How the complex spices that flavor Indian food can also help your digestion.

Half and half. Two percent. Low-fat. Skim. Fat-free.

I stared at the milk cartons, sunken in a bowl of ice, as I held a mug of coffee in one hand and a breakfast plate in the other. It was my fourth day in the U.S., and it was the same breakfast in this land of plenty.

Donuts, muffins, cakes, bread. Tempting food made almost entirely of just two ingredients: processed wheat flour and sugar.

I felt bloated and constipated all day and I’d already spent too many minutes trying to figure out which milk should go into my coffee — and ended up randomly choosing a watery milk, which even my cat could walk away from.

That same morning I’d also discovered an awful stench when I pulled down my panties, in front of the toilet with no water faucet.

Usually, when a Westerner visits India, they’re wary of falling sick from the food — despite the fact that one is more likely to fall sick eating from the buffet of a grand hotel than the streets, where the hawker’s reputation is on the line if their food isn’t fresh.

Knowing these stories, I wasn’t prepared for my digestive system to suffer a similar, terrible fate. This cycle of suffering — of constipation and stench from my panties — came with every trip to the U.S. and left after I returned to India.

Two days at home and my gut would revert back to its normal state. It’d let me devour every freshly-cooked meal, colored with turmeric, and flavored and fortified with various spices.

Traditional spices that aid digestion:

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People in the West often confuse spicy with the hotness of chilies or peppers. But the wide variety of Indian food from its different regions can be spicy without being hot, and also hot without being spicy. And then there are foods which are neither hot nor spicy, and yet are a flavor bomb.

In the U.S., almost everything I ate lacked a complexity of flavors entwined with each other. What I didn’t know yet was that lack of flavors also meant I was missing spices that traditionally aided and accelerated the complex digestive process.

It was 2012, and I was in the U.S. for the first time to attend a summer school and learn about nonviolent movements. But I wasn’t prepared for the nonmovement of my bowels, and the revolt from my digestive system.

When the stench from my panties led to a full-blown itch fest, I finally went to the medical clinic on campus. After an hour of waiting, and another half hour in a flimsy robe, sitting on a paper-layered chair, the doctor confirmed the yeast infection.

I imagined all the processed flour, the yeast, and the sugar ganging up together and metamorphosing themselves into my vaginal white discharge. I didn’t wait to rant how I found it so weird that Americans wipe their behind (and front) with only paper, not water.

Connection between sugar and yeast infectionsResearchers are still looking into the potential link between probiotics for the prevention of yeast infections, however research isn’t conclusive. If you’re tackling yeast infections and digestive issues, including probiotics with Saccharomyces boulardii may be beneficial.

“Actually, you are doing it right,” she’d said. “How is paper supposed to wipe away all the germs that the body has discarded?” However, using just water and then letting the water drip onto the panties, creating a damp environment, wasn’t helping either.

So we agreed that the best way to wipe was to wash first with water, and then dry with paper.

But the constipation stayed.

In 2016, I found myself back in the United States, in Rochester, New York, as a Fulbright fellow. The constipation returned, just as expected.

This time I needed help, without worrying about health insurance and comfort, beyond that occasional Indian meal fix for my gut.

I instinctively knew that the combination of several spices called garam masala or even paanch phoron was all that my body was seeking. But how could I ingest them?

I found the recipe to a tea that incorporated a few of these spices on the internet. Thankfully, they were easily available in any U.S. market, and didn’t take more than 15 minutes to make.

I boiled one liter of water and added a teaspoon each of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and fennel seeds. After lowering the heat, I put on the lid and let it brew for 10 minutes.

The golden liquid was my tea through the day. Within three hours and two glasses, I was going to the toilet, relieving myself of all that my angry system wasn’t able to digest.

It’s a recipe forgotten, even by Indians, and I gladly recommend it to anyone who has the slightest bowel irritability. It’s a trusted recipe, given that all three ingredients make a regular appearance in our foods.

Digestive tea recipe

  1. One teaspoon each of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and fennel seeds.
  2. Boil for 10 minutes in hot water.
  3. Let it cool before drinking.

The lack of food diversity during my stay drove me to turn toward home and heal myself. And it worked.

Now I know to seek these herbs out — the ones my body had known all along — whenever I visit the U.S. again.

Priyanka Borpujari is a writer who reports on human rights and everything in between. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, and more. Read her work here.