Herbs to Stoke Your Digestive FireRichard DeSylva, RH DNM November 1, 2012
“As Falls Witchita…” (with apologies to Pat Metheny.)
The coming of fall has always been somewhat of a difficult if not wistful letting go of the carefree and lazy days of summer. For months we have had occasion to indulge in weekends of dietary abandon, taxing our poor bellies with the latest barbecue craze, washing it all down with copious draughts of pop or beer, all the while cultivating a growing midriff ‘muscle,’ and baking it in the noonday sun.
Autumn, with its rendering of the accounts of summer, calls for a gathering of one’s forces to once again prepare for the cold and blustery months ahead. Perhaps now is the time to help re-establish the equilibrium that has been weakened or lost in the months gone by.
This equilibrium involves a re-focussing of the will – whether it be the will to deal with another year of school, the increased tempo of work, or simply to hunker down and face the prospect of another winter and its attendant limitations.
The seat of will(power) is in the gut and can best be appreciated as digestive ‘fire.’ This fire of the internal furnace can be renewed by examining those organs and glands most associated with the process of digestion and assimilation: the stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and small intestine. In any number of cases of dysfunction – ulcers, dyspepsia, malabsorption, gastritis, et al., there are a number of very suitable herbs to help set matters straight.
Years ago, when I had the good fortune to apprentice with the venerable Dr. Albert Thut, ND, MNIMH in Guelph, Ontario, I would walk into the house, and be greeted by a steaming cauldron of stomach and liver tonic brewing away on the kitchen stove. The aromatic and heady aroma wafting throughout the hallway belied the extremely bitter taste that only wormwood and gentian root can offer. It is these same herbs that I would now suggest, buffered and rounded out by the addition of others such as blue vervain, juniper berries, barberry bark, toadflax, and fennel seed. Combined in a suitable manner, they will work wonders on a recalcitrant and underactive digestive tract, restoring levels of hydrochloric acid, bile salts, and digestive and pancreatic enzymes. It cannot be emphasized enough that this should be the first line of defence in dealing with sluggishness throughout the entire alimentary canal, which can in turn directly contribute to a sluggish persona if not attitude.
How often do we see TV advertisements for various nostrums designed to counter the effects of eating poorly, eating on the run, not eliminating properly, and a host of other disturbances? Even in the natural health media, first and foremost are those remedies that provide substitutes, e.g. hydrochloric acid or other digestive ferments. Yes, taking digestive enzymes such as pepsin, protease, lipase, and the like will successfully deal with digestive disturbances. However, what happens when you stop taking them? Your digestive system will quickly fall back into the same malaise that originally confronted it… perhaps worse for the effort as it has now atrophied all the more. Why not support the internal organs and their innate ability to provide these substances in the first place?
Wormwood and gentian root will help restore sufficient levels of hydrochloric acid; barberry bark or even celandine will promote the production of bile and bile salts, digestion of fats, peristaltic activity, and provide a general detergent effect on mucus membranes. Blue vervain helps clear the liver channels and ducts of old sludge and detritus that impairs its normal functioning; fennel seed helps eliminate gases produced by faulty digestion, etc. As has been mentioned before, restoration, not substitution, should be the aim of all therapeutic intervention.
For those few cases who do have excess hydrochloric acid (largely promoted by hyperactivity of the vagus nerve), a moderate tea made from meadowsweet herb (Spiraea ulmaria), perhaps with the addition of some bugleweed, will lower the excess production of acid, bringing it more into balance.
Ulcers, however, long the bastion of belief in excess acid, are actually caused by insufficient levels of hydrochloric acid that in turn allow for the growth of helicobacter pylori. This bacterium is one example of those that grow in a fungal medium, the outcome of an environment deficient in oxygen, and fuelled by excess sugar and yeasted foods.
For those with ulcers, a mucilaginous tea made from demulcent herbs such as slippery elm bark or althea root, to which some chickweed, ground ivy, and purple loosestrife have been added, will help soothe the inflamed area. After the ulcer has healed, then I would suggest a moderate dose of the aforementioned digestive tonic.
Note: I would suggest comfrey root in place of slippery elm bark due to its allantoin content to help heal the abraded mucus membrane, however its use should be short term and of limited intake. I acknowledge the controversy over this herb, but the original research by C.C.J. Culvenor and others in Australia, and I. Hirono and others in Japan, was seriously flawed. I would refer the reader to the study by Lawrence Hill of the Doubleday Foundation in England (“The Safety of Comfrey”) or other comments by Dr. Bruce Ames (“Ranking Possible Carcinogenic Hazards” Science, April 1987).
The Role of Exhaustion and Stress in Bowel Disorders
Equally, the stresses that can contribute to derangement of digestive function must be placed in context; that is, we must be aware of the reciprocal relationship between the intellectual brain sitting on our shoulders, and the animal brain resident in the solar plexus. Our ‘normal’ brain gathers input through the grey matter on its exterior, and processes it internally in the white matter inside the brain. Conversely, the animal brain in our abdomen receives input from a variety of sources via the external white coat of matter, and forms a ‘gut’ reaction in the internal grey matter. It is this latter sensation that many people use to guide them in their daily activities. Whether we call it a hunch, gut reaction, or intuition, we respond to the stresses and demands of the external world through the animal brain of the solar plexus. Most people respond by a tightening or tensing of this bundle of nerves that forms the solar plexus. For those knowledgeable in the study of iridology, this tension is quite evident in the spastic and irritated Autonomic Nerve Wreath (ANW) that characterizes many who seek help for their various complaints.
Both situations, that of mental exhaustion and stress, or that as characterized by the spastic ANW, require those herbal nervine agents that promote a sense of calm, relaxation, and introduce a quiet repose to the human economy.
In those cases where nervine agents are needed, two of the most stellar that come to mind are St. John’s Wort and Scullcap. These can be prepared as a simple tea, combining in equal proportions, steeping for 15-20 minutes, and then drinking a cup or two as needed, 2-3 times per day. (The two herbs are better taken when their constituents are dissolved in boiling hot water, as their compounds yield their qualities more to water, than to alcohol.)
For those whose gut is tied up in knots, the addition of catnip to this blend will serve to unwind the Gordian knot of nerves. Should the heart be involved, long the dark horse bearing the brunt of unresolved stress, add some motherwort to the mixture, or even its cousin bugleweed.
Finally, one must not forget the need for easily bio-available magnesium to assist in the process of relaxation. For this, I always turn to nettle leaves or oat straw; both rich in magnesium, silica, and other necessary minerals.
In paying attention to these twin areas of the body, digestion and the stress that can quite often affect those organs and glands resident in the abdominal cavity, many problems can be eliminated before they develop into more serious issues. Such is the world we live in, that these two systems, digestion/alimentation and the nerve force (vital force, élan vital, etc.) must of necessity, be kept in optimal form as a guard against the onslaught of the world. It must also be noted that stress wears down immunity, and that many of the immune cells line the stomach wall; thus even more, the connection between the two and one’s overall state of health.
Richard DeSylva is the owner of The Herb Works in Rockwood, ON. He is on the Boards of the Ontario Herbalist Association, and the Canadian Council of Herbalists Association. Richard is an advocate and lobbyist for the appropriate regulation of herbs and herbal medicine. For more information, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or call: (519) 856-1636.