Herbal medicine is uniquely suited for the treatment of illness of the
digestive system. Throughout the evolutionary process, our food has been our
medicine, ensuring that the unique healing properties of the herbs concerned
have a direct effect upon the lining of the alimentary canal. Not only will
there be the effects due to the metabolism and absorption of the whole range of
plant chemicals present, but there will also be a direct action upon the tissue
Much of digestive system illness in our society is simply due to abuse. Today's
average diet has a preponderance of overly processed foods, a high proportion
of chemical additives of differing function and the direct chemical irritation
of alcohol, carbonated drinks and tobacco. In this context it is easy to see
why herbal remedies are so helpful in the various inflammations and reactions
that plague such abusers. The direct soothing of demulcents, healing of
astringents and general toning of bitters does much to reverse the damage.
However, as with all true healing, any potential `cure' lies beyond the range
of medicines, whether they be herbal or drug in nature. The healing process
must involve a change of whatever dietary indiscretions are occurring as well
as attention being given to life style changes that may be called for to reduce
stress. Herbal medicine can bring about dramatic improvements in even profound
digestive system problems but the long term maintenance of benefit lies in the
hands of the person seeking treatment.
Used within such a holistic context, herbal medicine offers specific remedies
for particular pathological syndromes and also tonics and normalizers that can
help prevent problems manifesting at all. The possibility arises of treating
the problem within a context of general nurturing that speeds the improvement
in health and enables a re-establishing of health and harmony.
In the hands of a skilled Herbalist there is much that can be achieved
therapeutically, and whilst each unique individual with, say, a gastric ulcer
will have their own array of factors involved, it is possible to identify some
useful herbal generalities.
It is the whole tradition of herbs for aiding digestion that has maintained the
strongest foothold in the memory of modern Europe. Whether it be culinary herbs
such as Rosemary or as `medicinal' alcohols like Vermouth or Chartreuse,
therapeutic remedies are used in large quantities. The very name vermouth comes
from the bitter remedy Wormwood. Herbs maintain their foothold in the official
pharmacopoeias as the major therapeutic agents in the categories of digestive
bitters, carminatives and varying strengths of laxatives.
Health and Wellness in the Digestive System
Of course there is much more to preventative medicine than taking `stuff',
whether it be a medicinal plant of chemical drug. Remembering the WHO definition
of health, any attempt to promote wellness and prevent the development of
disease must addressed the whole complex of factors that WHO identified. A
number of risk factors can be identified as well positive factors. As the focus
of this material is upon phytotherapy we shall only mention in passing the
non-herbal issues. This is not to imply a `lower' significance but simply a
reflection of space constraints.
By far the most important contribution made by plants to the health of the
human digestive system is in the form of the food we eat. Often the only
fundamental difference between a salad vegetable and a medicinal herb is that
one taste better!
The term dietary fiber refers to the components of plant cell
walls as well as indigestible food residues. The composition of the plant cell
wall varies from species to species, and is composed of a complex of
constituents, thus supplements of a single component do not replace a diet
rich in high-fiber foods. The importance of dietary fiber's in human health is
well established (see Table 1).
The scientific literature abounds in research on the association between fibre
and human health, with a number of conditions being associated with a low fibre
diet (see Table 2). A high fibre diet is associated with a decreased incidence
of most of the degenerative diseases of `Western' society. This is not simply a
result of increased levels of dietary fiber as such a diet is also high in
other important nutrients, most of which are also deficient in the `normal'
diet. The best source of dietary fiber is from whole foods, although specific
types of fibers have their use in the treatment phase of specific diseases.
There is no substitute for a healthy diet, i.e., a diet composed of foods as
close to their original form as possible.
- Decreased intestinal transit time
- Delayed gastric emptying resulting in reduced after-meal elevations of blood
- Increased satiety
- Increased pancreatic secretion
- Increased stool weight
- More soluble bile
- More advantageous intestinal microflora
- Increased production of short chain fatty acids
- Decreased serum lipids
To summarize here are some relevant actions and herbs for the digestive
Anti-Inflammatories: Chamomile, "Carminatives" etc.
- Metabolic Conditions: Obesity, gout, diabetes, kidney stones,
- Cardiovascular Conditions: Hypertension, cerebrovascular disease,
ischemic heart disease, varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary
- Colonic Conditions: Constipation, appendicitis, diverticulitis,
diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome,
ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease
- Other Conditions: Dental caries, autoimmune disorders, pernicious
anemia, multiple sclerosis, thyrotoxicosis, dermatological conditions
Anti-Spasmodic: Chamomile, Valerian, Cramp Bark, "Carminatives"
Aperient & Laxative: Yellow Dock, Senna, Dandelion root
Hepatics & Cholagogues: Dandelion, Bitters, Milk Thistle, Golden
Nervines: Depends on the indications. Chamomile, Lavender, Valerian,
Dysfunction in the Digestive System
A number of processes, symptoms or general experiences are found in conditions
of the digestive system. By knowing herbal approaches to address these general
patterns, the herbalist has gone a long way towards understanding the treatment
of a specific pathology. Knowing how to alleviate the discomfort caused by any
specific symptom does not mean that that is what the phytotherapist does. The
focus, as in all holistic approaches to health, must go deeper than simply
symptom treatment, but that is often going to involved such steps.
Phytotherapy and The Colon
There is a wide range of plants that have a direct impact on colitis and other
conditions of the colon. With astringents such as Bayberry, wound healing
demulcents like Comfrey root or Plantain and the colic relieving properties of
the anti-spasmodic Wild Yam much can be done to facilitate the healing of these
Colitis, an inflammation of the colon, appears to be caused by a number of
different factors. Mucous colitis, also called irritable or spastic colon, is a
functional disturbance in which the colon secretes abnormally large amounts of
mucus, which appears in the stools. The most common symptom is abdominal
cramping accompanied by either constipation or diarrhea, sometimes alternately.
From what has already been said, the therapeutic possibilities of herbs in this
conditions are exciting. Ulcerative colitis is another matter. A serious
inflammatory disease that seems to be autoimmune in nature, poses real
challenges to any therapist, whether herbalist or allopath. A competent
medical herbalist's has much to offer in the treatment of auto-immune