5 Herbs for Digestive Health
By Hannah Jacobson-Hardy of sweetbirchherbals.com
There is something we all have in common as humans, yet don’t talk about it nearly enough – digestive issues! When my digestion feels “off,” I am not a happy camper.
I’ve been plagued by many of the common ailments, but I won’t get into too much detail here. Whether it was something I picked up while traveling in Latin America, or heartburn after a heavy meal, I understand it is no fun when our digestion feels off.
In my early 20’s I suffered from stomach pain and chronic heartburn, so I started to work with an herbalist who guided me through several dietary changes. She also provided an herbal formula blended for my specific issues.
My digestion improved immensely over a few months. I became so passionate about the incredible results of integrating herbal medicine into my life that I went on to become an herbalist myself. I thought, “If this stuff works so well, I have to share it with others!”
I am here to share with you 5 herbs for digestive health that have changed my life.
In addition to cooking with these herbs regularly, I sometimes take them in tincture form. A tincture is a combination of alcohol, water, and plant material that draws out and preserves the medicinal constituents of a plant. Tinctures can also be made with glycerin, to avoid using alcohol.
I make tinctures because there are many powerful herbs that aren’t always ideal for cooking. Who wants to drink slippery elm bark gruel every morning? I find many herbs more palatable as tinctures.
While I am a huge advocate of kitchen medicine because I believe we can get many of the nutrients and medicine we need from whole foods, I also recognize that humans have been treating ailments with medicinal herbs as teas and tinctures for hundreds of years. Therefore, I integrate them all into my herbal medicine practice: food, tea, and tincture.
Note: If you live in western Massachusetts, all of the herbs below can be found at Acadia Herbals in Northampton. They can also be found fresh at River Valley Market. Otherwise, links to good quality products on Amazon are provided.
This incredible root works on multiple organ systems involved in digestion. It tones the colon by reducing inflammation and strengthening the tissue, which helps treat IBS. Its warming effects dissolve gas and bloating, while invigorating the appetite. If your digestion feels sluggish and bogged down, turmeric can help! It promotes the secretion of bile, which is necessary for breaking down fats.
Turmeric also protects the liver from free radicals, aiding in detoxification, among hundreds of other activities the liver is responsible for. Turmeric warms and stimulates the blood while helping to lower elevated cholesterol levels. This is one plant ally you will always want on your side, especially if you suffer from stiff achy joints because of its anti-inflammatory properties!
Cook with it liberally in stir-fries and curried dishes. Turmeric root should be warmed or processed into a tincture before consuming so the extraction of medicinal properties can happen more fully.
Cautions/contraindications: pregnancy, acute hepatitis. Caution esp. with dried turmeric for gastritis, gastric ulcers, and in large amounts with diabetes.
Slippery Elm Bark is a soothing nutritive demulcent and emollient, which is perfectly suited for sensitive or inflamed mucous membrane linings in the digestive system, similar to Marshmallow. It may be used for gastritis, gastric or duodenal ulcers, enteritis, and colitis. It will both soothe and astringe diarrhea.
To make a gruel, place a tablespoon of powdered slippery elm into a pint of water, simmer 10-15 minutes and stir well until it has reached a thick slippery consistency. Drink half a cup three times a day. This nutritive gruel is an easily digestible food for those too weak to eat normal foods. Slippery elm can also be added to cooked oatmeal.
Cautions: Whenever you take slippery elm internally also drink a large glass of water – slippery elm can become too drying if not taken with enough water because it will soak up water and expand. Because of its high mucilage content, any medications taken with slippery elm may have a delayed absorption rate.
Marshmallow root is not the white puffy ball of processed sugar you can buy in the store. It is, however, a common weed in North America having escaped from gardens. The root is used to treat hot inflamed mucous membranes and digestive issues ranging from colitis, ulcers, ulcerative colitis, hiatal hernias, reflux, GERD, heartburn, and Crohn’s disease. Marshmallow root’s anti-inflammatory, moistening and cooling effects soothe hot abraded tissues. It normalizes out of balance elimination that swings between constipation and loose stools. Therefore, it helps treat IBS. You can make a tea with 1 tsp. to 8 oz. water, steep and stir in not-too-hot water for 15-20 minutes, 3-4 cups daily. Or, take a tincture, 2-3 droppers 3-4 X daily.
No known contraindications or cautions.
Licorice root is most known for its soothing effect on inflamed mucous membranes of the throat, lungs, stomach and intestines. The root is used for coughs, throat and bronchial irritations, urinary tract irritation, adrenal fatigue, immune deficient states, allergies, gastric and duodenal ulcers, liver disorders, and exhaustion due to adrenal stress. It tastes sweet and is moistening, so it’s a great addition to digestive formulas to treat hot, dry tissue states.
Licorice root helps to reduce the acid secretions in the stomach and provides a protective mucous for the stomach lining. It is also a great hormone balancer for women because of its estrogenic and other steroidal properties. Simmer 1 tsp. per 8 oz. water for 20-30 minutes and drink 2-3 cups daily.
Contraindications: high blood pressure, heart failure, kidney disease, liver cirrhosis and cholestatic liver disorders.
Extensive research by community herbalist, Jade Alicandro Mace of Milk and Honey Herbs, reveals that this plant has been hanging out with people for so long that botanists aren’t sure where it originally came from. A Persian scientist and philosopher, Ibn Sina, wrote a book chapter about dandelion in 1000 A.D. You probably have your own relationship to this flowering “weed,” right? The roots, leaves and flowers are all edible and medicinal, but be sure to harvest only from unpolluted locations. The leaves are tastiest in spring and fall and are a mild diuretic so don’t be surprised if you have to run to the restroom shortly after a dandelion greens salad. The leaves contain 338% of your daily vitamin A and 649% of your daily vitamin K needs! They are also high in calcium, iron, potassium and manganese – essential micro-nutrients and minerals!
The roots stimulate the flow of bile and hydrochloric acid, aiding in digestion, nutrient absorption, and elimination. Take 1 tsp. of dandelion root tincture 15 minutes before or after a meal as a digestive bitter. The roots cool the liver and hot irritated skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and acne. The high inulin content helps the body absorb calcium and acts as a pre-biotic to promote the growth of the body’s own resident probiotics. Inulin normalizes pancreatic function, helping regulate blood sugar, making it very effective for hypoglycemia and blood sugar crashes and swings.
Caution with excess hydrochloric acid conditions like heartburn, ulcers, and gastritis.
Hannah, owner of Sweet Birch Herbals, is a practicing herbalist and holistic health coach in Northampton, MA. She creates her own high quality, custom blended formulas and provides specifically tailored protocols that include nutritional guidance and lifestyle suggestions. All of her plant medicines are sustainably wild-crafted and cultivated to ensure abundance for future generations. For more information about integrating herbs into your diet to heal chronic or acute digestive issues, contact Hannah at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her website to order products, find classes, and schedule consultations at www.sweetbirchherbals.com.
Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.