Fennel seeds, bulb, stalk, and leaves. Brian Hagiwara/Getty Images
Fennel seed & oil (Foeniculum vulgare)
Common Names: Large fennel, sweet fennel, wild fennel, sweet cumin, finnochio, fänkål (Swedish), hinojo (Spanish), Fenchel (German), fennikel (Danish), hui-hsiang (Chinese), fenouil (French), fennika (Icelandic).
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) comes from either a perennial or biennial herb with yellow flowers in the Apiaceae (Umbelliferae) family. It is a hardy, perennial herb with yellow flowers and feathery leaves. It is indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean but has become widely naturalized in many parts of the world, especially on dry soils near the sea-coast and on riverbanks.
There are two variations: bitter/common (F. vulgare var. amara) and sweet (F. vulgare var. dulce). Bitter fennel oil should be avoided in aromatherapy and home use. Sweet fennel smells like anise with a hint of earth and spicy pepper.
Fennel is a member of the carrot and parsley family. It can grow to five feet tall and has delicate, lacy leaves. Sweet fennel oil is produced in places like Bulgaria, France, Germany, and Japan.
It is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb with culinary and medicinal uses and, along with the similar-tasting anise, is one of the primary ingredients of absinthe. Florence fennel or finocchio is a selection with a swollen, bulb-like stem base that is used as a vegetable.
Fennel has several subspecies and varieties including:
Foeniculum vulgare Mill. subsp. vulgare var. dulce (Mill.) Batt. (Sweet fennel)
Foeniculum vulgare Mill. subsp. piperitum (Ucria) Cout. (Bitter fennel)
Foeniculum vulgare Mill. subsp. vulgare var. azoricum (Mill.) Thell.
Foeniculum vulgare Mill. subsp. vulgare var. vulgare (Sweet fennel)
Fennel is considered one of the oldest medicinal plants and culinary herbs. It is fairly certain that fennel was in use over 4000 years ago. It is mentioned in the famous Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian collection of medical writings made around 1500 BC. There it is referred to principally as a remedy for flatulence.
The name foeniculum is from the Latin word for “fragrant hay.” Fennel was in great demand during the Middle Ages.
Wealthy people added the seed to fish and vegetable dishes, while the poor reserved it as an appetite suppressant to be eaten on fasting days.
The plant was introduced to North America by Spanish priests and the English brought it to their early settlements in Virginia. Fennel has been used to flavor candies, liqueurs, medicines, and food, and it is especially favored for pastries, sweet pickles, and fish.
Fennel was used by the ancient Egyptians as a food and medicine and was considered a snake bite remedy in ancient China.
During the Middle ages fennel was hung over doorways to drive away evil spirits. (Herb Society of America) Fennel has been used since ancient times to treat menstrual disorders, dyspepsia, flatulence and cough, and to reduce the griping effect of laxatives.
Fennel fruits have been used as TCM for the treatment of infants suffering from dyspeptic disorders in China for centuries. It was also recommended for bronchitis, chronic coughs, kidney stones, dysmenorrhea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The ancients believed eating the fennel herb and seeds imparted courage, strength, and conveyed longevity. In Imperial Roman times the physicians were in high regard of fennel for medicinal purposes.
The ancient Greeks and Anglo-Saxons snitched on their fast days by nibbling a little fennel, which reduced the appetite. The ancients believed that myopic reptiles ate fennel to improve their vision and so used it themselves for this purpose. It is still prescribed as an eye-wash. Also, for failing eyesight, a tea was made from fennel leaves to be used as a compress on swollen eyes.
As Old English finule, fennel is one of the nine plants invoked in the pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in the 10th century.
In the 15th century, Portuguese settlers on Madeira noticed the abundance of wild fennel, and used the Portuguese word funcho (fennel) and the suffix -al to form the name of a new town, Funchal
Longfellow’s 1842 poem “The Goblet of Life” repeatedly refers to the plant and mentions its purported ability to strengthen eyesight:
Above the lower plants it towers,
The Fennel with its yellow flowers;
And in an earlier age than ours
Was gifted with the wondrous powers
Lost vision to restore.
Known Hazards of Fennel
Skin contact with the sap or essential oil is said to cause photo-sensitivity and/or dermatitis in some people. Ingestion of the oil can cause vomiting, seizures and pulmonary edema.
Epileptics, people with cancer or on multiple medications, and anyone pregnant or trying to be shouldn’t use fennel.
Those who are allergic to celery, carrot, mugwort, or other plants in the Apiaceae family may have a reaction to the herb and its oils.
Fennel might slow blood clotting. Taking fennel might increase the risk of bleeding or bruising in people with bleeding disorders.
Hormone-sensitive condition such as breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, endometriosis, or uterine fibroids: Fennel might act like estrogen. If you have any condition that might be made worse by exposure to estrogen, do not use fennel.
Keep in mind that fennel interacts negatively with multiple medications including Cipro and may decrease the effects of birth control. If you are taking any prescribed drugs, confer with a physician before using any form of fennel.
Cautions and Contraindications: avoid use of oil in liver disease, alcoholism, while breast feeding, or during the use of acetaminophen; pregnancy due to emmenagogue action (empirical), essential oil use with infants or small children under 2 y.o.a. (speculative), prolonged use (speculative), acid reflux (speculative)
Constituents of Fennel
Fennel oil contains 50-60 percent of the licorice-tasting terpenoid anethole, the same active constituent found in anise. Anethole is thirteen times sweeter than sugar and is widely used as a flavoring agent in many things including liqueurs like Ouzo, Absinthe, and Pernod.
The main chemical components of fennel oil are a-pinene, myrcene, fenchone, trans-anethole, methyl chavicol, limonene, 1,8-cineole and anisic aldehyde.
Fennel blends well with other seed oils like cardamom and caraway, spicy oils like black pepper and ginger, and citrus oils, as well as geranium, lavender, rose, and sandalwood.
The dried seeds are steamed distilled to produce a thin yellow liquid that is good for a variety of therapeutic uses. This oil is helpful for conditions like gastrointestinal disorders and menstrual issues. It is detoxifying and can be used for weight loss and to reduce fluid retention and cellulite.
The plant is analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, aromatic, carminative, diuretic, emmenagogue, expectorant, galactogogue, hallucinogenic, laxative, stimulant and stomachic.
An infusion is used in the treatment of indigestion, abdominal distension, stomach pains etc. It helps in the treatment of kidney stones and, when combined with a urinary disinfectant like Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, makes an effective treatment for cystitis.
It can also be used as a gargle for sore throats and as an eyewash for sore eyes and conjunctivitis. Fennel is often added to purgatives in order to allay their tendency to cause gripe, and also to improve the flavour.
For the mind, it adds courage and strength in the face of adversity. It has a cleansing and toning effect on the skin, helping with bruises, sorting out overly oily skin and to fight wrinkles in more mature complexions (possibly due to the estrogenic properties of the oil).
The essential oil of fennel contains several bioreactive secondary metabolites, such as aldehydes. The oil apparently affects the stability of biomembranes and interacts with molecular targets, such as proteins and DNA, which causes a low cytotoxicity.
It has a toning effect on the spleen and liver, that helps with the results of excess drink and food. Hepatoprotective properties.
It is also used for increasing insufficient milk in nursing mothers – but for boosting breast milk, rather use the fresh herb, since the oil contains very high concentrations of trans-anethole.
An infusion of the seeds is a safe and effective cure for wind in babies.
An infusion of the root is used to treat urinary disorders.
An essential oil obtained from the seed is used in aromatherapy. Its keyword is “Normalising”. The essential oil is bactericidal, carminative and stimulant.
Benefits of Fennel
Rich in phytoestrogens, Fennel is often used for colic, wind, irritable bowel, kidneys, spleen, liver, lungs, suppressing appetite, breast enlargement, promoting menstruation, improving digestive system, milk flow and increasing urine flow. Fennel is also commonly used to treat amenhorrea, angina, asthma, anxiety, depression, heartburn, water retention, lower blood pressure, boost libido, respiratory congestion, coughs and has been indicated for high blood pressure and to boost sexual desire. Fennel offers us the opportunity to release toxins, increase energy, release self-limiting beliefs, and support our ability to ‘digest’ and ‘transform’ food/experiences/thoughts in a healthy way.
Increases Confidence: If you have a problem being assertive, fennel can help break you out of it. Add a drop of fennel to a cotton ball to sniff throughout the day. Changes will not happen overnight, but with repeated use, you may find your confidence increasing. Alternatively, you could blend fennel with other ‘meek-busting’ oils like jasmine, ginger, patchouli, bergamot, carnation, or lime. Find a mix you enjoy, and add a drop of that to a cotton ball.
Calms Digestive Disorders: Fennel has long been used for digestive complaints. A fennel massage using four drops of the essential oil in a tablespoon of a carrier can be made to help with diarrhea, constipation, or painful bloating. Rub this into the abdomen three times a day until symptoms subside. If you have fluid buildup elsewhere in the body, then simply rub the oil there instead of the abdomen.
If nausea is the issue, add this blend to a pint of hot distilled water. Mix as well as possible, then soak a small towel in it to make a compress and lay it over the stomach. Alternatively, you can rub the blend on first and then put a hot towel over instead of using the oil water.
Fennel seeds, particularly in powdered form, can act as a laxative. The roughage helps clear the bowels, whereas its stimulating effect helps maintain the proper peristaltic motion of the intestines, thereby helping promote proper excretion through the stimulation of gastric juices and bile production. Fennel is also commonly found in medicines that treat abdominal pain, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other intestinal issues.
Fennel is helpful in curing diarrhea if it is caused by bacterial infections because some components such as anethol and cineole have disinfectant and antibacterial properties. Some amino acids, such as histidine, can aid in digestion and the proper functioning of the digestive system, thereby helping to eliminate diarrhea due to indigestion. Fennel has long been used by indigenous cultures as a way to eliminate diarrhea.
Reduces Heart Disease: Fennel is a great source of fiber, as mentioned above, but besides the advantages to digestion that fiber provides, it also helps maintain healthy levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream. This means that it can stimulate the elimination damaging LDL or bad cholesterol, which is a major factor in heart diseases, atherosclerosis, and strokes.
Eases Menstrual Issues: Fennel is also an emmenagogue, meaning that it eases and regulates menstruation by properly regulating hormonal action in the body. Furthermore, fennel is used in a number of products to reduce the effects of PMS, and it is also used traditionally as a soothing pain reliever and relaxing agent for menopausal women.
Promotes Breast Enlargement: The flavonoids present in fennel seeds increase the amount of estrogen thereby acting as a stimulant and tonic. Fennel seeds help increase the size of the breasts as they increase the formation of new cells and tissues in the breast.
Helps Hangovers: Drinking too much alcohol can wreak havoc on the body. If you imbibed too much the night before, dropping 3-4 drops of fennel in your shower and breathing in the steam can help make you feel better.
Soothes Infant Colic: Besides calming gastrointestinal disorders in adults, fennel can be helpful for infants. ‘Gripe water’ is either dill, anise, or fennel water mixed with syrup and bicarbonate of soda that eases painful flatulence in infants.
Prohibits Growth/Causes Apoptosis in Prostate Cancer Cells: In 2017, researchers found that the high anethole content present in fennel essential oil has an inhibitory effect on cancerous prostate cells. It stops proliferation of the cells and leads to apoptosis, or spontaneous death of the prostate cancer cell line (PC-3 cells). This study shows that anethole could be promising in the fight against the often-fatal prostate cancer.
Regulates Blood Pressure: Fennel is a very rich source of potassium, which is an essential nutrient in our bodies and is vital for a number of important processes. One of the attributes of potassium is its quality as a vasodilator, which means that it relaxes the tension of blood vessels, thereby reducing blood pressure. High blood pressure is connected to a wide range of health issues, including heart attack, stroke, and atherosclerosis. Also, for diabetics, blood pressure issues can make management of their insulin and glucose levels very difficult and can be the cause of many potentially lethal complications. A cup of fennel bulb in your daily diet will pump you full of potassium and all the benefits that come along with it.
Improves Brain Function: Potassium, found in high levels in fennel bulbs and seeds, is an electrolyte, which means that it facilitates increased electrical conduction throughout the body. This includes connections within the brain, which is a veritable switchboard of electric currents. Potassium can help increase brain function and cognitive abilities through this quality. Also, fennel is a vasodilator, which means more oxygen reaches the brain and neural activity can work at optimal functionality.
Eye Care: Using fennel in food helps protect the eyes from inflammation and also help reduce disorders related to premature aging and macular degeneration. This is due to the high abundance of antioxidants (vitamin C and amino acids like arginine are very beneficial for rejuvenation of tissues and the prevention of aging), detoxifiers and stimulants. They are more specifically found in fennel essential oil, as well as minerals like cobalt and magnesium. Finally, the juice of its leaves and the plant itself can be externally applied to the eyes to reduce irritation and eye fatigue.
Fennel is also a rich source of flavonoids, which are very useful in protecting against pigment cells dying due to oxidative-stress-induced death. By protecting against this destruction of the pigment cells, fennel can safely be classified as effective in eye health for numerous reasons.
Treats Respiratory Disorders: Fennel is useful in respiratory disorders such as congestion, bronchitis, and cough due to the presence of cineole and anethol, which are expectorant in nature, among their many other virtues. Fennel seeds and powder can help break up phlegm and prompt loosening of the toxins and buildup of the throat and nasal passages for elimination from the body to ensure quick recovery from respiratory conditions.
Other Benefits & Uses: Fennel is a diuretic, which means that it increases the amount and frequency of urination, thereby helping the removal of toxic substances from the body and helping in rheumatism and swelling. It also increases the production and secretion of milk in lactating mothers and since this milk contains some properties of fennel, it is an anti-flatulent for the baby as well. It strengthens hair, prevents hair loss, relaxes the body, sharpens memory, and has a marvelous cooling effect in summer. This can be achieved if the pale, greenish-yellow water, in which it is soaked, is ingested with a bit of sugar and black salt.
Fennel tea is a delicious and popular variety of tea that happens to provide a number of health benefits, including its ability to lower blood pressure, protect the respiratory system, improve digestion, detoxify the body, and help with weight loss, among others.
Anti-spasmodic Effects: Calming the stomach and other organs can be an important first step in eliminating inflammation and stomach upset. The natural soothing effects of fennel tea can reduce spasms in the gut and other parts of the body, thereby reducing stress hormones and taking less of a toll on your overall system.
Improves Digestion: for thousands of years, fennel has been used as a digestive aid. The anti-inflammatory and carminative effects can prevent the formation of gas, thereby eliminating bloating and cramping, while also speeding up the digestive process and ensuring maximum nutrient uptake. Fennel can even help to rebuild damaged tissues and prevent further injury to the digestive tracts.
Boosts Immunity: This herb has powerful antibacterial, antiseptic, and antifungal effects, making it an excellent immune system booster. It is also well known to stave off cold and flu before they can fully manifest into an infection. Drinking fennel tea is, therefore, a preventative measure and a treatment to keep you on the right side of healthy!
Weight Loss: There are a number of ways in which fennel tea can help you lose weight. First of all, by promoting urination, it can eliminate water retention and bloating. Secondly, as a metabolism booster, it can help your body burn fat and calories faster, making your exercise efforts more rewarding. Finally, by regulating your appetite and hormones, it can prevent overeating and obesity.
Detoxifies the Body: One of the most important functions of urination is not only relieving that pressing feeling in your gut, but eliminating excess toxins extracted from the blood and kidneys. Fennel works as a blood cleanser and a diuretic, keeping your kidneys and liver healthy and working at full capacity.
Balances Hormone Levels: When it comes to protecting female reproductive health and wellness, few herbs are as important as fennel. The compounds found in fennel tea have estrogen-like qualities, meaning that they can alleviate many of the painful symptoms of menstruation, while also regulating hormones, increasing libido, and stimulating the production of breast milk in lactating mothers.
Reduces Inflammation: Those suffering from arthritis, gout and other inflammation issues have found relief from fennel tea for generations. By detoxifying the body, you also help your tissues and muscles function more normally and lower the chances of unnecessary inflammatory responses. This can help you get better sleep and have more energy to take on your daily tasks.
Protects the Eyes: Nothing shows a bad night of sleep like swollen or puffy eyes, but fennel tea can be an ideal solution for this. The rapid anti-inflammatory response of this tea can help your physical appearance, while the antibacterial and immune-boosting effects can further protect the eyes from other infection, such as conjunctivitis.
Lowers Blood Pressure: The impact that fennel tea can have on the heart is largely based on its mineral content, namely the potassium found in this herb. Potassium acts as a vasodilator, meaning that it can relieve the tension on arteries and blood vessels, thus making it more difficult for atherosclerosis to occur. This can help prevent coronary heart diseases, as well as lower your risk for heart attack and stroke.
Eliminates Bad Breath: Not only is fennel great for the digestion of a meal, but also to eliminate any traces of it on your breath. As mentioned above, the similarity of fennel to anise seed gives it a refreshing and cleansing effect on your breath, while also protecting your gums and teeth, due to its antifungal and antibacterial effects.
Relieves Respiratory Distress: When it comes to congestion of the respiratory system, fennel tea is an excellent solution, as it works as an expectorant, eliminating the phlegm and mucus where infectious pathogens can reside and multiple. Furthermore, the anti-inflammatory effects help to relieve sore throats and sinus pressure, thus allowing you to breathe normally.
Word of Caution: Fennel tea is generally considered to be very good for overall health, so much so that it is often given to infants in order to calm them down and ward off colic. However, people who are allergic to carrots or celery should avoid fennel tea, due to the plant’s close relationship to those allergens. Furthermore, women suffering from breast cancer or undergoing treatment for such should not consume fennel unless they clear it with a doctor, as the estrogen-like effects can be a dangerous complication in the case of those conditions.
Weight Loss Bath Oil: Taking fennel herb supplements may help those that are trying to lose weight, and oil-lovers can benefit from the stimulating effects of fennel in the bath. Add five drops of the following blend to a teaspoon of carrier oil and mix into your bath water.
8 drops Petitgrain (Citrus aurantium var. amara)
4 drops Black pepper (Piper nigrum)
4 drops Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
2 drop Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
1 drop Fennel, sweet (Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce)
Facial Steam: Fennel hydrolats are an excellent choice for brightening up normal, dull or oily complexions, and mature skin. Or, try a vapor steam by putting 3-5 drops in a bowl of steaming hot water. Place a towel on the back of the head and lean over the bowl until cool.
Hair Loss: Most people think of rosemary for hair loss. While that is an excellent choice, there are other oils that can be beneficial or this condition. Blend the following oils together and add two drops to a teaspoon of a carrier suitable for hair loss, such as avocado. Massage into hair nightly.
10 drops Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
10 drops Cedarwood Atlas (Cedrus atlantica)
5 drops Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea)
3 drops Sweet Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce)
2 drops Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis)
Colic Soother: If you are dealing with a colicky baby, you can make a massage blend to help ease the symptoms. This combination, from Kurt Schnaubelt, can be utilized while making the dietary changes needed to solve the problem.
3 drops Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. amara)
3 drops German Chamomile (Matricaria recutica)
3 drops Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
3 drops Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)
3 drops Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Gas Reliever: Infusion – 1-2 tsp/cup three times daily, or before meals