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Saturday, June 14, 2014

herbs for digestive stomach problems

We in our little family refer to stomach problems as Tiny Tummy Troubles, and Big Tummy Troubles. Most Tiny Troubles can be remedied easily at home, and many Big ones can be at least aided by some herbal knowledge. This is not a definitive guide to curing all kinds of gastrointestinal trouble, but it will provide some basic go-to remedies for standard living as well as some suggestions for dealing with longer term problems.

First identify:

What specifically are my symptoms?

Is this a temporary problem? Is it caused by something I ate? If so, can I identify what food? Is a virus to blame?

Is this a frequent or ongoing problem? Is it caused by a specific food? Could it be a food intolerance?

Is this a problem that needs to be addressed directly with medical expertise? Am I taking any prescribed medication that is causing my problem, or that should not be mixed with certain herbal medicines?

Any bleeding, excessive vomiting or fevers, or reactions to any homemade remedies, all indicate potential for a serious problem and the person should be taken right away to the Emergency Room, especially in the case of elderly, and children and infants. As with all home treatments using herbs, if any malady follows a herbal or natural remedy, whether you think the herb was the cause or not, be sure to grab the jar or make a mental note as you leave the house so that you can inform the doctors anything they may need to know. 

Slippery Elm Bark Powder is a mucilagenic, demulcent, and emollient herb, which adds a lot of protective coating to the inside of the digestive system when taken internally. This makes slippery elm a fabulous treatment for inflammation, which is usually at least part of the problem with any digestive disorder. "It helped keep George Washington's army alive during the bitter winter at Valley Forge" (2), and is taught by some writers to have similar nutritional value to oatmeal. Externally, slippery elm was used by Indians in North America in poultice form for healing wounds and burns. In the digestive tract, it absorbs toxins and heightened acid and carries them out of the body through the slippery coating with which it lines the body's tissues. This is a herb widely considered safe for children and adults, both healthy and weakened by illness, as it is gentle while effective and does not bear any stimulative properties.

We like to mix slippery elm with natural live yogurt or applesauce, sometimes with acidophilus added to the mix as well, and consume as a food. This can be a meal in itself or as a meal supplement. My son didn't take to eating food regularly very quickly, and for a while he would eat well for a day or two and then refuse to eat solids for the rest of the week. This made his bowel movements irregular at times, and even the smallest disturbances can prove extra uncomfortable in little people, especially for those under the age of 2 yrs whose guts have not fully closed. So after asking around a bit and doing some research, I settled on slippery elm bark powder, 1 tsp in food at the start of each meal (after which he continued in Baby Led Weaning style rather than off the spoon). It made a huge difference! Regularity and texture became more comfortable and stable, and although he is now nearly 3 yrs old we still keep slippery elm in the apothecary as a just-in-case food to be consumed at the start of suspected illness, tummy rumblings and gas, or irregularity for some reason.

You can make a kind of porridge or gruel by mixing together equal parts of slippery elm bark and marshmallow root, both powdered, 1/8th part each of cinnamon and fennel seed powder, and water. 1-2 Tbs of the powdered and mixed herbs in 1 cup of water, simmered for 10-15 minutes, will thicken up into a spoon-friendly mixture that can be sweetened gently with breast milk for infants, or a natural sweetener such as raw honey or maple syrup for older children and adults, and eaten straight or with cooked oatmeal as an appropriate nourishing food for a weakened stomach. Rosemary Gladstar suggests that colicky infants may consume as much slippery elm bark gruel as they like.

Aloe vera is a fleshy succulent plant I like to keep growing in a pot in my house, ready as a fresh, instant poultice in case of any wound or burn. Most people think of aloe gel from the local drug store as a sunburn treatment. And it is wonderfully soothing and healing for all types of burns. I have a large jug of aloe juice in my fridge for whipping up with herbal salve into healing lotions in the blender.
Many people don't actually realize that aloe can be consumed, too. "The Spanish conquistadors found Central American Indians using aloe for burns, skin and stomach ulcers, dysentery, intestinal disorders, longevity, kidney disorders, prostatitis and sexual prowess. In Java, aloe juice is massaged into hair and scalp to improve its condition and stimulate growth. Documented cases of radiation burn victims from the atomic bombs used in Japan show more rapid healing using aloe than any other method of burn treatment." (2)

Taken internally, one Tb of fresh aloe cut from the inside of the fleshy leaf helps to absorb toxins in the bowel, acts as demulcent to the digestive tract, soothes inflamed and irritated tissues and helps pass out waste more quickly. This can be added to a smoothie or raw food, or eaten neat. It is also believed to be a probable antibiotic due to the mucopolysaccharides, the mucilage found in aloe flesh. Many herbs are best raw and fresh, but this is especially true with aloe. However, some herbalists note that aloe juice and some brands of freeze dried aloe capsules are reliable. Care must be taken to ensure the quality of these products, however, as many companies tout "100% natural" and yet "odorless, colorless" products. Such products are not reliable and likely contain little or no real aloe.

The plant is relatively easy to grow fresh, however, so if you cannot find a good quality aloe juice in your area, grow it. Or, grow it anyway. Aloe vera wants little water, and I find that a good flood and drain once a month is sufficient for mine. It also only needs indirect sunlight, so a table in the living or laundry room is likely better than a windowsill in most houses. Aloe puts out lots of little babies that can be repotted as gifts or to expand your personal supply, so a year of tending a baby aloe from the local garden center should yield a reasonable harvest for comparatively little effort. 

Acidophilus, or lactobacillus acidophilus, is "a type of 'friendly' bacteria that assists in the digestion of proteins, a process in which lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide, enzymes, B vitamins, and antibiotic substances that inhibit pathogenic organisms are produced. Acidophilus has antifungal properties, helps to reduce blood cholesterol levels, aids digestion, and enhances the absorption of nutrients. The flora in the healthy colon should consist of at least 85 percent lactobacilli and 15 percent coliform bacteria. However, the typical colon bacteria count today is the reverse. This can result in gas, bloating, intestinal and systemic toxicity, constipation, and malabsorption of nutrients, and is conducive to an overgrowth of candida. Taking an acidophilus supplement helps to combat all of these problems by returning the intestinal flora to a healthier balance. In addition, acidophilus may help to detoxify harmful susbtances." (1)

I give my son a daily child's chewable acidophilus, and my husband and I use the natural gelatin capsules you see pictured above. Powder capsules I find to be the most versatile form of acidophilus, as they can easily be broken open and the dose divided, added to food, even added to baby's milk on a spoon if needed. At one point in time, my son was still exclusively nursing at the breast but there were some nasty viruses going around and my husband came down with strep throat. My son was getting a lot of protective goodness from my breast milk alone, but I was keen to avoid him getting sick. So on top of the usual precautions -- Daddy sleeping in a different room, no touching or kissing, no sharing drinks, etc -- I broke open a capsule of adult acidophilus and gave my son 1/8th capsule mixed with my milk on a teaspoon twice a day. Powdered acidophilus can also be added to enemas or colonic irrigation to help restore healthy gut flora. This can be especially helpful to a body weakened by influenza that is sensitive to vomiting, for example, so that the stomach is not irritated by adding fluids or food and the acidophilus is absorbed quickly in the colon and the gut.

Peppermint, according to Rosemary Gladstar, "has often been called, 'a blast of pure green energy'. It's not that there aren't stronger stimulants, but few make you feel as renewed and refreshed as peppermint does. Peppermint is most commonly used as a digestive aid. It is also effective for easing nausea and stomach cramps and for freshening the breath." (3) Peppermint is a refrigerant, which means it cools the body, and is also anti-inflammatory. (Seeing the theme here? Inflammation is so often a problem, as a side-effect if not the direct cause, in many digestive complaints.) Chinese traditional medicine pairs peppermint with papaya for digestive complaints and acid stomach.

We often include peppermint in regularly consumed teas, such as Cal-Mag Tea, or just by itself. Peppermint herbal teas can be frozen into popsicles, too, which are not only lovely treats any time of day in the summer but very handy to keep in the freezer for quick relief of the occasional indigestion pangs or pregnancy nausea, as peppermint tea with elderberry to ward against viruses you may have been exposed to at a playdate or recent event, peppermint and elderberry and yarrow ("the YEPs") to bring down chills and fevers. Popsicles are easier hydration for most people to manage than tea, especially during illness. Tummy Tea, Peppermint Lemonade, and Mama's Weight Loss Tea are some other ways to drink or slurp down this green herb.

can consume fresh peppermint leaves as a food, too. My son knows peppermint the most reliably of all the herbs in my garden, as I taught him as soon as he could toddle around and pick his own peppermint leaves what it looks like and where to find it. He loves to tend to my peppermint patches, watering them daily, and I frequently find him plucking a leaf to chew on after dinner or when playing in the garden. I encourage this habit as much larger amounts daily would still be unlikely to cause any adverse effect, and his regular consumption of fresh mint typically follows meals, which I know is aiding his digestion as well as sweet breath. Add peppermint leaves to a savory green salad, mixed berries, with lemon and oregano over chicken.

Ginger root is a hot herb with a sharp bite to its flavor. Another anti-inflammatory, ginger is also diaphoretic, analgesic, and carminative, which means that it creates heat and induces sweating, dulls pain, and prevents the formation of gas in the intestinal tract while also speeding the expulsion of existing gas. "The volatile oils, oleo resins and proteolytic enzymes in ginger are digestive stimulants which trigger the production of digestive fluids. This helps combat the effects of overeating, improper chewing or excessive motion by helping to make the digestive process more efficient, increasing gastric motility and neutralizing toxins and acids in the digestive tract.. This carminative action has been widely recognized for centuries and is the basis for most of its medical use." Traditional use of ginger typically prescribes tea for indigestion, stomach ache, malaria and fevers, as well as diarrhea and trapped gas. A yummy way to consume ginger is this Ginger Snap Tea.

DIY Children's Digestive Pastilles recipe can be found on the Bulk Herb Store blog, but in case the link goes cold for some reason here it is:

1/8 Cup powdered fennel
1/8 Cup powdered peppermint
1/8 powdered marshmallow root
1/4 Cup powdered slippery elm bark
1-2 T honey
2-4 T pure vegetable glycerin

Blend powdered herbs together, then add liquids until a dense dough forms. Roll up using clean hands into small pastilles of about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp each. Dry overnight or in the dehydrator for a few hours (they say at 100 to 110 F but I suggest 95 F if you can manage it) until balls are hardened enough to store without becoming a sticky mess. This is one of the standard methods for making herbal medicine pills to chew or swallow. Adjust the herbs as desired for your needs.

Homemade Natural Fiber

1 part whole chia seeds 
1 part ground flax seeds 
1/2 part psyllium seed powder 
optional 1/2 part powdered herbs 

A simple homemade fiber can be a very effective ward against digestive troubles, or as a gentle aid for non-emergency Tiny Tummy Troubles such as constipation and frequent gas. Chia seeds are mucilagenic and when taken whole they will soften and swell in the digestive tract, adding bulk to stool while also coating it with anti-inflammatory goodness. Flax seeds do the same to a lesser degree, and are gentler ground than whole. Psyllium seeds are very similar to those of the plantain herb, being a very close botanical relation, and while once again mucilagenic they also soothe the digestive tract and add weight to stools. Powdered herbs of chamomile, catnip, fennel, peppermint, ginger, garlic, orange peel, or cayenne, may help to further aid digestive flow and healthy regularity. Stir one Tb into a glass of water and drink immediately.

Herbs to consider include ginger root, peppermint, fennel seed, dill. All can be applied in essential oil form externally to the belly as well as taken internally in tea or tincture. Apply warmth over the belly. Massage in a clockwise motion, spiraling out from the bellybutton and down the left leg, will help encourage the intestines to flow normally, releasing trapped gas or breaking down blockage. Chewing on fennel seeds or drinking Tummy Tea or Ginger Snap Tea (linked above) will also help from the inside out.

Acid reflux and Heartburn
Consider possible food culprits and eliminate them from the diet once pinpointed. Processed foods are most often to blame. Herbs to consider include peppermint, dill, ginger, fennel, catnip, red raspberry leaf, lemon balm, marshmallow root, slippery elm bark, papaya. Chamomile can be very helpful, especially paired with catnip after dinner or before bedtime, but is not advised by some sources for prolonged use, due to it's relation to ragweed, as it can produce intolerance in some people when exposed over long periods of time.
Reduce fluids with meals and increase fluids between meals, using herbal tea in place of water if necessary. 1 drop of peppermint essential oil to 16 oz water may be sipped on throughout the day. This is a handy option while traveling, although bear in mind that 1 drop of essential oil is approximately equal to 75 cups of herbal tea, which makes oils much easier to overdose with, so don't go crazy with the essential oils internally. Acidophilus taken up to three times a day may also help.

Belly ache
Digestive Pastilles taken as needed should help. Consider adding dill to the recipe. Also consider the possibility of virus if processed foods, dehydration, and overeating are not obviously to blame, and consider herbs such as elderberry and echinacea for a day or so to ward against incipient infection. Essential oils such as fennel and ginger, or lavender, clary sage and chamomile, or marjoram, spearmint and peppermint, can be massaged in a dilution over the abdomen. Aromatic essential oils can also help with accompanying headaches 

Flu and Vomiting  
Herbs to consider include yarrow, catnip, peppermint, slippery elm and marshmallow root gruel, elderberry, echinacea, ginger, lavender. Acidophilus is very helpful, but if the patient cannot keep down fluids then a colonic dose might be considered.

I am of the belief that a fevering body is one which is trying to kill the germs with heat, and that this can be a good thing. Of course, and especially with elderly, infants, and young children, it is important to keep a temperature within reasonable levels. (Brain damage is not supposed to occur under 107 F / 42 C, but I personally am of the belief that fevers over 103 F in children and elderly are unproductive and I will apply medication such as acetaminophen to bring it back down. I do not advise you to brave everything out and let a fever rage unchecked.
) The sweating which accompanies a fever that is not of unsafe levels can be beneficial at times, and baths in lavender or being wrapped in blankets while drinking lavender and catnip tea can sometimes bring a fever to break and reduce sooner than the repeated application of allopathic medications. I also like to rub eucalyptus essential oil on the bottoms of coconut oiled feet, as it is far enough from the eyes as to not cause vapor irritation to already sensitive everything, and adds some cooling to draw heat away from the head. Eucalyptus is a little gentler than peppermint in essential oil form in the case of fevers, and bathing in eucalyptus is often pleasurable whereas a peppermint essential oil bath can be a bit shockingly cooling to the system.

While the patient is unable to keep down fluids, sometimes colonic irrigation or retention enemas can be helpful, as the colon absorbs water rapidly. Frozen herbal popsicles or ice chips may also help. As the patient is able to start keeping down fluids, don't push food until they are truly ready for it but offer nourishing liquids such as teas made from nettles, peppermint, alfalfa, red raspberry leaf and red clover, and soup stocks. Rehydrating drinks made with lemons, honey, and Celtic sea salt provide potassium and a variety of minerals to replenish dehydrated cells along with the antiviral properties of raw honey.


Herbs to consider include yellow dock, blackberry root, slippery elm bark, peppermint, catnip. In traditional medicine, too fast a flow needs slowing by the application of coolness with herbs like peppermint. Too slow a flow, constipation, needs the application of heat via hot herbs to stimulate movement. Keep the body hydrated with plenty of nourishing fluids as listed above with flu and vomiting, and include fiber and calcium and iron rich foods such as liver, spinach, broccoli. Intermittent diarrhea and constipation usually indicates an ongoing constipation problem, where blockages prevent mass from eliminating the body but liquid and soft densities manage to pass on occasion. Slippery elm and fiber mix may help with this, along with acidophilus.

Most often, insufficient fiber and water in the diet is the culprit. Increase vegetables and healthy fats, eliminate processed foods and decrease grains and uncultured dairy. Sometimes the occasional consumption of a dried prune is all that is needed, but if the problem persists beyond dietary changes, consider 1/2 cup aloe juice morning and evening, and slippery elm bark gruel. Black strap molasses and carob powder are worth considering adding to the diet, especially for constipated-prone children. Herbs to consider consuming include cayenne, ginger, licorice root, psyllium seeds, chia seeds, marshmallow root, cinnamon, coriander. It may also be worth considering a colonic irrigation to soften a blockage, as well as a tincture or tea of liver cleansing herbs that stimulate the production of bile. These might include dandelion, burdock, fennel, fenugreek. Abdomen massage is also helpful in this case. Work slowly and steadily for a good several minutes, with massage oil or cocoa butter as needed, in a supine position so that your stomach muscles are relaxed and you can dig as deeply as is reasonably comfortable into the digestive tract. 

Colonic irrigation
Garlic, acidophilus, natural live yogurt, catnip, licorice root, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, castor oil, all may be used in water for colonic irrigation. Caffeinated coffee stimulates bile in the liver for rapid cleansing and is one of the foundational treatments in the Gerson Therapy cancer cure. (Taken 'at the other end', coffee does still enter the blood stream and give the body a caffeine high.) Bear in mind, though, that frequent enemas can lead to loss of nutrients, especially iron and magnesium, so irrigation should be used in case of need but is not suitable for daily prevention or intervention on a prolonged basis without the supervision of a doctor or certified health care provider. Essential oils are never suggested for internal use in the colon, please be aware, due to their concentrated strength and the sensitivity of the colon, and you can do yourself great harm by disobeying this rule. Only the gentlest of herbal teas, which is the mildest form of herbal consumption, is recommended for colonic irrigation. I don't recommend using standard pharmacy saline, as this is often still too high in the wrong forms of sodium, lacking in minerals, and so can be more prone to draining the body of important minerals than actually replenishing it. When you have the opportunity to heal your body from the inside out, why not take the chance and use a nourishing, gentle herbal tea instead? Everything you need to know about enemas can be found here. Simpler colonic irrigation follows the same rules for cleanliness and what types of fluids and concentrations to use, but involves only a cup or two of fluid. It is generally not recommended to give a child a full blown enema, and I recommend only a very small amount of fluid with children, assuming they really do need a cleanse with catnip tea for a fever or painful constipation. They really are much smaller than adults so best to be careful and start with a couple Tbs fluid for a baby or toddler, working up very gently from there and involving many smiles and caresses as you care for them.

(1) Prescription for Nutritional Healing, by Balch and Balch
(2) Nutritional Herbology, by Mark Pedersen
(3) Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health

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