmap online course where you’ll get a complete and comprehensive step-by-step roadmap (simple, consolidated and all in one place) so you can finally get clear on what you need to do in order to heal yourself at the root level, from the inside-out!

References

Affiliate disclosure: I have included links to several of my go-to herbal medicine books on Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, I may earn a commission for qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you!

  1. Valussi, Marco. “Functional foods with digestion-enhancing properties.” International journal of food sciences and nutrition vol. 63 Suppl 1 (2012): 82-9. doi:10.3109/09637486.2011.627841
  2. Niemeyer, Kathryn et al. “Traditional Knowledge of Western Herbal Medicine and Complex Systems Science.” Journal of herbal medicine vol. 3,3 (2013): 112-119. doi:10.1016/j.hermed.2013.03.001
  3. Hasler, William L. “Gas and Bloating.” Gastroenterology & hepatology vol. 2,9 (2006): 654-662.
  4. Parham, Shokoh et al. “Antioxidant, Antimicrobial and Antiviral Properties of Herbal Materials.” Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 9,12 1309. 21 Dec. 2020, doi:10.3390/antiox9121309
  5. Noel Groves, Maria. Body Into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self Care. 1st, North Adams, Massachusetts, Storey Publishing, 2016.
  6. Horne, Steven, and Thomas Easley. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: A Medicine-Making Guide. Berkeley, California, North Atlantic Books, 2016.

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