How does it feel?
Pick up a few fennel seeds from any spice jar and chew them (these will be sweet fennel). You will notice the gradually strengthening licorice-like, almost fruity sweetness, aromatic and slightly spicy tastes, with just a hint of bitterness at the end and a surprising cooling follow-through. Otherwise a very clean effect with no astringency or acidity at all.
All around the world the actions of traditional medicines were understood by their immediate sensory impacts. Click on each of fennel’s key qualities below to learn more:
What can I use it for?
Given in the form of a homemade tea or infusion, fennel is a useful standby for indigestion and colicky and gassy symptoms in the abdomen, well suited for both children and adults.
Stronger doses are good for bronchitis and catarrhal conditions, in which excess mucus is produced in the airways.
In traditional medicine around the world, fennel was classified as heating and drying (a gentle version of the hot spices) and was indicated where the body was fighting ‘cold’ conditions. Such conditions might include symptoms of heavy mucus production and digestive problems, especially linked with low energies.
Into the heart of fennel
Fennel’s qualities were understood as usual from the characteristic taste which comes from its essential oils. These relax smooth muscle and relieve lower abdominal spasms and bloating in the digestive tract, known as a ‘carminative’ effect. Although a ‘heating’ herb, it benefits digestion without aggravating inflammation.
Fennel is also an effective expectorant within the respiratory system, encouraging the release of stuck mucous and catarrh. Fennel is particularly supportive to the female reproductive system, encouraging efficient menstruation and reducing the painful and spasmodic symptoms of dysmenorrhea. Its anti-spasmodic activity also extends to muscular spasms and pain.
For breastfeeding mothers, fennel will also promote efficient lactation.
The ancient Greek hero Prometheus was said to have carried the fire he stole from the gods (ie the source of human special powers) in a fennel stalk and the plant has long had an important place in European life. It is a well-known culinary herb or vegetable from ancient Roman and Egyptian times that has for as long been regarded as a valuable warming ‘carminative’ (colic and gas reducing) and aromatic digestive; as the English herbalist John Parkinson put it in 1640: “which being sweet and somewhat hot and comforting the stomach, helpeth to digest the crude flegmatick quality of fish and other viscous meats”. It was a common ingredient in ‘gripe water’ and other remedies for infant colic. It was widely used by women to increase breast milk and given also to increase milk flow in livestock.
It has long been used for improving appetite, especially during convalescence, and a respiratory remedy and expectorant for coughs and a range of other respiratory conditions. The seeds were applied in nausea, hiccups, shortness of breath, and wheezing. In communist China, “barefoot doctors” used very large doses of fennel to treat acute cramping and abdominal pain, and modern research backs this up. Topically, it found use in Europe and Asia for eye complaints, including conjunctivitis, inflamed eyelids, and as a general “cleanser” to improve vision.
What practitioners say
Digestion: Fennel will relieve digestive discomfort such as flatulence, cramps, nausea and a low appetite or metabolism. It relaxes the smooth muscles and is a specific herb for lower abdominal pain from lower bowel tension. Fennel water is also used for colic in babies.
Fever management: Fennel is useful when the body’s capacity to maintain a healing fever might be flagging and needed ‘heating’ support. In this context, fennel would be considered particularly applicable when the source of the fever was digestive or respiratory.
Eye affections: Fennel is a great ingredient in eye baths for conjunctivitis, styes and other surface problems. Eyebaths are made by boiling the seeds in water and the decoction needs to be kept sterile.
Urinary: Helpful in cystitis, difficult urination, burning and dark yellow urine, cloudy urine.
Nervous: Indicated in nervous tension created by muscular spasms and contraction. All spasms are relieved with fennel, especially in the digestive tract, lungs and womb. Its nourishing effects means that it tonifies the brain and nervous system.
Respiratory: Used in congestive or productive coughs.
Women’s health: Fennel can increase the flow of breast milk in breastfeeding mothers. It can also be used in menstrual difficulties that obstruct the lower abdomen influencing pain, cramps and a dragging sensation.
It is a specific herb for inguinal hernias and lower abdominal pain.
Did you know?
Many people associate fennel with the bulbous base of the plant that is cooked as a vegetable. This is a modified variety that has been created through years of careful selection and breeding. Known as Florence fennel (or Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum), this variety is much shorter in height than the sweet and bitter varieties that are used medicinally.
‘Digestive detox’ tea
This detoxifying blend of tasty seeds and roots will help to regulate digestion, banish sluggishness and cleanse the blood.
- Aniseed 4g
- Fennel seed 4g
- Cardamom pod 3g
- Dandelion root 2g
- Licorice root 1g
- Celery seed 1g
- Lemon a twist per cup
This will serve 2 cups detoxifying tea with a citrus twist.
- Put all of the ingredients in a pot (except for the lemon juice).
- Add 500ml/18fl oz freshly boiled filtered water.
- Leave to steep for 10–15 minutes, then strain.
- Enjoy with a twist of lemon in each cup.
Recipe from Cleanse, Nurture, Restore by Sebastian Pole
Fennel appears to be an extremely safe herb when consumed in recommended doses. Regulatory authorities have generally played down concerns about the effects of constituents estragole and anethole. There are rare cases of contact allergy.
Traditional Ayurvedic characteristics are
- Rasa (taste): Sweet, pungent, bitter.
- Virya (action): Slightly Heating.
- Vipaka (post-digestive effect): Sweet.
- Guna (quality): Light, dry.
- Dosha effect: tridoshic: strengthens all the doshas
- Dhatu (tissue): Plasma, blood, muscles, nerve.
- Srotas (channels): Digestive, respiratory, nervous, urinary, reproductive, lactation.
Fennel has increasingly shown to be a useful women’s remedy. It is an effective and safe treatment to reduce menstrual pain and duration, premenstrual syndrome, menopausal symptoms in postmenopausal women, and was also found effective in menopausal women with depression and anxiety disorders. In a separate study fennel vaginal cream was found to be an effective means of easing sexual activity in postmenopausal women.
There is some evidence that fennel does relieve colic in children and infants.
To see the references used in this summary check our downloadable Expert Herbal Reality Resource pdf
From 500mg right up to 9g/day of dried fennel seeds depending on effect required
The chemical composition differs between the two varieties. The sweetness of fennel is due to the presence of trans-anethole and estragole. Sweet varieties of fennel taste sweeter than the bitter varieties because they contain more trans-anethole and less bitter fenchone.
- essential oil (>4%) containing >60% trans-anethole, <15% fenchone, <5% estragole
- essential oil (>2%) containing >80% trans-anethole, <7.5% fenchone, <10% estragole
Both fennels also contain:
- fixed oil
- plant sterols, including beta-sitosterol.