Before I was an herbalist, fennel seeds (Foeniculum vulgare) were simply something I used to satisfy my craving for black licorice. Being diagnosed Celiac meant my favorite treat was off limits, but chewing on fennel seeds became a sufficient replacement.
When I first began my practice as an herbalist back in the 90’s, I began to discover the medicinal benefits of fennel, using a tincture of the seeds in formulas for digestive distress. As a nonirritating carminative and mild antispasmodic, it made an excellent pair with the bitter digestive tonics. Its addition not only enhanced the effectiveness of the bitters, but also improved their taste, which encouraged some tougher clients to take their tinctures more regularly.
Through experimentation, I found that fennel seeds also aided nausea, much like peppermint does. And from studying the Eclectic doctors, began adding it to formulas for constipation. In these formulas, fennel eliminated the cramping that was caused by the purgative plants senna, and cascara sagrada.
Since those early days, my knowledge of fennel has grown. I find this versatile seed is far reaching, attending to the improvement of many layers of function. It is a plant of many possibilities.
Fennel is native to the Mediterranean. It was widely used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and over time, has spread to naturalize on many continents and in a variety of countries. It is a well-used medicine and seasoning in India, France, Italy, and Wales, to name a few. And, of course, we can’t leave out North America.
Taste, Energetics and Organ System Affinities
Fennel has a taste that is sweet, pungent and aromatic. It is moistening and relaxing to tissue, relaxing to smooth muscles, and to the nerves. It is also stimulating to the urinary tract, improving the elimination of fluid waste there, and to the circulation of lymphatic fluid, reducing inflammation in lymph nodes, including the spleen.
Culpepper notes in his book, Culpepper’s Complete Herbal, published in 1653, that the root of fennel is hot to the 3rd degree and quite drying. The seed is though, is different. It is slightly moistening and neutral in function, in my opinion. While it can be a bit warming in nature, the relaxant and mild demulcent nature of the seed wins over. Therefore, I have not found fennel seed to be irritating to conditions that are hot.
The energetics of fennel seeds are: diuretic, mild diaphoretic, carminative, antispasmodic, muscle relaxant (in lungs, stomach, large intestine), anti-nausea, mild expectorant, demulcent, mild anesthetic, and galactagogue.
It’s organ system affinities are many. It has effects on the urinary tract, digestive system, liver (as an anti-inflammatory), eyes, respiratory tract, smooth muscles, the skin, mammary glands and lymphatic system (including the spleen).
The diuretic and non-irritating properties of fennel seed make it an excellent diuretic for Urinary Tract Infections. While it may not be some people’s herb of choice for such things, also consider that it is a mild demulcent, diaphoretic, and analgesic. While it does not have a direct affinity on the immune system, and will not simulate it literally, it certainly doesn’t depress it. And it makes a fine tea or tincture for UTI support when there is pain, swelling and congestion.
In his book, Culpepper speaks of fennel seed for relief from urinary gravel/stones. He says, “Eases the pain of the stones, and helps to break it.” Fennel is an anesthetic and mild antispasmodic, so it comes in handy here. And of course, the breaking up of stones is a tough one. Many doctors and chiropractors use soda and asparagus for the job of breaking and passing.
A few sample herb formulas for the urinary tract:
- For urinary stones with alkaline urine: fennel seed, Oregon grape root, agrimony, and gravel root (Eupatorium purpureum), cramp bark
- For urinary stones with acidic urine: fennel seed, gravel root, corn silk, cramp bark
- For a urinary tract infection: tea of fennel seeds and dandelion leaf, with a tincture of gallium, uva ursi, yarrow, corn silk and perhaps echinacea
Dosage for these formulas: 10-25 drops 4-6 times daily for a few weeks.
Also, drink plenty of tea and water.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, fennel is a potent carminative, anti-nausea and prevents griping/cramping when used with herbs that are purgative. It finds it’s way into formulas for general improved digestion with bitters, and to remedy constipation with the stronger purgatives like senna and cascara sagrada.
Fennel seed has also been historically used for infant colic combined with catnip. I have found most infants respond well to this lovely little duo. You can make them as a tea, and give by syringe. One can also evaporate the alcohol off of the tincture by adding a tablespoon of hot water to your drops of tincture.
The tea was my preferred method, but I would have no problem using the tincture. I’m not a fan of glycerin and the infant. It feels a bit foreign to me to allow a small being to ingest glycerin.
Where catnip and fennel failed, I noticed that the infant had jaundice, meaning they lacked the ability to conjugated bilirubin for elimination. I also noticed some liver congestion. The little formula I used for this was fennel seed and yellowdock root tincture.
The fennel is anti-griping, which relaxes the smooth muscles of the large intestine, is carminative, and anesthetic, as well as anti-nausea. All of these things works well here. Fennel, according to Culpepper, will also ease spasms of the liver, gallbladder and spleen. You can bet there is some agitation to these organs as well. So our simple seed travels the to the depths of the digestive tract and it’s accessory organs, retuning organ system vibrations that are out of harmony with the whole.
It will do the same for an adult. Here are some sample formulas to get your thinking about fennels possibilities in the digestive tract.
Formula examples for infant Colic:
- Catnip and fennel tincture or tea
- For colic with jaundice: Yellowdock root and fennel tincture
- Lavender and fennel tea or tincture
Dilutions and dosage for making the tea: 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds and 1 teaspoon of catnip; steep in 6 oz. of boiling water covered for 15 min. Give about 10-25 drops using a dropper 3-6 times daily.
Dosage for the tincture: add 10 drops to a tablespoon of boiling water; let sit for 10 min uncovered allowing the alcohol to evaporate off; give 10-20 drops of this mixture with a dropper 3-6 times daily
Formula examples for constipation, improved digestion and healing from Celiac disease, or support for Chron’s and Colitis:
- Constipation: equal parts tinctures of fennel seed, yellowdock root, dandelion root, peppermint, and if pernicious, add 5 ml of cascara sagrada per 30 ml. – 10-15 drops 3-4 times daily with meals/food
- Bitters to improve digestion (contraindicated for hyperacidity): Equal parts of fennel seed, yellowdock root, Oregon grape root, and dandelion root- 5-10 drops 3-4 times daily with meals/food
- Gallbladder issues (contraindicated for hyperacidity): equal parts tinctures of celandine, artichoke leaf, fennel seed, and yellowdock root or dandelion root; 5-10 drops 3-6 times daily with meals/food
- Celiac formula: equal parts of fennel seed, dandelion root, yellowdock root, red root (5 ml. per 30 ml of tincture), catnip or peppermint (5 ml. per 30 ml. of tincture)- 5-10 drops with meals/food, 3-4 times daily
- Chron’s or Colitis support: equal parts of fennel seed, red root, yellowdock root, blue vervain- 5-10 drops with meals/food, 3-6 times daily
Lymph System/Mammary Glands
Back when I had nursing infants and toddlers, my milk production would fluctuate. Sometimes I would feel I had too much milk, and sometimes too little. For those too little times, fennel seed was my herb of choice.
Fennel seed is a galactagogue. It stimulates the production of milk in the mammary glands.
Mammary glands form from the lymphatic system in pregnancy in preparation for the nursing baby. While many relegate fennel seed as a lymphatic for mothers, I find it has an affinity for more parts of the lymphatic system than simply the milk ducts.
I have used fennel seed tincture for breast tenderness and swelling that occurs with menses. I often pair it with dandelion root or burdock root as a tincture or tea. I add one if these plants to facilitate the processing out of excess hormones by the liver and kidney more effectively, as hormonal buildup can often be the root cause of breast swelling. I have found, however, that fennel on it’s own can be very effective for this condition.
While fennel seed is not the most potent expectorant or respiratory antispasmodic, it does a beautiful job of reducing irritation and swelling in the lung tissue. And it’s not drying or too moistening, which makes it an excellent choice for either condition.
It can be drunk as a tea for wet coughs with thyme and mullein leaf. It can also be used for coughs that are dry. Try a tea of fennel seed with fenugreek and thyme tea. You can add honey for taste.
Many of the Eclectic doctors I have studied used fennel seed for asthma. They said that while it is not the most effective “cure”, it did reduce the irritation, spastic cough, inflammation, and frequency of the coughing bout.
I have used it in herb class for students whose lungs are sensitive to plants that are astringent. When these students taste the drying astringents, they begin to rasp a bit when they breathe. Fennel helps to counterbalance their reaction enough to be effective.
FYI- Please note, fennel is not a plant for anaphylactic shock, nor would I recommend it’s use for such.
The reactions in herb class were not anaphylactic in nature.
Historically, fennel water (making a tea of the seeds) has been used for eye irritation, swelling, and injury since the days of the Ancient Romans. It was my friend and fellow herbalist Rose Woods Casey who talked about this use more in an herb class about 7 years ago. It was a use that I had only read about, and had not tried.
Rose said that she always carries fennel seeds with her when she goes on a trip. That there have been times she suffered an acute eye injury. She had been so glad to have her seeds with her. A wash with the fennel water reduced the irritation and swelling, as well as helped with the pain.
Acute situations are an excellent way to learn about a plants action internally. And I have always loved Rose’s description of fennel seed healing her eye. It is a story that makes one picture what is happening to internal tissue when fennel seed is used.
Remember it’s organ system affinities, from the eyes and skin, to the digestive tract, liver, lymphatic system, spleen, and the urinary tract. It has a positive effect on all eliminatory organs, without being too stimulating or irritating. It has a lovely relationship with water, moving it gently around the body, lymph and out. And, to top it off, it has that lovely licorice taste, if you are into that.
I hope you all pick up some fennel seeds, and try some tea today. And check out this little video on my Youtube channel. I teach how to make a dried plant tincture using fennel seeds! And if you like my articles, please check out my book, Make Your Way To Being An Herbalist.