Herbs for Digestive Health


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In the western herbal tradition, herbal medicines are used to support various aspects of digestive health. Many health conditions, seen elsewhere in the body, are first addressed by a focus on gut health and optimizing gut function. Improving gut health can be the starting point in the journey towards better general health.

Indeed, to work in a way that is truly holistic we have to understand and respect the interconnectedness of gut health, emotions, food, hormones and microbes and how they impact our health and vitality.

Most herbs are like foods, taken through the mouth, so their healing action can have a direct effect at their point of contact. In fact, herbs such as ginger, cinnamon and fennel can be added directly as ingredients into the foods you are preparing.

Nature has provided an abundance of plants for us to use to support digestive health and we are spoilt for choice really. For the sake of brevity, I will use broad strokes to describe some of the herbs used for the digestion system, and highlight some of the better-known examples. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and peppermint (Mentha x piperita), are outstanding herbs for the digestive system and form the basis of many digestive formulas. Importantly, the quality of the herb is key when seeking to deliver a therapeutic effect.

Bitters

Herbal bitters have been used for thousands of years across the world. Bitters, and herbal liqueurs were a staple product of European monasteries with proprietary recipes still held as closely guarded secrets today.

Indeed, some are still sold as aperitifs such as Campari, vermouth, Dubonnet, absinthe, Aperol, Sambuca, Ouzo, Swedish bitters, London gin, and Angostura bitters. These are taken before a meal to stimulate the appetite and aid digestion.  Moreover, they would traditionally be provided as a tonic to people who had lost their appetite.

Bitter taste receptors are towards the back of the tongue. Stimulating the bitter receptors triggers a reflex response releasing digestive hormones and enzymes, as well as increasing gastric acid secretion while generally preparing the digestive tract to receive foods.  

Aperitifs contain familiar herbs such as caraway, fennel, gentian, ginger, cinnamon, angelica root, cinnamon, chamomile, rosemary, and bitter orange peel.

Hepatics

Hepatics are used to stimulate bile production and support liver function, especially in cases of sluggish bowel movements.

Examples include dandelion root (Taraxacum officinalis radix), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), yellow dock (Rumex crispus). 

Demulcents

These herbs are rich in mucilage that soothes and protects an inflamed or irritated digestive tract.

Herbs include marshmallow root (Althea officinalis radix), slippery elm bark (Ulmus fulva), irish moss (Chondrus crispus).

Carminatives

Soothing aromatic herbs that reduce flatulence (gas) and bloating.

Herbs include fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), aniseed (Pimpinella anisum), ginger (Zingeber officinale), cardamom (Elattaria cardamomum)

Antispasmodics

Herbs that help relax spasms in the intestines, crampbark (Viburnum opulus), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), peppermint (Mentha x piperita).

Astringents

These have a binding effect on the gut wall and are a little drying as a result of their tannins. The binding action is similar to that of tanning leather. This can reduce inflammation and irritation as well as reduce diarrhoea (when desired). They are used cautiously and not for long periods as they may theoretically interfere with nutrient absorption. 

Herbs include agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), tormentil (Potentilla tormentilla) oak bark (Quercus robur) witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).

Antimicrobials

Digestive imbalance can be caused by an infection, perhaps dating back to a trip abroad or to unhealthy bacteria proliferating in the gut at the expense of healthy bacteria.

Herbs include wormwood (Artemesia absinthium), myrrh (Commiphora molmol), and thyme (Thymus vulgaris).

Laxatives

Diet is the primary driver of smooth and easy bowel movements, but occasionally herbs are needed to provide a little temporary help.

Herbs include dandelion root (Taraxacum officinalis radix), senna pods (Cassia angustifolia), cascara (Rhamnus purshiana).

Herbal prescriptions are custom blended for each individual to give the most effective results. Most prescriptions contain four to eight herbs that are chosen based on a full health history and current symptoms.

Medical Herbalists are experts in Herbal Medicine and can work with you to ensure that your herbs are compatible with other therapies and/or medications.

Jill Burns