the spice that helps digest your Thanksgiving dinner

Posted on: November 22nd 2017

Thanksgiving has been the holiday that my parents have claimed for decades now. They summon all west coast family to feast at their table. Yesterday my son and I made our annual trek down to see my mom, at their house in San Diego.

It’ll be our second Thanksgiving since my dad passed away. And it may be the holiday I miss him most. It was the dinner that he and I executed together—silently navigating the shared kitchen space with occasional murmurs or requests for a taste test.

This Thanksgiving tradition of theirs began years ago, when they lived in Colorado.

During those years, my husband (then boyfriend), Isamu and I would pack our warmest clothes and boots in preparation for the mountain chill. We’d load our bags with books—the kind with recipes as well as the ones to read—and prepare for the mixed blessings of a family gathering.

You likely know what I mean by “mixed blessings” and may be experiencing the same right now.

Let’s face it, family gatherings can be a lot to digest!

Yes, there was always the comfort of being in the fold of my parents home.

Yet in those early years there was also the nervousness of bringing my boyfriend into the mix.; the fun of planning and preparing an extravagant meal with my dad; the satisfaction of eating the homemade goodness; the inevitable tension around clean-up time (this due to my father’s propensity to run a tight ship without necessarily informing anyone of his plan-of-action); and then the struggles to digest too much food (and an unusual mix of it at that)!

I don’t know how many Thanksgiving there were like this before the one where Isamu’s entire family joined us for the festivities. That year both sets of parents anticipated, with great glee, that we would announce our engagement.

In fact, that was Isamu’s intention as well. (Though he was unaware of the parental expectations, and I was oblivious to all their hypotheses.)

We did not announce our engagement that Thanksgiving.

It happened at Christmas instead.

And it wasn’t until then that I learned all the stories of the behind-the-scenes Thanksgiving plans and expectations.

With his deliberate and methodical resolve, my late husband had gotten lost in the research of how to choose the perfect diamond. The hunt had delayed his intentions to propose. But to me, the timing was perfect.

As I stand in the kitchen this year, whisking vegan pumpkin pie filling and chopping nuts and dates for a hearty pie crust, I’m brought back to those memories of holidays past. Isamu was the best pie edge crimper I’ve ever known. His love for food was so sensual that I was always so grateful to cook for him.

And cook, I did!

At Thanksgiving, my job has always been dessert and sides. I would plan and make those with his taste buds in mind.

My sister takes care of beverages.

My mom is in charge of the (sugar-free) cranberry sauce and is everybody’s sous chef – keeping the kitchen as clean as possible in the midst of the storm.

The turkey and (gluten-free) stuffing, the main event, had always been in my dad’s hands—with a great passion for the preparation and silent pride in the results as people around the table uttered their appreciations between their gobbles. Each year’s turkey was like a new challenge. And he was always looking to outdo one person…himself!

This year will look different.

I’ll be the one crimping the edges on the cassava flour pie crust for the gluten-free, dairy-free, refined sugar-free apple pie. My dad is also gone, leaving the turkey and stuffing to my sister and her boyfriend (though I doubt they can ‘best’ my dad). My sister and I have split the preparation of the sides. And we’re welcoming new family to the table—the new man in my life and his teenage daughter.

There’s a lot to manage, a lot of different dietary needs to tend to, and a lot to be thankful for. Again, I’m guessing you can relate.

Let’s face it, holidays can be a lot to digest, on many fronts. And today I have just the spice to help with that…

what’s in my spice cupboard (to aid digestion) today?

it’s fennel

Fennel is an herb, a vegetable and a spice!

While I’ve shared my love for the vegetable with its feathery fronds (get a recipe for my favorite fall fennel soup here), it’s high time I talk about the sweet little seed, especially since this super spice can help with many of your digestive woes.

Fennel has been used throughout Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian civilizations for its ability to relieve flatulence and other gastrointestinal issues.

That might be enough for you to want to fetch some fennel from the spice rack now!

If you’ve ever been to an Indian restaurant and saw a little bowl of seeds at the counter, that’s fennel. It’s common practice in India to chew the seeds after a meal both to help freshen breath and to stimulate digestion.

Let’s look at why during this day when there certainly is a lot to digest…

In culinary circles, fennel is a favorite in Italian, French and Mediterranean recipes, especially for fish dishes, spicy sausages, marinades and dressings.

It’s in the same family as licorice, giving it that unique salty-sour taste and sweet smell. Like licorice, people either love fennel or they’re just not a fan. If you’re in the latter camp, read on on to learn what a love, or even a tolerance, for fennel can do for you.

While some of its close cousins in the vegetable family (yes, I’m looking at you cabbage and cauliflower) might cause bloating and gas, fennel (the vegetable and the seeds) can come to the rescue.

Fennel seeds are best known as a powerful carminative, an herb that helps dispel or expel trapped gas from your digestive tract. In fact, herbalists consider it one of the best cures for relieving gas, burps and bloating.

And let’s face it, we all might need a little help in that department this week!

These little seeds pack a punch as they’re rich in a variety of volatile essential oil compounds including anethole, limonene, anisic aldehyde, pinene, myrcene, fenchone, chavicol, and cineole. And while those might sound like crazy chemicals, I assure you, they’re the chemicals of the natural and curative sort. In fact, it’s those oils that make fennel magical as a powerful antioxidant and digestive aid.

Fennel seeds also help stimulate bile flow, soothe stomach cramps, and relax the colon, all helping to relieve post-meal discomfort. They ensure that your food is indeed digested and absorbed.

Even for more severe digestive symptoms associated with Crohn’s, colitis, and IBS, fennel is often a useful addition to a healing protocol to help relieve associated pain and discomfort.

Clinical research (and good ‘ol mama wisdom) shows that fennel can help soothe symptoms for babies with colic. A diluted fennel tea is considered safe for infants but check with your doctor first before giving it to your little one.

On a non-digestive note, fennel is known to be a mild diuretic and can help flush excess water and toxins out of the body. And it may also have anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce joint and muscle pain.

Some wise women herbalists say that fennel helps to increase the flow of breast milk, ease the birth process, decrease PMS symptoms, and stoke sex drive!

Note, there’s not much clinical evidence for these claims but hey, I bet you might want to try some fennel tea now and I’ve got just the recipe for you below.

Fennel, Orange & Lavender Milky Tea


  • 1 cup brewed Earl Grey tea (or an herbal Fennel, Orange & Lavender Milky Tea | Functional Nutrition Allianceorange blossom tea)
  • 1 cup cashew or coconut milk
  • 1 Tbspn fennel seeds
  • 1 tspn ground cardamom
  • 1 tspn dried lavender
  • zest of one organic orange
  • maple syrup to taste (or liquid stevia)

Brew the tea as you normally would. Gently simmer milk, fennel seeds, cardamom, dried lavender and orange zest in a small saucepan for 5 minutes.

Strain and pour into hot brewed tea. Sweeten to taste. Top with an orange slice.

Here’s your homework.
Find a way to feature fennel in your Thanksgiving meal or with your leftovers. (Fennel and beets are one of my favorite combos!)

If nothing else, have a small bowl of seeds ready to share with your guests after the table is cleared.

Fennel will help us all avoid that not-so-celebratory-feeling of being over-stuffed and in need of digestive rescue.

Let fennel free you up so you can celebrate the true beauty of the holiday weekend with gratitude, good food, and perhaps best of all, digestive peace.

Happy Thanksgiving to you!

Andrea Nakayama, FNLP, MSN, CNC, CNE, CHHC, Founder of Replenish PDX and Holistic Nutrition Lab

Simple Ways to Use More Fennel

fennel seed | Functional Nutrition Alliance

    • Chew and swallow a good pinch (10- 15 seeds) of fennel seeds after meals to aid digestion
    • Brew a simple fennel tea by adding 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds to 1 cup boiling water, let steep for 5 minutes, strain, and sip as needed to relieve gas or bloating
    • Add fennel seeds, whole or crushed, to marinades, dressings, soups, fish, vegetable dishes, and baked treats
    • Gently toast the seeds in a dry skillet or crush the seeds to bring out the flavor, fragrance, and those important essential oils
    • For on-the-go digestive support, purchase tea bags with fennel like Heather’s, Gaia Herbs or Traditional Medicinals