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Fennel -- Foeniculum vulgare -- is a perennial member of the carrot family. A native of the Mediterranean region, fennel produces fern-like leaves, and its clusters of small bright-yellow flowers become aromatic, licorice-flavored seeds. Cooks use fennel seeds as a spice to flavor both sweet and savory recipes, and herbalists recommend fennel seed for certain purported health benefits.
Colicky infants benefited from fennel seed extract in a study published in the July 2003 issue of "Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine." The study included 125 infants with colic, ages 2 weeks to 12 weeks. Fennel seed oil reduced crying time to less than nine hours a week in 65 percent of the infants, and it was 41 percent more effective at alleviating colic than a placebo. The study reported no adverse side effects from the use of fennel seed extract. A combination of chamomile, lemon balm and fennel improved colic within a week of daily supplementation in 85 percent of infants in a study published in the April 2005 "Phytotherapy Research." The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends 1 teaspoon of cooled fennel seed tea before and after feedings. If you are breast-feeding, drinking 3 to 6 cups of fennel seed tea a day should provide your baby with enough fennel to alleviate colic symptoms.
Potential anti-ulcer benefits of fennel seed were demonstrated in a test-tube study published in the November 2005 issue of "Phytotherapy Research." Fennel seed inhibited Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori, the cause of most stomach ulcers, at concentrations of 50 micrograms per milliliter, and it was as effective as the herbs passionflower, oregano and curcumin, the active compound in turmeric. Herbs that were more effective than fennel seed in the study included nutmeg, rosemary and ginger. Cardamom, juniper, lavender, lemon balm and peppermint also inhibited H. pylori, but required concentrations twice as high.
Fennel seed may contribute to healthy digestive function by inhibiting certain bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses, according to a study published in the August 2009 issue of "BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine." In the test-tube study, fennel seed inhibited several species of bacteria that cause food poisoning, including E. coli, several species of Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus. A study published in the April 2009 issue of "Flavour and Fragrance Journal" found that fennel seed inhibited several species of pathogenic intestinal bacteria and mold. Fennel seed demonstrated antibiotic effects comparable to those of the drug amoxicillin. Researchers concluded that fennel seed shows promise as a natural antibiotic and food preservative for prevention of food-related intestinal disease.
For a delicious way to include fennel seed in your diet, try fennel seed tea. The NYU Langone Medical Center recommends 1 to 1.5 teaspoons a day, which you can drink as tea or take in capsule form. You can also use fennel seed to flavor breads and candies. To release its aromatic oils, slightly crush fennel seed before adding to recipes. Fennel seed is generally considered safe, with few side effects. However, the medical center reports that it may interfere with the absorption of certain antibiotics.