The Blog

Living With a Healthy Gut Using Spices

When people learn about my love of Indian food but that I have ulcerative colitis, the first thing I am always asked is: "What about spicy food? How can you still eat it?" Well, because everyone is different, we can all tolerate different levels of heat and spice.

Those of us who grew up in Bradford, West Yorkshire in the 1980s and 1990s may remember that we were lucky enough to have a choice of over 365 curry houses and takeaway outlets. Naturally, with more than one for every day of the year, regular quality control was a must! This meant that many of us tended to round off an evening, enjoying excellent food. This habit continued during my art college and university days, much to my continuing pleasure.

My life changed dramatically in 2011, however, when a meal out (not a curry!) gave me terrible food poisoning. It was so bad, in fact, that it led to a whole year of being unable to hold and digest food properly, which led to continual and unhealthy weight loss. After tests and investigations, I was finally diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a condition which affected my very physical life - I was keen on running, cycling and circuit training - not to mention my overall wellbeing. Simple research on the internet revealed that ulcerative colitis together with Crohn's disease, the two most common forms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), were more common than I realised. There are at least 115,000 people living with Crohn's and around 146,000 living with ulcerative colitis in the UK alone. The condition is more common in white people than black or Asian people and it's most prevalent among Jewish people of European descent (click here).

So I am not alone; I am lucky that I have had treatment which keeps everything under control and I am happy to have found activities that I can do without causing any problems.

Learning to rework my diet

I love Indian food. As a child, I learnt how to cook it from watching my mother and it was she who gave me an insight into the secrets of the benefits and flexibility of spices. Even though I had been given a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis, I didn't want to give up eating curry, so I decided to take a close look at my diet and the recipes I had always used. I had to experiment, to look further into the health benefits of spices and learn how to rework my diet, to allow me to enjoy fully the flavours of the food. Achieving the correct balance but also learning about the health benefits was fascinating.

Spice of Life

When people learn about my love of Indian food but that I have ulcerative colitis, the first thing I am always asked is: "What about spicy food? How can you still eat it?" Well, because everyone is different, we can all tolerate different levels of heat and spice. For example, my mum can comfortably eat a curry which contains over 12 chillies - not everyone can do this! I myself enjoy all spices and particularly like food that allows me to taste all the spices as well as enjoy the heat. A spice is an aromatic or pungent vegetable substance which is used to flavour food; some familiar names include cloves, cinnamon, pepper and cumin. They enhance the flavour of a dish and add colour, fragrance and heat.

Here's a quick guide to a few of the health benefits of some of those familiar names:

Turmeric contains curcumin, an active ingredient which has great anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties, which help efficient digestion of food. It can be sourced either fresh or dried and adds a warm yellow colour to food. Additionally, it is thought that it can help treat a wide range of complaints, the most exciting development being in the treatment and prevention of some types of cancer. Although further research is needed, early studies are showing that curcumin, when used in conjunction with chemotherapy, kills cancer cells. What a super spice! I recently tried a recipe for turmeric tea; do go to the end of the article and try it yourself.

In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is used as a carminative - meaning that it helps prevent or relieves flatulence, calming an upset digestive system. It also nurtures intestinal flora and helps increase intestinal absorption. A simple way of helping to rebalance your insides, just stir a teaspoonful of turmeric into yoghurt after a meal.

Similarly, cumin is said to help to reduce bloating, indigestion, flatulence, nausea or an upset stomach. Eaten whole or ground, it has a strong, bitter flavour, so use sparingly! Try black cumin seed oil, or sprinkle some seeds in a yoghurt drink.

Fennel seeds are used both as a breath freshener and a digestive - Indian restaurants often have sugar-coated seeds near the counter where you pay the bill. My father has always enjoyed chewing a handful after a meal to aid digestion. Many commercially available herbal teas contain fennel, which give them a distinctive flavour of liquorice.

Coriander has a fresh lemon or citrus aroma and flavour. The seeds contain a naturally occurring oil called linalool and geranyl acetate, both of which have been implicated in treating a host of gastrointestinal problems. IBS sufferers may benefit from taking coriander seeds on a regular basis as they work similarly to antispasmodic drugs, in that they are said to relax digestive muscles and gently alleviate "overactive gut" disorders, without harmful side effects.

Ginger is part of the zingiberaceae family, alongside cardamom and turmeric. The root, or underground stem (rhizome), can be eaten fresh, powdered, dried, as an oil or a juice. It said to be beneficial for the gut, helping to ease an upset stomach, prevent diarrhoea and it effectively tackles nausea. Recently published scientific studies have found evidence to show that it may be an effective remedy for treating and preventing certain types of cancer, and more research is on going.

Chilli Powder is often mistakenly believed to cause digestive upset because of its intense spicy flavour but cayenne pepper is actually a digestive soother. Not only does it help stimulate the digestive process by promoting healthy muscle movement in the digestive tract, but it also helps regulate the proper production of digestive acids, aiding in the appropriate breakdown and assimilation of nutrients.

Turmeric Tea with ginger and jaggery or honey


1 cup boiling water

Add ½ tsp turmeric powder

A small slice of ginger

Honey or jaggery to taste


Combine all the ingredients and drink. This is perfect first thing in the morning before eating breakfast.

NB Jaggery is an unrefined sugar derived from sugar cane.