Herbal Remedies for Digestive Health Part 3: Herbal Demulcents
Part one in this series explored herbal bitters that stimulate digestive function. Part two reviewed the use of carminative herbs that relax the digestive system and help ease gas and bloating. Herbal bitters and carminatives combine well together to relieve slow, weak digestion, often characterized by a feeling of heaviness in the gut after eating, gas, bloating, and constipation. In contrast, the herbal demulcents described here in part three are more often used to cool excessive digestive fire—soothing and restoring tissue health rather than stimulating.
The final installment in this three-part series on herbal remedies for digestive health features herbal demulcents—cooling, moistening, soothing herbs that relieve heat, irritation, and inflammation in the digestive tract. These symptoms are characteristic of conditions like acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcerations in the gut or peptic ulcers, leaky gut, Ulcerative Colitis, and Crohn’s Disease. Demulcents are rich in mucilaginous compounds which become thick and sticky when wet. They also have an indirect, reflexive mucus-generating (mucogenic) effect on mucus membranes throughout the body. Demulcents provide a soothing coating to hot, inflamed tissue and especially to mucus membranes in the gut, respiratory system, and urinary tract, and tend to have a localized anti-inflammatory effect.
Licorice Root | Glycyrrhiza glabra
Licorice root is a very sweet, moistening, restorative herb with a wide range of therapeutic properties. In addition to its therapeutic role in the digestive tract, Licorice root is also used to strengthen adrenal glands depleted by chronic stress, enhance immune function, and combat viral and bacterial infections in the respiratory system and urinary tract. Licorice root is harmonizing in almost any herbal formula, improving the flavor of harsh tasting herbs and promoting absorption.
Licorice root and its active constituents have been the subject of numerous pharmacological and clinical studies for digestive complaints. Most notably, a special form of Licorice known as DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice) has been shown to promote healing of peptic ulcers. In this form of Licorice, a compound in the root that can increase blood pressure has been removed. DGL has been shown to stimulate the body’s natural defense against the formation of ulcers in the stomach and small intestine, improving the health of the protective lining of the intestinal tract and increasing blood supply to this vital area. Several head-to-head studies have found DGL more effective in the treatment of peptic ulcers than commonly prescribed pharmaceutical drugs.
Licorice root is also soothing to hot, inflamed tissue in conditions like acid reflux where it combines well with Marshmallow root to ease discomfort.
Licorice root should be decocted to prepare a tea and can also be used as a liquid extract or as DGL. Individuals with high blood pressure, heart conditions, and kidney disease should avoid the use of licorice root or use it only under the guidance of their healthcare practitioner.
Marshmallow Root | Althea officinalis
Marshmallow root is a cooling, moistening herbal demulcent. Its use as an herbal remedy can be traced back to at least the ninth century B.C. Thought not as sweet as Licorice root, it is a simple and effective herb to soothe the excessive heat, irritation, and inflammation associated with GERD, gastritis, peptic ulcers, and hyperacidity. Marshmallow root is also soothing to mucus membranes of the respiratory system and urinary tract, and can be used topically for burns, wounds, bites, aches, and sprains.
For digestion, Marshmallow root is best prepared as a cold infusion tea, steeped for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator to allow for extraction of more of the mucilaginous compounds. It also works well to relieve both diarrhea and constipation taken as a powder combined with Slippery Elm bark. To prepare, use one tablespoon in a cup of warm water, shaken to create a gruel (a thin liquid food) and ingested on an empty stomach.
Marshmallow root can even be used to make a healthier version those sweet, childish confections we know as marshmallows! Note that Marshmallow’s mucilage content may delay or inhibit the absorption of other herbs or medications.
Slippery Elm Bark | Ulmus fulva
The native people of North America knew the therapeutic properties of Slippery elm bark long before Europeans arrived. Like Marshmallow root, it is a sweet, moist, cooling demulcent used to relieve excessive heat and irritability in the gastric mucosa. Though often used interchangeably or in combination with Marshmallow root, Slippery elm is more nutritious and is even considered a survival food. As a nutritive herb, Slippery elm bark is an excellent choice for convalescence, debility, and weight loss associated with impaired nutrient absorption. It is highly nutritious for infants and children, especially when they are under weight or experiencing loose stools.
Like Marshmallow root, Slippery elm bark should be prepared as a cold infusion or steeped for 30-60 minutes in hot water. For individuals with weak digestion, combining Slippery elm bark with a gently stimulating carminative like Fennel or Ginger will help balance the cooling, moistening effects. The powdered form also works well as a gruel or combined with other soft, cooling foods and ingested.
Approaching digestive health holistically, and with the help of herbal bitters, carminatives, and demulcents to increase digestive function, ease gas and bloating, and soothe irritation and inflammation is key to optimal health and vitality. Understanding the herbal actions described in this series will help you choose the right remedies for your individual needs. Now that you’ve learned a bit about herbal options for digestive health, what questions do you have? Let me know in the comments below.
To your health!
The Energetics of Western Herbs, A Materia Medica Integrating Western & Chinese Herbal Therapeutics, 4th Ed., Holmes, Peter, Snow Lotus Press, Cotati, CA, 2007.
The Healing Power of Herbs, 2nd Ed., Murray, Michael, Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA, 1995.
Herbal Medicine From the Heart of the Earth, 2nd Ed., Tilgner, Sharol, Wise Acres LLC, Pleasant Hill, OR, 2009.
Looking for more herbal inspiration?