The digestive system. How it works and what to forage to help maintain gut health.
“The primary seat of insanity generally, is in the region of the stomach and small intestine” ~ unknown
The digestive system is responsible for the healthy assimilation of food and the elimination of waste. It primarily consists of the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (also called the colon), the rectum, and the anus.
Within these hollow organs and passage-ways is a protective fatty lining called the mucosa. In the mouth, stomach, and small intestine, the mucosa contains tiny glands that produce juices to help digest food. The digestive tract also contains a layer of smooth muscle that helps break down food and move it along the tract.
Without proper digestion and assimilation, the necessary building blocks for sustaining health will be absent. Diet and stress have been argued as two of the most common causal factors behind a number of digestive disorders.
It is known that when adrenaline is released in response to stress, a reduction of blood flow to digestive organs occurs, which during prolonged periods of stress can lead to digestive disorders. These may include irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcers, constipation, heart burn, inflammatory bowel disease, gallstones, and indigestion. Thankfully, many of these conditions can be treated by using plants, yet the underlying causal factors will still need addressing.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Formerly known as ‘spastic colon’, this is a blanket term for a wide range of common symptoms, including abdominal cramping, alternate constipation and diarrhoea, wind, and bloating. Common triggers include stress, anxiety and food sensitivities .Therefore, simple dietary changes may alleviate it.
A range of astringent, anti-spasmodic and demulcent herbs such as meadowsweet, marshmallow, yarrow, chamomile, psyllium seeds, and the essential oil of peppermint or fennel, can all be successfully used as an adjunct to dietary changes, dependent on the nature of the disorder and symptoms shown.
These are erosions of the mucosal lining of the stomach or the small intestine (duodenum). The stomach produces hydrochloric acid to help digest food. If this eats away at the lining due to over-production for example, it will begin to create an ulcer. Upper gastric ulcers are exacerbated by food while duodenal ulcers are relieved by food. Symptoms vary with age. The famous astringent, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory herb meadowsweet, is the best plant for this condition. Yarrow can be a very effective also.
Demulcent herbs such as marshmallow, comfrey, plantains, and marshmallow can all be used successfully whereby their mucilage soothes exposed areas. Any of the carminative anti-spasmodic plants, such as rosemary, peppermint, and the chamomiles, also ease digestive processes and calm gastric nerve endings.
As one of the major routes out of the body, the bowel is where we process and eliminate waste to maintain health. Blockages can reduce vitality and contribute to a range of health problems. The main causes are lack of dietary fibre, lack of exercise, dehydration, certain prescription drugs, nervous stress, and poor visceral muscle tone, leading to reduced peristalsis.
Yellow dock and dandelion have been much used as aperients to relieve this often painful condition.
Cramp bark, lady’s mantle, silver birch, or meadowsweet can all help relieve abdominal spasms. Sometimes, stronger purgatives such as rhubarb root may be needed.
Professional advice and care need to be taken if thinking of self-medicating with strong, cathartic herbs, such are their power and effects.
A symptom of ‘acid reflux’ – where stomach acid travels back past the stomach sphincter up along the oesophagus (refluxed) towards the gullet. It is common in around 1/10 of the population and will often occur after a heavy meal.
The condition is worsened by drinking alcohol and coffee, eating rich, fatty foods, overeating, and smoking. Over-production of stomach acid is one of the ways our body will try and repair itself due to a) excessive consumption of harmful foods and beverages such as curries, alcohol and caffeine and b) various stresses.
Many typically experience acid-reflux as a ‘heart burn’ sensation along with the unpleasant passage of stomach acid back up the oesophagus. This is one of the first signs of ulceration coming on and needs immediate treatment in order to prevent the condition becoming more serious. Meadowsweet corrects this unpleasant disorder and many others of the gastro-intestinal-tract, like no other plant I know.
Yarrow, chamomile or peppermint tea can also offer great help for heartburn.
This can be caused by over-eating, eating too fast, stress, insufficient stomach acid or digestive enzymes, or a condition known as hiatus hernia where the stomach protrudes through the stomach lining into the thorax (chest cavity). Historically, bitter herbs were consumed far more than today. One of the advantages of taking plant medicines is that they are nearly all bitter to a lesser or greater degree.
Aperitifs were once quite common at the dinner table. Precluding the meal, these bitter-herb liqueurs are taken to kick-start the digestive juices. Wormwood (famously in absinthe), mugwort, yarrow, dandelion, angelica, hops, and yellow dock are a few examples of bitter herbs which help correct digestive function.
Plants such as lemon Balm, peppermint, chamomile, fennel, or any aromatic species, will give welcome relief from many instances of indigestion.
Flatulence, colic and griping
These are all common disorders where excessive gaseous production in the stomach or the upper part of the gastric tract results in discomfort. All are readily treatable with an infusion of any of the large number of carminative herbs such as fennel, chamomiles, mints, rosemary, wild marjoram, or thymes. Other essential oil bearing plants such as horseradish and wild carrot seed will also help here.
Inflammatory bowel disease- crohns disease and ulcerative colitis
These often debilitating and difficult-to-manage diseases can bring long term health implications. They can be caused by genetic factors, a poorly regulated immune system, or sometimes infection. Plants have an important role to play in managing the diseases, alongside to changes in nutrition.
Demulcent herbs such as marshmallow, plantains, and comfrey may need to be taken alongside anti-microbial herbs and anti-inflammatory astringent herbs such as meadowsweet, yarrow, and yellow dock.
Bitter herbs such as mugwort and wormwood are of great use due to their action in regulating digestive secretions. Often there may also be a call for relieving stress and anxiety, so valerian, chamomile, and lime flowers can all help.
The presence of these may be very painful and cause inflammation and infection. Gallstones have been successfully treated by herbs for millennia. Always consult with a qualified practitioner before use. Certain herbs such as dandelion are contra-indicated for use, and could potentially aggravate the condition.
Seek professional advice before self-medicating. Burdock has been traditionally used to help the body expel stones, as has marshmallow root.
Specific herbs for gallstones include plants of the Berberidaceae family, such as the shrubs barberry (Berberis vulgaris) and the oregan grape (Mahonia aquifolium). These last two plants can be used for many of the conditions that the over-used and endangered plant goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is indicated for.
Plants in the berberis family contain berberine (an active principle in goldenseal). These molecules are known to help the passing of gallstones.
The plants needed for this painful condition are essentially the same as those for varicose veins, only this time the problem is in the anus. Poor diet and poor digestion are just two of the causes. Astringent herbs care called for, such the plant named after piles- pilewort.
Other astringent plants to help here include oak bark, horse-chestnut, lady’s mantle, and the plantains.
More herbs to help reclaim health autonomy are coming soon, so watch this space!