Herbal medicine can soothe and nourish the digestive tract. It can help to heal and seal the gut wall to prevent leaky gut and it can improve digestion. Herbal medicine can be an effective treatment for parasite infections and bacterial overgrowths, both of which can cause serious gut symptoms. They are also helpful combating viruses (think colds and the flu) which can really upset your gut.
Today we will be covering all these benefits that herbal medicine can have on gut health and more, so read on to learn how herbal medicine may be the missing piece to a healthy gut.
Gut Issues Are On The Rise
Gut issues are very much on the rise. I can list a dozen people that I know of personally that have any number of gut issues from poor digestion, feeling bloated after they eat to constipation and even gut pain. I bet you can add to the list of people with gut issues as well!
Surprisingly to some, herbal medicine can play a big role in helping to rebalance and retrain your digestion, improve leaky gut and even treat infections.
First off we’ll talk about the different herbal actions that can help with gut health issues.
The Actions Of Herbal Medicine
Herbal medicine has been around for a long time. Over that unthinkably long period of time we have managed to work out how certain herbs can influence our health and vitality. In the Western Herbal Medicine tradition we boil these ‘influences on health’ into actions. Each action has a different effect on the body.
Astringent herbs tighten the bodies tissues (think of an over steeped cup of black tea here and you’ll know the effects of astringent herbs). Diuretic herbs increase the excretion of excess fluids via the kidneys whereas hypnotic herbs induce sleep. Actions that are helpful when treating gut conditions include bitters, astringents, demulcents, carminatives, aromatic digestives, antimicrobials and many more.
Now that we have the basics out of the way let’s move onto why we are all here. How can herbal medicine help the gut?
Let’s start at the top of the digestive tract with bitter, bitter medicine.
Bitter Herbs and Gut Health – An Overview
First contact between the outer world and the digestive tract would be the mouth. Here we can rely on bitter herbal medicine to stimulate the taste buds on our tongue to trigger our digestive process.
Bitter herbal medicine’s can kick digestion into gear faster than many other herbs (not to mention drugs).
How and why do bitters help digestion?
The thinking goes that, during our evolution here on Earth, many poisonous plants are bitter. The nerve reflex triggered by that bitter taste on the tongue improves digestive acids in the stomach, stimulates gallbladder motility and tells the pancreas (the organ responsible for producing many of our digestive enzymes) that something is on it’s way down. Something that really needs to be dealt with.
Throughout evolution we have been testing new plants, adding ones that are edible and rejecting those that aren’t. This bitter taste reflex has helped to digest plants that may not have been on the edible list by kicking the digestive process into overdrive.
Nowadays we don’t have to worry so much about taste testing new (and possibly poisonous) plants. Still, our digestive system may still need a boost. Thanks to bitter herbal medicine this is possible.
Symptoms That May Indicate a Need for Bitter Herbal Medicine Include
- Feeling like food is hanging around in your stomach too long
- A heavy feeling after a meal.
- Inability to digest meat
- Indigestion of any type
Bitter herbal medicine also has an unusual effect on vitality. Vitality is a pretty simple concept to understand. Think of the most vibrant, healthy, glowing person you know. They rarely get sick and when they do their immune system kicks into gear quickly. That’s a vital person.
Many herbalists use bitters as a tonic in people that are flat or lethargic, anorexic, pale or just generally poorly nourished. That may seem a bit bizarre but considering all of the benefits that bitter herbs have on improving the digestion of foods and assimilation of nutrients it makes perfect sense.
The better we are digesting the better we are absorbing our food the better we are.
Stand Out Bitter Herbal Medicines Include
- Barberry (which also has the benefit of being a top antimicrobial too)
- Greater Celandine
- Dandelion root – a classic bitter herbal medicine in the Western Herbal tradition
Certain, mostly bitter, herbal medicines can also improve bile production and bile flow which can help if you struggle to digest fats. A symptom of poor fat digestion is if your poo floats (this may also be a very high fibre diet too). These herbs are known as choleretics, which stimulate the liver in it’s bile making function.
There are other types of herbal medicines that can stimulate digestion. Aromatic digestives such as Chen Pi are very helpful at warming the digestive tract and helping to tune in the complicated process of digestion.
Herbal Medicine For Stomach Pain and Excess Gas – Carminatives
Not the most pleasant subject I know. But the truth is that most people, especially with gut issues, have experienced abdominal pain and excess wind.
Taking a good case history and really narrowing in on the root cause is important, as per usual, but carminative herbs can help with many of the symptoms associated with poor gut health including
- Excess gas
- Abdominal pain
- Sluggish digestion
Most carminative herbs are also antimicrobial. Seeing as gut infections and imbalanced gut flora are at the root of many gut issues this is a major plus.
Stand out carminative herbs
Herbal Medicine Can Heal and Seal a Leaky Gut
Without getting too technical (it gets complicated here) leaky gut occurs when the gut wall has been compromised and things that should be kept within the digestive tract are allowed to cross the gut wall and into the body. Symptoms of leaky gut include fatigue, food intolerances, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea as well as skin rashes and even chemical sensitivities.
The long and short of it is that leaky gut isn’t great. Healing up a leaky gut should be a top priority for any herbalist.
There is a whole approach to healing a leaky gut that includes removing the offender which created the leaky gut in the first place. Often this can be gut infections such as parasites, bacterial imbalances and even food intolerances.
The type of herbal medicine that is used to heal and seal the gut are called demulcents. Anti-inflammatory herbs help here too.
Demulcent herbs soothe the gut wall and coat it in a thick, viscous gel-like substance that protects the gut wall and promotes healing.
- Slippery elm
- Marshmallow root
Herbal Medicine And Gut Infections
In the early days I spent most of my time looking into the antimicrobial effects of herbal medicine. This was very much based on a personal need as I was battling two parasitic infections including Blastocystis hominis and Dientamoeba fragilis and a number of bacterial overgrowths (Klebsiella being the most concerning to me)
Here herbal medicine really shines. I mean really shines!
The complexity of each herb and the dozens of different compounds that are found within them really come in handy when we are looking to treat gut infections.
Goldenseal is a perfect example of this. It has very well known and well studied natural compounds in it that are antimicrobial and benefit the gut wall.
There are more herbal antimicrobials than we can list here. That is a good thing. It means we can avoid the resistance that many bugs can develop when we are trying to target them! We won’t be covering them all here but if you’re really interested in this topic then Stephen Buhner is your go to guy.
Start with these two books and go from there
So turning to herbal medicine for gut infections we see some stand out herbs including
This particular herb is helpful when treating small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, parasite infections and in particular bacterial overgrowth in the gut.
Garlic is potently antimicrobial.
It is effective against bacterial overgrowths, fungi (think candida) and parasites as well. The real beauty of herbs is that they can influence the body in many different ways. Not only is garlic antimicrobial it is also great for the immune system, is an antioxidant, and can minimise any inflammation in the body. It can also reduce cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure.
Coptis chinensis also known as goldenthread.
This is an interesting, and relatively unknown herb outside of the Chinese Medicine tradition. In Chinese Medicine it is known as Huang Lian and used to drain dampness and clear heat. In Western Herbal medicine some skilled herbalists have adopted this particular herb, specifically for it’s high berberine content.
Combining Herbal Antimicrobials & Immune Enhancing Herbs
My personal success in treating the parasite Blastocystis hominis came from combining a whole handful of different antimicrobial and immune enhancing herbs.
- Coptis chinensis aka Goldenthread or Huang Lian
- Black Walnut
- Cat’s Claw
- Olive Leaf
What about other infections like flus and colds? Here we can rely on a range of different herbal medicines. One of my favourite approaches to dealing with an oncoming cold or flu is ginger. Lots and lots of ginger.
The recipe goes like this.
- 1 kg of fresh ginger put through the juicer
- Use half a cup of this ginger juice
- A hefty squeeze from a lime
- ¼ tsp of cayenne pepper
- Liberal amounts of honey
Mix this with hot water and slowly sip it for the next hour. Repeat 2-6 times per day at the onset of a cold or flu and be amazed!
Other herbal antivirals include
- Chinese skullcap
This list contains a number of herbs that are also antibacterial, combat intestinal worms and even promote the movement of mucus and phlegm out of your lungs.
Herbal Medicine and The Gut – A Conclusion
As an overview we’ve covered how herbal medicine, in the hands of a skilled herbalist, can help move the needle on your gut health issues. As always looking for the root cause of the gut health issue is the top priority. Next step we look to address and resolve the root cause. Simultaneously we improve the presenting symptoms.
In each and every one of these steps herbs can play a crucial role, supporting the body to digest, detox and eliminate.
Have you had any experiences with herbal medicine and your gut health issues? Leave a comment below!
References & Resources
- High incidence of inflammatory bowel disease in Australia: A prospective population-based Australian incidence study
- Gastrointestinal health. The role of pro- and pre-biotics in standard foods.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome : Diagnosis and Clinical Management
- Principles and Practices of Phytotherapy
- In the Surgery: Gut Permeability and Intestinal Dysbiosis
- Herbal Antibiotics – Stephen Buhner
- Herbal Antivirals – Stephen Buhner
- Fecal Microbiota in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome Compared with Healthy Controls Using Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction: An Evidence of Dysbiosis.
- Culture-proven small intestinal bacterial overgrowth as a cause of irritable bowel syndrome: response to lactulose but not broadspectrum antibiotics.
- Clinical naturopathic medicine – Leah Hechtman
- Artichoke leaf extract reduces symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in a post-marketing surveillance study.