Digestion

In holistic medicine, the gut is the seat of human health. As the digestive system deals with almost all incoming ‘information’ (food, drink and medicine), its proper functioning is critical to health, and almost all types of disease can be related back to the digestive system in some way.

Like any complex system of nature, the gut has an innate ability to self-correct after periods of dysfunction, which is why herbs are so well suited to digestive problems. Herbs, themselves complex natural substances, gently ‘nudge’ physiological processes to bring about self-correction and healing in the digestive system.

Luckily we have a huge range of tools at our disposal, including herbs to promote gastric juice production, stimulate bile flow, soothe the gut membranes, promote liver detoxification processes, stimulate bowel movement, promote the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria, reduce cramping, inflammation & pain.

Below I focus on herbal approaches to treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease and Reflux disease (heartburn).

IBS

IBS is a very common complaint seen in herbal practice. It is not a disease but a ‘syndrome’ of dysfunction, so there are no conventional drugs available to treat the condition. The low FODMAP diet is useful in relieving symptoms, but does not address the underlying cause.

Herbs, on the other hand, are well suited to treating disorders of function like IBS. As there is a heightened level of communication between the gut and the brain in IBS, herbs help to decrease cramping via calming the nervous system, as well as healing the gut and promoting good gut flora. Some common herbs that can provide relief include chamomile, skullcap, St John’s Wort, cramp bark, slippery elm, cinnamon, fennel, aloe vera, withania, rhodiola, milk thistle, barberry, lavender and mint.

Digestion begins in the head, and stress or tension will exacerbate any underlying digestive dysfunction. Sitting down and enjoying a meal with family or friends will always produce better results than eating alone, quickly and standing up. Sometimes specific food intolerances exist and foods like dairy, wheat or soya may need to be avoided before real healing can take place.

With herbal treatment, it is common to experience a significant decrease in symptoms of IBS after only a couple of weeks, and after another 4-6 weeks significant gut healing can take place.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):

IBS

IBS2.png

Crohn’s disease

Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune condition where inflammation in the gut causes pain, disturbed bowel movements and ‘leaky gut’, or increased gut permeability. This allows substances to pass through the gut wall and react with the body’s immune system, which may cause skin & respiratory problems, depression, sleep problems and other related symptoms.

As this is a disorder of the immune system, herbal treatment is mainly directed at supporting immunity and repairing gut integrity so that harmful substances do not pass through. Anti-inflammatory and immune boosting herbs include echinacea, calendula, withania, turmeric, boswellia and wormwood, whereas gut healing herbs include slippery elm, marshmallow and aloe vera. Other herbs may be necessary for liver & adrenal gland support as well as nervous system support, and diet and stress management strategies will be very important in the long-term treatment of Crohn’s disease.

Although Crohn’s disease often takes longer to treat, there is no reason why normal gut function cannot resume. Gut problems will often have been around for quite some time before the person seeks help from a herbalist, and taking the time to discuss the history of the illness and find the treatment that works best is key to long-term success.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):

Crohns

Reflux disease (Heartburn)

Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), also known as heartburn, is an early sign of gut inflammation that can progress to more a serious condition if it is not dealt with. Conventional treatment is mainly with antacids, which relieve symptoms but do not heal the underlying tissue and therefore do not reduce the inflammation long-term.

The typical symptoms of reflux disease are pain and discomfort in the upper abdomen, bloating, nausea and feeling full after small meals. The diaphragm becomes tense and the opening between the stomach and the oesophagus loosens, allowing stomach acid to leak back into the oesophagus. Certain foods or drinks like coffee, alcohol, tomatoes, citrus fruits or spicy foods can make this worse. You may also have other food intolerances that you are not aware of that are contributing to the condition.

Very commonly, GORD is related to stress. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system – blood circulation is diverted away from the digestive organs to the brain and limbs, our breathing pattern changes and we get ready for “fight or flight”. Eating on the go or while stressed therefore often causes indigestion and heartburn.

Herbs to calm the nervous system can be very helpful here – some of these are chamomile, passion flower, lavender, skullcap, lemon balm, vervain and valerian. There is also a huge range of soothing, anti-inflammatory herbs that work on symptom relief as well as gut healing in GORD. These include liquorice, slippery elm, marshmallow root, wormwood, yarrow, chickweed, meadowsweet, chamomile, calendula and gotu kola.

Case study (Source: Mills & Bone, Principles & Practice of Phytotherapy, 2013):

reflux

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