Healthy digestion is essential to vibrant health, and poor digestion can be a key underlying factor in a range of health issues. And yet, treating common digestive discomfort or concerns is often a challenge for conventional medicine. In May 2022, the NHS announced that it would no longer treat a series of minor health conditions, including infrequent constipation, indigestion and heartburn. Herbal medicine can provide incredibly effective, natural solutions to these and other digestive concerns – without any of the side effects that some conventional medicine designed for them might entail.
In this blog, we'll be looking into these digestive issues in more depth and exploring how medicinal herbs can help alleviate them. We will explore the following questions:
- How do diet and lifestyle impact digestion?
- How do medical herbalists treat digestion issues?
- Which digestive concerns can herbal medicine help with?
- Are there natural remedies available for bloating, constipation, and heartburn?
- Which products restore balance in the digestive system?
A brief introduction to the digestive system
The digestive system breaks down the food we eat and converts it into energy our cells can use. It also enables the elimination of toxins and of the waste products of metabolism.
Digestion begins in the mouth, as we chew our food, with the action of the enzymes contained in our saliva – and it continues all the way through the stomach and small intestine, catalysed by other enzymes secreted by the liver, gallbladder and pancreas; all the way to the large intestine and to elimination from the rectum. If for any reason this process becomes sluggish or upset, a series of digestive symptoms can follow, such as wind, bloating, stomach aches, diarrhoea and constipation. Digestive discomfort can have a huge impact on our general health and vitality. Left unchecked it can lead to issues with immunity, stress, focus, and sleep.
Why a health diet and lifestyle are important for digestive health
Before we get into any more depth on the potential role of herbs in alleviating digestive concerns, it is important to note that a healthy diet is essential to healthy digestion. Plenty of fibre (from a diversity of vegetables, fruits, whole grains) and fluids are required for a healthy motion of the digestive tract to propel food forwards. Excessive amounts of white sugar, ultra-processed grains and foods, and fizzy drinks can lead to irritation and inflammation in the digestive tract.
Studies also increasingly show the effects of stress on digestion – tension and anxiety can reduce the flow of digestive enzymes, increase acidity levels and impair digestion and nutrient absorption. Managing stress levels is therefore also key to trouble-free digestion – and it is important to have your meals in calm, stress-free environments, to take the time to chew and enjoy every bite.
Healthy levels of physical exercise can also go a long way in helping digestion flow better – particularly in cases of mild constipation.
The approach herbal medicine takes to digestion
When you have a consultation with a medical herbalist, you will always be asked questions about your digestion – even if the main concern you are consulting about is seemingly unrelated to it. There is a strong traditional emphasis in Western medical herbalism on supporting the normal function of the digestive system. That’s because, as mentioned above, digestion is so central to your health and vitality. Among other questions, your herbalist is likely to want to know more about your appetite, your diet, the frequency and pattern of your bowel movements, and any weight changes, nausea, acidity, bloating, constipation or diarrhoea. Although they will start with questions about your current experiences and past medical history, depending on your case they may suggest some additional physical or lab examinations, so as to make sure they have the right diagnosis and can formulate an effective prescription for you.
The typical prescription will always be customised to each individual case. The prescription may be a tincture (a liquid herbal medicine preparation made by macerating medicinal plants in a mixture of alcohol and water), a glycerite (a liquid preparation similar to a tincture, but extracted in a mixture of glycerine and water, with no alcohol), a powder, a herbal tea, capsules/supplements, or a combination of these – alongside dietary and lifestyle advice. Your herbalist will generally recommend that you follow the prescription and advice given for a period of a few weeks, and will then follow up with you to check on your progress, suggest any adjustments to the treatment and address any additional concerns that may have come up.
In case the consultation raises any red flags that justify exploring conventional treatment methods, the herbalist will not suggest an exclusively herbal treatment. They will likely then propose that any herbal support goes hand in hand with a conventional approach, working in collaboration with a GP. But in most cases, a herbal prescription alongside dietary and lifestyle advice can go a long way to alleviate a range of digestive concerns.
There is a range of plant constituents that are particularly well suited to ‘nudge’ the digestive system to normal patterns of behaviour. Herbs can have topical soothing effects on the lining of the gut, they can stimulate the normal movements of the gut to move food forwards along the digestive tract, they can increase nutrient absorption, stimulate the secretion or flow of enzymes or bile, they can tone the gut wall, or loosen or bulk the bowel contents as needed. Your herbalist will choose herbs that combined will help restore balance in your digestive system.
How herbal medicine can ease digestive concerns
Tackle Heartburn & Acidity with Chamomile & Slippery Elm
Symptoms of acidity and reflux can be indicative of stress, disturbances of the gut flora or constipation. They can be triggered by a variety of foods - including sugar, coffee, alcohol or chocolate. Chamomile can be a great ally to soothe such symptoms, especially if they are stress-related. It is lovely and calming for both body and mind, and has an anti-inflammatory activity on the lining of the digestive tract. Other herbs like marshmallow, meadowsweet and slippery elm are also soothing and moistening. They provide effective relief for irritation, inflammation, spasms and pain, while protecting the delicate lining of the digestive tract. Slippery elm or marshmallow root powder mixed with warm chamomile tea can bring almost instant relief to acidity. At Zen Maitri, we also offer Acid Calm supplements containing many of these ingredients to soothe symptoms of acidity.
Ease Diarrhoea with Raspberry leaf, Yarrow & Cinnamon
If you experience a temporary bout of diarrhoea, it is important not to immediately try to stop it but to understand and address its underlying causes: it may be an attempt from the body to eliminate poisons or irritants from your system, or a sign of temporary inflammation or infection in the gut. In any case, it is crucial to drink lots of fluids to replace water and electrolytes. Here, astringent, toning herbs can be helpful to dry up secretions and tone the gut wall – this may include raspberry leaf, yarrow, cinnamon or agrimony for example. Like in the paragraph about acidity, herbs that are soothing, moistening, and cooling such as marshmallow and slippery elm can bring relief to irritation.
These herbs contain large amounts of mucilage – the same ‘slimy’ substance you can see when leaving chia or flax seeds in water for a little while, or when leaving a chamomile tea to infuse for a long while (it goes quite gloopy!) – which is in great part responsible for their moistening, soothing and anti-inflammatory action. If the diarrhoea is related to infection, oregano, thyme, garlic and ginger can be very useful to help the body deal with any pathogens (microorganisms that can cause disease). To relieve cramping pain and spasms, peppermint, ginger, fennel and chamomile can be of help.
Soothe Constipation with Liquorice, Dandelion & Burdock
If you suffer from sluggish digestion, it is important to pay attention to your diet, hydration, stress levels and exercise – and to be careful not to become reliant on the use of laxative medicines (such as senna, bisacodyl or lactulose), which may make matters worse in the long run. Gently simmering roots of liquorice, dandelion, burdock, ginger and possibly yellow dock in water for 10 to 20min, straining and drinking several times a day for a week or two can be of great help to get things moving again without causing irritation or dependency.
Relieve Nausea and Settle the Stomach with Lemon Balm & Ginger
Nausea can have so many different causes – tension, travel sickness, shock, morning sickness in early pregnancy, adverse reactions to foods… But some simple herbs are usually very helpful in bringing relief from many different types of nausea. These include ginger – either infused as a tea or chewed. It is great for morning sickness and travel sickness in particular. Teas of chamomile, lemon balm, cinnamon, cardamom, fennel or peppermint can also help settle the stomach. If you do vomit, remember to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration; and soothing, cooling, moistening herbs can help reduce heat, inflammation and irritation – see the acidity paragraph above for some ideas.
Fight Wind and Bloating with Gut Balancing Fennel, Rosemary & Peppermint
Wind may be produced in the intestines by the fermentation of undigested foods, particularly carbohydrates. Beans and plants from the Brassicaceae family (including cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower) can also be the source of the issue because the gut does not produce enzymes to digest them. There are many herbs called “carminatives” that are specifically indicated to help relieve wind and bloating. They enhance digestion and absorption, reduce the formation of gas, cool inflammation and help reduce imbalances in the gut flora. They include fennel, rosemary, peppermint, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and rosemary. Stress, an unhealthy diet, eating too quickly, too late at night, lack of exercise or constipation may also be factors to look into to reduce wind and bloating.
What if I experience any of these digestive concerns?
If you have a very mild version of them and/or just want to have some herbs on hand in your cupboard for small issues that may pop up, we recommend looking into our Digestion collection. It contains a tea, tincture, and supplements that have been carefully designed to provide everyday support for your digestive system. These natural products are ideal to ease any mild discomfort, irritation, inflammation, acidity or bloating.
If you suffer from any of these issues, and particularly if they are persistent, we recommend booking a consultation with one of our medical herbalists, so that they can assess your situation in detail and prescribe a bespoke herbal medicine prescription.