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5 Superb South American Spices To Promote Digestive Health

Image by Dejan Beokovic / Stocksy
March 8, 2021

At mindbodygreen, a healthy microbiome is essential. This dynamic ecosystem plays a substantial role in maintaining the bodies' daily operations—from stimulating the immune system1 to fighting inflammation. So, how do you keep the gut healthy? The usual suspects are a good starting place (eating a plant-rich diet, moving every day, managing stress, etc.), but sometimes you need a little extra support. That's where South America's nutrient-dense herbs and spices come in.

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South America's well-established herbal traditions lean on the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties of various plants, as have many other cultures since ancient times. Drawing from my experience as a health coach, I've rounded up five of my favorite gut-supporting South American spices and herbs, to upgrade your current spice rack and encourage digestive strength: 


Cedron (Aloysia citriodora)

Also known as lemon verbena, herb luisa, or lemon beebrush, cedron is a small flowering plant with robust mint and lime scents from the Verbenaceae family. It is traditionally used in home remedies to relieve indigestion, reduce abdominal swelling, reduce stomach spasms, and soothe IBS-related symptoms.

However, it's important for me to note these potential benefits are based on anecdotal claims—while there is some research on its digestive benefits for rats2, more research is necessary to determine cedron's effect on the human body.

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Muña Muña (Minthostachys mollis)

With origins in the Andes, muña muña's unique minty flavor has made it a popular flavor-booster in multiple South American dishes and medicinal herbal brews. Among the plant's 19 composites, its phenolic compounds3 (and their bioactive function) are thought to help the digestive process work more efficiently overall.


Milenrama (Achillea millefolium)

Although milenrama (from the Asteraceae family, often called "yarrow") isn't native to South America, its remedial and culinary applications have been used throughout the region for centuries. Also known as plumajillo (New Mexico) or sweet oregano (Ecuador), according to traditional medicinal accounts4, milenrama may help alleviate menstrual cramps, indigestion, and diarrhea.

While there is limited research on humans, animal studies suggest that the flavonoid antioxidants in milenrama/yarrow tea may help reduce gastrointestinal spasms5 and inflammation.

In Peruvian medicinal practices, its leaves are also applied topically to ease hemorrhoids, and speed up the wound healing process.

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Boldo (Peumus boldus)

Endemic to Chile's central region, this tree is considered a powerful plant with multiple health-related applications. According to anecdotal reports, its leaves and bark are traditionally used topically or orally6 (as a tincture, tea, or syrup) to treat kidney disease, indigestion, fluid retention metabolic imbalances.

Still, studies supporting boldo tea as a digestive, liver, or kidney remedy are lacking, and we still need further research to confirm its potential health benefits.


Paico (Dysphania ambrosioides)

Paico is a perennial herb native to Southern Mexico, Central America, and South America, mainly used as an antiparasitic treatment. Known to the Aztecs as epazotl, in folk medicine, paico is traditionally used to treat digestive disorders7, pneumonia, hemorrhoids, gastritis, dysmenorrhea, and urinary tract inflammation, among others.

Although it's common to add paico leaves to fava-based stews, homemade broths, or tamales—in countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador—paico leaves are generally reserved (in moderate doses) for hot herbal teas. Despite paico's extensive use across Latin America, more research is necessary before confirming its efficacy and safety.

You can find most of these traditional herbs and spices in Latin American markets across the country. However, make sure to consult your primary health care provider before introducing any dietary modifications that might affect your health and well-being.

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Ximena Araya-Fischel, M.A
Ximena Araya-Fischel, M.A
Food & Nutrition Writer

Ximena Araya-Fischel, M.A, is a journalist, IIN graduate integrative health coach, E-RYT 500 lead yoga teacher, and 500-Hour certified Pilates instructor from San José, Costa Rica. She received her master's degree in communication and journalism from The University of New Mexico, emphasizing well-being, sustainable fashion, health communication research, and graduating Summa Cum Laude. A former professional dancer, she's earned multiple academic and accredited certifications in performance design, positive psychology, doula training, entrepreneurship, digital marketing, mindfulness, innovation leadership, and integrative health. Her work has appeared at top consulting brands and organizations across Latin American and the US, including Byrdie and Albuquerque The Magazine. She currently lives between Costa Rica and New Mexico.