A 2013 survey suggested that 72 percent of Americans live with digestive symptoms such as reoccurring diarrhea, gas, bloating, frequent bowel movements and abdominal pain.1 Disturbingly, many of these symptoms are indicative of a decreased ability to digest, absorb and assimilate nutrients from the food we eat. In the long run, this causes a reduction in overall health and wellbeing.
Healing the gut is essential for any digestive issues that are chronic, including food allergies or intolerance, reflux, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, leaky gut and Celiac, to name just a few. This is my four-step process to encourage digestive healing and proper nutrient assimilation. Firstly, eliminate gastrointestinal irritants. Other issues to address include eating a nutrient dense, whole foods diet, digesting properly, and soothing and healing the digestive system.
Many people with digestive issues have food allergies and sensitivities. These foods must be eliminated to allow the digestive system to heal. I recommend looking at common allergenssuch as dairy, oats, soy, corn, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, rancid fats, eggs, genetically modified foods, coffee, chocolate, and black tea. It is also helpful to stay away from processed foods, preservatives, MSG, food colorings, alcohol and sugar. Bad fats are hard to digest and increase inflammation. Avoid fried foods, hydrogenated oils, and polyunsaturated vegetable oils derived mostly from soy, corn, safflower, canola, sunflower, rice bran, and grape seed oils.
In order to pinpoint other irritants, I encourage my clients to keep a health journal, tracking foods, beverages, bowel movements, and any symptoms they may be having. Using an Elimination Diet,eliminating many foods from the diet and then adding them back in, one by one, is invaluable to catch either multiple or subtle irritants.
I believe all humans do better eating whole, organic, nutrient dense, non-GMO foods. I recommend preparing foods properly, including soaking nuts and grains overnight to reduce phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. Bone broth is very high in gelatin and L-glutamine (an amino acid), both extremely healing to the tissues of the gut. Good quality fats such as Omega 3 fatty acids, ghee, coconut oil, high quality animal fats and monounsaturated oils such as olive, almond, pecan, cashew, peanut, sesame and avocado oils are all healing to the digestive system.
Fermented foods such as miso, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimcheeencourage good bacterial digestive health. Prebiotics are non-digestible foods that feed gut bacteria. They include trans-galactooligosaccharide, inulin, fructooligosaccharide (FOS) and lactulose. Sources of prebiotics include acacia gums (Gum Arabic), seaweed, yaconroot, breast milk, Jerusalem artichoke, jicamaroot,dandelion greens, flaxseeds, burdock, garlic, leeks, onion, asparagus, bananas, apples and chicoryroot.2
Mineral rich herbs are nutrient dense and easily digested. They can be cooked in soups and foods, or made into tea.
To make sure we are digesting properly, we need to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs rest, relaxation and digestion. Try practicing mindfulness with eating, by eating in a relaxing environment, with peace and with intention. Taking ten deep breaths before beginning a meal can be helpful. Smell and taste foods thoroughly, chewing well. Using digestive supplements and herbs can be extremely helpful.
Supplements that aid in digestion can help add to the digestive juices that are essential for proper digestion of food and assimilation of nutrients. I often suggest a client use digestive enzymes, including protease, lipase, carbohydrase and nuclease. Hydrochloric acid and pepsinogen are also helpful. Use these supplements for several months to provide added support and an increase of nutrient absorption. After a few months of healing, the digestive system is usually able to take these functions on by itself. I always recommend that people have these supplements on hand in case they travel, go out for a meal or accidently eat something that causes digestive upset.
There are several herbal categories that aid in digestion.
Bitter Tonics: As the name suggests, bitters have a bitter taste, which stimulates digestive and liver function. Bitters are generally used about 15 minutes before eating to encourage proper digestion. They need to be tasted to work properly.
We know that the liver plays a major role in digestion. Using herbs to help support or stimulate the liver can have an immense impact on the health of the digestive tract. Some of our best herbs for the liver include chologogues and hepatics.
Chologogues: stimulate bile flow in the liver and gallbladder.
Hepatics: support or stimulate liver function.
Note: I prefer to use capsules and powders, as tablets are harder to digest and have more inert fillers.
Probiotics: The Human Microbiome Project has discovered that some 10,000 species of microorganisms live in and on the human body, outnumbering our own cells by about ten to one.3Microorganismsplay a direct role in our health, influencing immune response, mental health, detoxification, and hormonal regulation, to name a few.4The two main groups of “good” bacteria includeLactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. There are many different species within each group, and numerous strains within each species. To choose a probiotic, look for a capsule with a minimum of 5 billion CFUs (colony forming units) in each dose, and a good range of Lactobacillusand Bifidobacterspecies.
L-Glutamine: is an amino acid that reduces inflammation and scar tissue in the intestines, as well as enhancing the protective mucosal lining of the GI tract. A typical L-Glutamine dose is 5-10 gm. of powder 2-3 times a day.
Herbal remedies that help to soothe, heal and rebuild the digestive system include astringents, carminatives and demulcents.
Astringents:help pull together inflamed or congested tissues. Tannins bind with proteins on mucus membranes, skin and other tissue. This helps draw the tissues together, increasing proper function and helping prevent irritation and infection. Note: my favorite herbal astringent to heal long-term digestive inflammation is Fireweed, used as a regular tea.
Carminatives: aid in digestion through a high content of essential oils. They soothe the gut walls and help to reduce gas.
Demulcents: soothe and coat mucus membranes with mucilage. This allows for better healing and long-term protection of the digestive system.
Essential Oils For Intestinal Conditions:
I especially like to use essential oils topically (not internally) as a gentle massage or rub for the stomach or intestines during times of discomfort or digestive distress. Essential oils can easily be added to a massage oil or castor oil pack for the abdomen. Add 10-12 drops of essential oil per 1 ounce of carrier oil.
Following are some recipes that encourage healing of the gastrointestinal tract. For best results, I recommend using a combination of both internal and external treatments.
Castor Oil Pack:
Castor oil packs can be very healing to the digestive system. They encourage better circulation and lymphatic drainage of the pelvic region. They help to maintain healthy tissue and help to heal wounds, infections, stagnant conditions, digestive system irritations and inflammations.
Ten drops of Tummy Oil (see below) can be added to your castor oil pack to amplify the healing process.
Grind herbs together into a coarse powder. Place in a glass jar, add the brandy and cover with a tight fitting lid. Label and set aside for 2 weeks, shaking daily. Press and add 1 oz. of honey to the tincture mixture. Mix thoroughly. Take 15 drops on the tongue 15 minutes before a meal to improve digestive function.
Mix all of the essential oils together in 2 ounces of a fixed, cold pressed carrier oil of your choice such as olive, hazelnut, almond, apricot kernel, jojoba or macadamia nut oil. Massage over the stomach and intestines as needed for gas, bloating, intestinal cramps, upset stomach, diarrhea or constipation.
Soothing & Astringent Capsules
Mix powdered herbs together and encapsulate in gluten free “OO” capsules. These capsules support irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut, Celiac disease, as well as encouraging recovery post diarrhea, microbial infections, parasites or healing from food allergies. Directions: 2 capsules 3 x a day for flare-ups and 2 capsules a day for maintenance.
In conclusion, living with long-term gastrointestinal distress makes it hard to digest and assimilate our nutrients, which is essential for overall health and wellbeing.By eliminating gastrointestinal irritants, eating a nutrient dense diet, encouraging proper digestion, and soothing and healing the digestive system, we can live longer and healthier lives.
© Elaine Sheff, Clinical Herbalist, RH (AHG) 2019
About the Author:
The author of several books on herbal medicine and healing, clinical herbalist Elaine Sheff has been passionate about sharing herbal knowledge for over 25 years. Her latest book is Naked: Botanical Recipes for Vibrant Skin and Healthy Hair. Elaine is the Co-Director of Green Path Herb School, located in Missoula, Montana, where she strives to inspire and empower students and clients to remember their connection to the earth, the plants and their own healing process. She is a professional member of the American Herbalist Guild and teaches workshops, and at conferences, both nationally and internationally. As a certified Instructor of the Natural Family Planning and Fertility Awareness Methods, Elaine has helped many couples to avoid or achieve pregnancy naturally. She has written numerous articles about her family’s journey with epilepsy and a special needs child. Elaine has written for publications including the Journal of Medicinal Plants and their Applications, Mamalode and AromaCulture magazine. Elaine’s workshops have been featured at conferences including the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, Montana Herb Gathering, Northwest Herb Symposium, Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, Spokane Herbal Faire, the Ecoexpo, Mountain West Herb Gathering, Inland Northwest Permaculture Convergence, and the Pacific Women’s Herbal Conference. You can often find her bent over an herb in her garden or marveling at small flowers in mountain meadows with her husband and sons. If you’d like to learn more about medicinal plants, you can connect with Elaine, and Green Path Herb School via the Green Path Website or through social media: Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, or Instagram. You can find out more about Elaine and her life work at GreenPathHerbSchool.com.