How to maintain a healthy gut this holiday season

Rooibos can improve digestion, and overall health. Picture: Pexels/Mareefe

Rooibos can improve digestion, and overall health. Picture: Pexels/Mareefe

Published Dec 7, 2023


'Tis the season for overindulging in all the delicious and tempting treats. Did you know that in the UK alone, people gobble up over 208 million boxes of chocolates during Christmas?

While here in South Africa, we celebrate with braais, festivals, and traditional events like Umgidi, where meat, fizzy drinks, and spicy foods take centre stage. But all these indulgences can cause trouble for our tummies.

The holiday season is all about gatherings and feasting on rich, hearty foods, and maybe a bit too much alcohol. All this festive cheer can wreak havoc on our digestive systems.

Herbal medicine has been around for ages, known for its simplicity, affordability, and effectiveness. However, due to their complexity and unclear active components, they haven't been widely recognized in clinical applications.

But, good news is on the horizon. Recent studies have pointed to a potential link between herbal medicine and our gut microbiota, shedding light on their possible health benefits.

Rooibos has the potential aid in easing discomfort from overeating. Picture: pexels/Madjid Atmania

One such herbal drink, Rooibos, native to South Africa and derived from the Aspalathus linearis plant, has caught the attention of researchers as a potential aid in easing discomfort from overeating.

Dr Hanel Sadie-Van Gijsen, a senior researcher at the Centre for Cardiometabolic Research in Africa (CARMA) at Stellenbosch University, explained, "Herbal drinks like Rooibos may prove useful in alleviating discomfort from overeating."

“One of the most prominent traditional uses of Rooibos was to treat a variety of stomach and gut ailments, but until recently the scientific basis for this has not been studied in much detail.”

Exciting new research conducted by Stellenbosch University (SU), the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), and Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), along with international research centres, is shedding light on the incredible benefits Rooibos has on our gut health.

These studies, focused on nutrition, microbiology, and health sciences, have uncovered a range of actions that Rooibos performs in the gut, improving digestion, and overall health, and even assisting with disease management.

Our gut microbiome, which refers to all the microorganisms in our digestive system, plays a vital role in our well-being.

Dr Sadie-Van Gijsen from SU explains that although the gut microbiome isn't physically part of our bodies, its function is so crucial that we must treat it as such.

A healthy gut microbiome helps us extract nutrients efficiently, supports our immune response, maintains the intestinal barrier function, reduces inflammation, improves metabolic function, and even protects our brain health.

Rooibos, with its abundance of polyphenols (plant compounds), has been proven to have a prebiotic effect. This means that it supports the growth of beneficial gut bacteria while restoring and maintaining intestinal balance.

Polyphenols in Rooibos offer a double benefit: they inhibit harmful gut bacteria and stimulate the growth of beneficial ones. This prebiotic effect has also been shown to reduce markers of inflammation in the blood, lowering the risk of disease.

But the benefits of Rooibos in the gut don't stop there. Researchers at UKZN found that hot water infusions of fermented Rooibos tea bags, just like how we prepare our daily cuppa, actually inhibit glucose uptake by the intestine. This action can assist in controlling blood glucose levels.

Studies in India have discovered that orientin, a polyphenol found in both green and fermented Rooibos, successfully inhibits chemically induced colorectal cancer in mice.

And that's not all – fermented Rooibos has been found to have anti-cramping and antidiarrheal effects by balancing potassium and calcium ions in the gut, resulting in smooth muscle relaxation. It also reduces intestinal fluid release, providing relief from diarrhoea.

As the field of gut health and probiotics/prebiotics continues to evolve, more research on Rooibos and its impact on the gut microbiota is sure to emerge.

But for now, the existing evidence suggests that Rooibos can be safely consumed by adults and children as a daily support for gut health, alongside a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle practices.

Here's a snapshot of how Rooibos can support gut health these holidays:

Anti-inflammatory properties

Rooibos contains polyphenols such as flavonoids and dihydrochalcones that possess anti-inflammatory properties. There is evidence that these compounds can decrease inflammation throughout the digestive tract, which may ease digestive discomfort.

Antioxidant effects

Rooibos tea contains substances that can help protect the body from harmful molecules and potentially contribute to gut health.

Rooibos contains quercetin, a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound found in many foods such as red onions, kale, and berries. It helps to fight off free radicals in the body.

Aspalathin is a unique antioxidant found in green Rooibos tea. It has been linked to potential health benefits such as blood sugar regulation and reducing inflammation.

Prebiotic potential

Rooibos tea contains compounds that can support the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the gut, leading to a healthier gut environment and better overall metabolic health.

The bioactive compounds found in food or plants have a biological effect on the body. In the case of Rooibos, these compounds act as prebiotics, supporting the growth of healthy gut bacteria.

Prebiotics are non-digestible fibres that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. They serve as a food source for good bacteria, helping to improve gut health.

Relieving tummy turmoil

Rooibos tea can help ease stomach and intestinal discomfort by reducing cramping and supporting proper fluid release. Additionally, its prebiotic effects can help alleviate diarrhoea.

Antispasmodic properties found in rooibos help to reduce spasms or cramping in the stomach and intestines, providing relief from discomfort.

Rooibos tea does not contain caffeine, which can help soothe the digestive system and reduce the risk of aggravating digestive issues.

No oxalic acid

Rooibos tea does not contain oxalic acid, unlike some other teas. Oxalic acid, when consumed in excessive amounts, may contribute to kidney stones or hinder mineral absorption.

This makes Rooibos a good choice for people who are concerned about these issues.

In layman's terms, oxalic acid is a naturally occurring compound found in many plants and vegetables.

It's what gives some foods a slightly bitter or sour taste, and it's also known for its role in forming kidney stones when consumed in excessive amounts.