A demulcent is an herb rich in mucilaginous substances which soothe and protect irritated or inflamed membranes lining the stomach and intestinal tract. This mucilage consists of long chain polysaccharides (chains of sugars). These polysaccharides absorb water to form the slimy, gummy substances called mucilage. These herbs are best used as an infusion (tea) made by adding 1 teaspoonful of the herb per cup of water, bringing the combination to a boil for 5-10 minutes, removing from the heat and allowing to cool. As it cools, it will thicken into a soothing mucilage. Drink freely as needed.
- Marshmallow root
- Slippery Elm
As the term implies, bitters are substances that are bitter tasting and strongly stimulate the bitter receptors in the taste buds at the back of the tongue. The stimulation of the bitter receptors initiates the action of the upper digestive tract. This action is most likely mediated by a nerve reflex leading to an increase in vagal stimulation. Vagal stimulation causes an increase in gastric acid secretion; a transient rise in the digestive hormone gastrin; an increase in pepsin secretion; a small increase in gallbladder motility; and the initiation of pancreatic activity (enzymes production). Bitters are also useful to stimulate appetite in cases where individuals complain of "loss of appetite." Bitters also help to improve liver detoxification functions and stimulate the self-repair mechanisms of the intestinal tract.
- Greater celandine
Tannins contained in these plants cause tissue surfaces to contracrt reducing secretions or discharges of mucus and water. Tannins work by precipitating, or curdling, proteins on the tissue surface leading to a protective "leather" coating (Tannins get their name from their use in the tanning industry - leather manufacturers).This makes astringents useful in the treatment of diarrhea symptoms. They can also be useful in inflammatory conditions and for intestinal bleeding.
- Witch hazel
These herbs help to relieve flatulence (gassy bloating) and colic in the gut. Most of these herbs contain a volatile oil which is thought to soothe and settle the gut wall, easing cramping pains and helping in the removal of gas from the digestive tract. These herbs are also among the best tasting herbs to use in a digestive tract infusion.
These herbs help to relieve the crampingassociated with digestive upset. They act by easing the muscular spasms that are recognized as cramping. These herbs won't cure anything, but the pain relief is usually quite fast.
- Black haw
- Cramp bark
- Wild yam
Laxatives can be divided into three categories. An aperient is a mild and gentle form of laxative. It works by promoting natural bowel movements and functions. Aperients won't cause the cramping that may be caused by stimulant laxatives. Stimulant laxatives actively stimulate peristalsis (rhythmic bowel movements). This is usually due to anthraquinone constituents that stimulate greater contractions of the muscles of the large intestine (which can feel like cramping). This happens about 8-12 hours after taking the herb. Stimulant laxatives should only be used occasionally. The third type of laxative are the bulk-forming herbs. These herbs contain fibers that absorb water, increasing stool bulk and softening hard stools to allow for easier evacuation. This water absorption property is also useful to treat watery diarrhea as it aids in the formation of a solid stool.
- Burdock root
- Dandelion root
- Yellow dock root
- Aloe vera
- Cascara sagrada
- Rhubarb root
Hepatics and Cholagogues
Hepatics are herbs which aid liver function. They tone, strengthen and in some cases increase the flow of bile (bile is important for fat digestion and as a natural laxative). A cholagogue is an herb with the specific effect of stimulating the flow of bile from the liver. They are useful in improving the cleansing of the liver.
- Milk thistle
Because of the connection between our state of mind (anxiety, stress) and our digestive function, nervines may have a calming effect on the gut. The expression "butterflies in the stomach" is an apt description of this connection. Many nervines are also carminative and anti-spasmodic.