Oh, what a relief it is: herbs to soothe an upset stomach – includes a recipe to ease heartburn
Karin Horgan Sullivan
How many times have you stood before a store shelf crammed with bottles and boxes of herbs and wondered, “Where the heck do I start?” An easy way to narrow the field is to sample some digestive herbs. Just about everyone has some sort of minor stomach ailment every now and then, and herbs can be an effective, gentle remedy for the whole family.
Good digestion is essential to overall health. “To many natural healers, the digestive system is the most important system,” says Amanda McQuade Crawford, dean of phytotherapy at the newly founded National College of Phytotherapy in Albuquerque, N.M. “If you can’t absorb nutrients properly, then you’re not able to distribute them through the bloodstream to all the tissues of your body. That affects nerve function, circulation, respiration, mood and the reproductive system.”
In our hurry-up, get-it-done-now culture, there’s a lot we could do to improve our digestion. Eating in a calm setting is fundamental. “Enjoying the way a meal looks on the plate instead of eating a tempeh burger in your car as you’re rushing down the road can make a huge difference,” Crawford points out.
Christopher Hobbs, a fourth-generation herbalist and the author of Foundations of Health: The Liver and Digestive Herbal (Botanica Press, 1992), agrees, stressing digestion really begins in the brain, not the stomach. If you’ve any doubt about this, just pause for a moment and picture your favorite food. Quite likely, saliva will start flowing. The production of saliva–which happens in response to sight, smell and taste–gets your digestive tract ready to assimilate food efficiently. When food isn’t well mixed with saliva, the stomach must work harder to produce enzymes to break it down. “Food that is beautifully prepared and presented will have a much better chance of being completely assimilated.. .than food thrown together on the run, ” says Hobbs. So put down that book, shut off the TV and turn on your answering machine. Whenever you can, make a conscious effort to slow down and appreciate the food before you.
What you eat, of course, also is key. Be sure to get plenty of fiber. Part of the intestines’ role is to push this indigestible plant material out of the digestive tract, which keeps your system functioning smoothly. The National Cancer Institute recommends 25 to 35 grams of fiber a day, but most Americans eat only half that. Beans, whole grains, nuts, vegetables and fruit are rich sources of fiber, while meat and refined carbohydrates–white bread, pastries, potato chips–contain virtually none. Drinking lots of water also keeps things moving. Crawford recommends a minimum of four glasses a day, with 10 being optimal.
Eating fermented foods and taking acidophilus, a “friendly” bacteria, also can be beneficial, says Kathi Keville, author of Herbs for Health and Healiag (Rodale, 1996). People have long lists of the benefits from eating fermented foods: `I have more energy. I wake up feeling better. I no longer have certain aches and pains. I don’t have indigestion anymore,”‘ reports Keville. “They find [these foods] to be practically a cure-all; what’s happening is they’re improving their digestion.” Foods such as yogurt, buttermilk, vinegar, tempeh and miso aid in restoring the balance of beneficial microbes, the little critters in the digestive tract that keep harmful bacteria in check, help synthesize B vitamins and increase the digestibility of protein. Pickles and sauerkraut fall in this category too, as long as they aren’t heated during processing; heat destroys the microbes. Your local deli may have fresh, unprocessed pickles and sauerkraut.
By following simple practices like these, most minor digestive complaints can be cleared up without any treatment at all, says Crawford. Then when the occasional upset stomach or case of heartburn does strike, “the herbs that are needed to bring us into balance are only the mildest herbs. We won’t need the stronger, more pharmacologically active herbs.” Keep in mind if any of the conditions that follow are chronic problems, you should get them checked out by your healthcare practitioner, who can help you address the underlying cause. For occasional, minor complaints, though, these herbs should do the trick.
EASING GAS PAINS
MOST GAS IS the result of swallowed air–a good reason to avoid gulping down your food. Gas also results when bacteria in the intestines begin to act on pieces of food that haven’t been digested thoroughly. An excellent way to reduce gas and bloating is to use carminative herbs, which have several actions that bring relief. Carminative herbs stimulate peristalsis, the wave-like action of the digestive tract that moves food through your system. They also help relax the smooth muscle that forms the tract, reducing painful spasms. Further, these herbs are rich in volatile oils, which have antibacterial properties. Volatile oils also make carminative herbs easy to identify, because they give the plants an intense fragrance: Peppermint, ginger, fennel, anise and lemon balm all are carminatives.
Any of these herbs make delicious teas, and Crawford recommends getting in the habit of drinking a cup or two after dinner if gas is a problem. These herbs are commonly available as packaged teas. You also can make your own by steeping one teaspoon of dried herb per cup of just-boiled water for five to 10 minutes; be sure to cover the steeping tea so the volatile oils don’t evaporate. According to Don Brown, N.D., author of Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health (Prima, 1996), the volatile oils are even better preserved by making tea from tinctures, which are concentrated liquid herbal extracts; just mix a teaspoon or so of tincture in a cup of hot water. You might also try a custom from India where meals typically end by passing around a dish of seeds that are good for digestion, such as fennel and anise.
COOLING THE BURN
DESPITE THE NAME, heartburn isn’t a condition of the heart but rather the result of stomach acid flowing back up into the esophagus. Before turning to an herbal solution, Brown suggests you try eliminating alcohol, chocolate and coffee. All three increase the amount of acid in the stomach, and research indicates chocolate and coffee relax the sphincter muscle that normally shuts off the stomach from the esophagus.
Demulcent herbs help ease the burn because they’re rich in mucilage, which soothes irritated and inflamed tissue. The demulcents Crawford recommends are marshmallow root, Irish moss and slippery elm. Look for marshmallow root and Irish moss sold as syrup or packaged tea. You can make a tea from loose herb by adding one teaspoon of dried herb per cup of water just off the boil; cover, steep 10 minutes, then strain. Drink a cup of tea when symptoms arise. Slippery elm also can be taken as tea or look for tablets of the herb, which are commonly available in natural food stores as a cough remedy. Taking one slippery elm tablet at a time, chew it thoroughly and wait a few minutes to see if you experience relief; repeat if necessary, taking up to six tablets.
Keville says she stumbled on a heartburn formula accidentally when she sent some friends a basket of herbal goodies for their new baby. The label fell off the colic herbs she had prepared, and the father mistakenly thought this tea mix was for him and his wife. Keville was surprised when he eventually told her he loved the tea and moreover it had relieved his long-standing heartburn. Here’s the recipe:
Kathi’s Heartburn Formula:
1 tsp. each chamomile flowers, lemon balm leaves and licorice root 1/2 tsp. slippery elm bark 1/2 tsp. each fennel seeds and catnip leaves 1 1/2 cup very hot water 1 1/2 cup carrot or apple juice (optional)
COMBINE HERBS and pour water over them. Steep at least 15 minutes, then strain and add juice if desired. Drink 1 cup after each meal. Prepared tea will keep several days in the refrigerator.
BEATING THAT SLUGGISH FEELING
WHEN CONSTIPATION strikes, says Keville, look to improving your diet before turning to an herbal remedy: Are you getting enough fiber and drinking plenty of water? If you are doing everything possible and trouble still strikes, try bulk laxatives, such as psyllium or bran. If these don’t bring relief, there are safe and effective laxative herbs. However, because they work by irritating the intestines, which in turn order the body to get rid of the irritant, it’s wise to try a couple of gentler herbs first.
Crawford recommends dandelion root, which belongs to the class of herbs known as bitters. Bitter herbs stimulate the liver to produce bile, which is the body’s own natural laxative. “Dandelion is marvelous because it allows the body to be in a better state of health when you’re done taking it,” says Crawford. “In other words, dandelion turns on the liver and encourages its natural function, so you’re not dependent on the herb. The aim is always to use as light a touch as possible to reinitiate the body’s natural function.”
To make tea, simmer one teaspoon of the root per cup of water for 10 minutes. Drink a cup before meals or at bed time. You also can take a teaspoon of dandelion root tincture instead of tea if you prefer. Or look for combination remedies of bitter herbs, which are widely available in natural food stores. One caution though: Don’t try to bypass the bitter taste by downing a capsule or pill. Bitters stimulate bile production via the taste buds; if you can’t taste them, they won’t work.
If your constipation seems to be linked to being nervous or uptight, Crawford suggests trying chamomile, a nervine herb that calms the nervous System without being sedative. Follow the instructions for making tea from carminative herbs.
If you’ve ever taken an over-the-counter laxative, chances are you’ve already tried senna or cascara sagrada, which are the basis of most over-the-counter laxatives. Drugstore laxatives made from these herbs are fine to use, or you can look for the herbs themselves at a natural food store. Use these herbs cautiously, because long-term use–more than a week, says Keville–can lead to dependence. Whether you buy capsules, tablets, tincture or syrup, follow the directions on the label. Keep in mind that these herbs take several hours to work. Keville has known people who Impatiently took more than the recommended dose and went promptly from constipation to diarrhea.
SLOWING DOWN DIARRHEA
DIARRHEA IS THE body’s way of clearing out something disagreeable, such as rich food, bacteria and viruses. It’s important the body be allowed to continue this function; the goal is not to suppress diarrhea but to make the patient more comfortable by slowing the elimination. Keep in mind that serious diarrhea can deplete the body’s fluid and electrolyte levels, causing life-threatening dehydration. Drink plenty of water, and if diarrhea persists for more than a day, see a medical professional.
Astringent herbs are beneficial, says Brown, because they contain constituents called tannins, which cause the proteins in body tissues to tighten up. When you ingest an astringent herb, the proteins in the digestive tract form a protective barrier that reduces fluid and electrolyte loss and soothes irritated tissue. Carob powder is an astringent herb especially helpful in treating diarrhea in children. Brown recommends mixing one or two tablespoons with applesauce three or four times a day.
Crawford suggests making a tea with yarrow and blackberry, both astringent herbs, plus marshmallow root and fennel. Marshmallow is a demulcent, while fennel is a carminative, which, as you know by now, lessens gas and cramping. To make a tea, mix equal parts of all four herbs; then combine one teaspoon of the mixture with one cup of boiling water and steep for 10 to 15 minutes. You can also make tea by mixing 1/2 teaspoon to one teaspoon of each of these herbs in a cup of warm water. Drink a half cup every half hour until diarrhea slows.
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