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Herbal Therapy for Digestive System Disorders

© David L. Hoffmann BSc (Hons), MNIMH

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 through contact.

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!



Fibre
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).
Decreased intestinal transit time
Delayed gastric emptying resulting in reduced after-meal elevations of blood sugar
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
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.
Metabolic Conditions: Obesity, gout, diabetes, kidney stones, gallstones
Cardiovascular Conditions: Hypertension, cerebrovascular disease, ischemic heart disease, varicose veins, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism
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
To summarize here are some relevant actions and herbs for the digestive system: Anti-Inflammatories: Chamomile, "Carminatives" etc.
Anti-Spasmodic: Chamomile, Valerian, Cramp Bark, "Carminatives"
Aperient & Laxative: Yellow Dock, Senna, Dandelion root
Hepatics & Cholagogues: Dandelion, Bitters, Milk Thistle, Golden Seal, Balmony
Nervines: Depends on the indications. Chamomile, Lavender, Valerian, Rosemary, Mugwort


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 distressing problems.

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 condition.

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About The Author
Whilst working in conservation and lecturing in ecology and the eco-crisis for the University of Wales, David Hoffman became convinced that to heal the world, to embrace planetary wholeness and responsibility for it with hope, he as an individual had to be whole within himself....more
 
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Disclaimer: The information provided on HealthWorld Online is for educational purposes only and IS NOT intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek professional medical advice from your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.