Good digestion is fundamental to health and a holistic approach to ill health will always consider the digestive system. There are many plants that are commonly used to help with digestive complaints and below is an outline of some general classes of herbs used as such.
Demulcents have a soothing and protective action on the gut lining, protecting it from irritations which can lead to diarrhoea. Slippery elm powder is a really useful demulcent herb. As a slimy mucilaginous barrier, taken with plenty of water, it protects the gut lining. However it will also act as a bulking agent to ease constipation as it absorbs lots of water in the gut. Slippery elm also contains probiotic compounds that are used as food by beneficial bacteria in the gut, so promoting good gut health. Other common demulcents are marshmallow, bladderwrack and linseed.
Astringents contain tannins and are used due to their direct effect on the lining of the gut. They are used a temporary measure to cause reactions that ‘harden’ the tissue to reduce secretions and protect against irritations. They can be used as a short-term treatment for diarrhoea that is not due to infection. Raspberry and blackberry leaves, as well as black tea have astringent action. Slippery elm also contains tannins; it is particularly useful as it can be used for diarrhoea and constipation.
Mucous membrane tonicsare used to generally support good tissue tone and function. A common example is plantain, that grows commonly on waste ground. They act to reduce excess secretions, reduce inflammation and aid healing and are used in most gastrointestinal conditions as there is usually an element of poor tissue tone.
Bitters are ‘tonics’ for the digestive system. They stimulate all digestive secretions, increase blood flow to the gut, increasing appetite and gut motility. Common bitter plants are dandelion root, hops and peppermint. Taken typically half an hour before a meal they prepare the gut for food, making good digestion more likely with fewer subsequent problems.
Antiinflammatoriesare used to reduce inflammation in the gut, which can be due to the irritating effects of poorly digested food or more serious conditions. Liquorice is a great anti-inflammatory which also promotes the production of the protective mucous layer in the gut. Chamomile and marigold are also healing and meadowsweet has the advantage of being a herbal ‘antacid’.
Liver herbs. The liver is central to good digestion, producing bile that has many beneficial effects including promotion of fat digestion. Some herbs are primarily liver-protective, such as artichoke leaf and the well-known milk thistle seed. Others stimulate the production and/or flow of bile and include dandelion root and peppermint (as well as artichoke leaf again)
Laxatives. When most people think of herbal laxatives they think of senna pods, which contain compounds called anthraquinones and have a strong stimulating effect on the gut which can be problematic in the long term. Gentler remedies include bulking agents such as linseed and slippery elm. Stimulating bile flow with liver herbs can also be helpful.
Carminatives (‘aromatic digestives’) increase circulation to the gut and aid in releasing wind by relaxing sphincters. They are useful for many common digestive problems (but may aggravate reflux). Some of the most potent carminatives are angelica (also a bitter) caraway, fennel and are best taken as a hot tea before meals, however many herbs possess carminative properties including chilli, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, chamomile, lemon balm, peppermint, thyme, ginger.
Antispasmodicor relaxant herbs are also very useful and there is a lot of overlap with the carminatives. Tension in the digestive system is common in IBS and relaxant herbs can help to relax the gut to reduce symptoms while working on the underlying issues. Common relaxant herbs are chamomile, lemon balm, peppermint and valerian.
Anti-infective herbs Many plants have a beneficial effect on the immune system or in directly reducing gut pathogens. For example H. pylori is specifically inhibited by cinnamon and bilberry and barberry can be used as a general anti-infective.
- Caution: Information below is for interest only, not to be used as a treatment protocol; please seek medical advice.
- Herbs indicated below can be safely sourced from www.woodlandherbs.co.uk. Wild plants may be mis-identified or contaminated.
- Extracts of herbs can easily be made by adding hot water, as for a strong tea, and leaving to cool. Infusions will keep in the fridge for 3 days.