In holistic medicine, the gut is the seat of human health. 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.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS is not a disease but a picture 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 are well suited to treating disorders of function - 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 healthy gut flora. Some common herbs used include chamomile, skullcap, St John’s Wort, cramp bark, slippery elm, cinnamon, fennel, aloe vera, milk thistle, lavender and mint.
Stress or tension will exacerbate any underlying digestive dysfunction, and sometimes specific food intolerances exist - foods like dairy, wheat or soya may need to be avoided for a period of time before real healing can take place.
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.
Herbal treatment is mainly directed at supporting immunity and repairing gut integrity. Anti-inflammatory and immune boosting herbs include echinacea, calendula, withania, turmeric, boswellia and wormwood, whereas gut healing herbs include calendula, plantain and marshmallow root.
Other herbs may be necessary for liver & 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.
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 can contribute to a worsening of the situation long term.
The typical symptoms of reflux disease are pain and discomfort in the upper abdomen, bloating, nausea and feeling full after small meals. Certain foods or drinks like coffee, alcohol, tomatoes, citrus fruits or spicy foods can make this worse. There may also be other food intolerances contributing to the condition.
Very commonly, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (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, lavender, 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, marshmallow root, yarrow, chickweed, meadowsweet, calendula and gotu kola.