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  • Monika Getty

Herbal Spotlight: Fennel

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a pleasant smelling herb with yellow flowers that is native to the Mediterranean. It is in the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family, along with carrots, parsley, dill and other plants. It can grow 3 to 5 feet tall with the stems, leaves and seeds harvested and used for a variety of conditions. There is also a vegetable form of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce) that is bulb-like and used in Italian cooking; both forms have a licorice or anise flavour. For this post I will be referring to the herb variety.

Fennel has been used for both medicine and food since ancient times. Roman warriors ate fennel to provide courage, and Roman bakers used the leaves under bread as it baked to provide flavour. In traditional medicine, it is considered to be a digestive, smooth muscle anti-spasmodic (relieving muscle spasm of the organs), carminative (relieves gas), anti-nauseant, anti-inflammatory, hepatic (supporting the liver), expectorant, mild diuretic and galactogogue (increasing milk supply). It is also used as a flavouring in both food and drinks. Modern science is now discovering the many benefits of fennel for various conditions, such as the following:

Healthy Digestion: Fennel seeds are considered to be one of the most effective digestive aids, having a long history of being used to treat a variety of digestive problems, including stomach aches, flatulence, diarrhea, and constipation. In a study of people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a mixture of fennel and curcumin oils decreased abdominal pain and overall IBS symptoms, increasing quality of life. Fennel seeds, whether consumed raw or in tea form, can help reduce bloating, cramping, relieve constipation and eliminate gas and are commonly eaten before or after a meal in many Asian cultures. This is because fennel contains active ingredients that have antioxidant, antispasmodic and antiflatulent properties, as well as a high fiber content.

Colic: Colic is a condition in infants where they cry for long periods (not due to hunger or sickness). Doctors believe it is caused by either gas, digestive muscle spasm, hormones that cause belly pain, etc. Several studies show that fennel products reduce intestinal cramping and improve gastrointestinal flow. Traditionally, fennel has been used by nursing mothers to promote milk production (and a few studies concur), so it makes sense that when the mother consumes fennel, the antispasmodic properties can be passed through the milk and ease the infants stomach pains.

Women's Health: Fennel contains an active component called anethole, which can mimic various hormones, including estrogen, as well as influence different biochemical pathways. For this reason it is especially helpful for women experiencing PMS, menstrual pain and menopausal symptoms. One study showed that fennel extract reduced the severity of PMS symptoms such as acne, fatigue, irritability and food cravings. When it comes to menstrual pain and cramping, a study found that women who took fennel capsules before the onset of their period experienced less pain, nausea and weakness. Another study tested the effectiveness of a blend containing fennel extract and vitamin E. This mixture was shown to be more effective than ibuprofen in decreasing pain intensity, as well as reducing pain strength faster and lasting longer than ibuprofen. Menopause symptoms can include hot flashes, fatigue, anxiety, vaginal and urinary symptoms, mood changes, joint and muscle aches. One study showed significant improvements in menopausal symptoms compared to the placebo counterparts without any adverse side effects; a meta-analysis of several studies using fennel concurs.

Inflammation: Fennel contains many powerful antioxidants, such as vitamin C, anethole and quercetin, which can help reduce inflammation and levels of inflammatory chemicals. These antioxidants within fennel have been shown to: inhibit 5-lipoxygenase (an enzyme that produces leukotrines); reduce inflammation causing proteins (cytokines) such as TNF-alpha and interleukin 1 beta; suppress interleukin 6 (IL-6) and other inflammatory agents such as Nuclear Factor-kB, nitric oxide (NO) and matrix metalloproteinase-9 (MMP-9). This means that fennel can be used to help treat many inflammatory disorders including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune diseases and all types of allergic conditions.

Antibacterial: Test tube studies show that fennel extract inhibits the growth of potentially harmful bacteria and yeasts, such as Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella, Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Candida albicans. In this way, fennel may help to prevent the spread of various common infections.

Asthma and Congestion: The antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties found in fennel help clear the sinuses and relieve asthma symptoms by soothing the throat and the airways. Studies have shown fennel extracts to significantly relax animal tracheal airways, thereby improving overall respiration. This may be because anethole, one of the components of fennel, may mimic the effects of dopamine on the respiratory system. While dopamine is well known for its role as a neurotransmitter in the brain, it also does other things in the body, such as relaxing the airways to improve airflow to the lungs.

You can incorporate fennel into your health routine by making fennel tea: to each cup of boiling water, use 1 teaspoon of lightly crushed fennel seeds, cover and steep for 10 minutes. You can also add fennel seeds to dishes you cook or bake; in some parts of the world, people chew plain or sugar-coated fennel seeds after a meal.

As with anything, always check with a qualified health practitioner to make sure that consuming fennel is safe for you, especially if you are pregnant or have any health conditions. Leave at least 3 hours in between if you are taking any medications to avoid any possible interactions, and talk to your qualified health care practitioner before you start taking anything new. As fennel mimics estrogen, it is best to avoid if you have hormone sensitive conditions such as reproductive or breast cancer, endometriosis or fibroids, or taking hormone medications such as HRT or birth control.

Fennel offers an abundance of health benefits, and adding them to your diet may improve your overall health, so give it a try!

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