In the words of John Mayer, “Your Body is a Wonderland”!
Without any conscious thought, our bodies take food, drink and air, and turn it into parts of ourselves. We consume or take them in, and through millions of reactions, those inputs become flesh, bone, skin, various juices, hormones, etc. It is incredible… when it works well.
When doesn’t it work well? What signs or symptoms might give us a clue that all is not well in the transformative process called metabolism?
One area where we get noticeable feedback (from our body and sometimes from those around us) is the digestion. As we are social creatures, issues like bad breath, flatulence, bloating and wind are usually good prompts to correct whatever is causing them! No-one wants to be the smelly one in the room…
Digestion is impacted by a number of factors – below are four top reasons for digestive issues
Eating habits – if food is wolved down without being chewed correctly, it can lead to bloating, pain and reflux. Chewing sends messages to our digestive system to produce enzymes and initiate peristalsis.
If we are stressed while eating, the body is more concerned with making stress hormones and just won’t make adequate digestive secretions (enzymes) to break that food down and separate nutrients from waste. Food can then sit in the stomach too long and in part putrefy or travel through the stomach into the small intestine too quickly, without the initial stage of digestion happening beforehand. Then the proteins cause bloating and discomfort as the small intestine attempts to cleave them apart without the enzymes needed to do so.
Type of Food Being Consumed
Clearly a cheeseburger will not be as easy to digest as a fresh apple. So the complexity of a meal can delay proper digestion. The quality of the food itself also matters – organic produce has far less chemicals added to it in the production process, usually contains more nutrients and therefore more life force.
After all, the main purpose of food is to fuel our bodies. If the fuel itself is of a lesser vibrancy and nutrient content, we are less able to obtain these building blocks to support our own vitality and health. Organic choices, minimal processing and gentle cooking methods all help our digestive tract to cope with the food and turn it into nourishment.
While we think of the immune system as helping to combat infective disease, it is also involved in surveillance of other foreign particles entering the body. Sometimes an immune system will react to food components like it does to a pathogen – as something to mount an attack on, to protect the body. When this happens, a complex cascade of inflammation follows and we say a person has an allergy or a food intolerance.
Common examples are nuts, milk, egg and gluten. The reasons for this can be manifold, from impaired gut health (eg leaky gut, parasites), reactions to chemicals in/on food, and other concomitant health conditions. Symptoms may include hives, rashes, constipation and/or diarrhoea, sleepiness after meals or foggy thinking, mood changes, excess mucus production, joint pains – the list is as individual as the person reacting to the food. Coeliac’s disease is a well known condition where the body is unable to digest any foods containing gluten. This protein causes destruction of the villi in the small intestine and as yet, there is no cure, only abstinence.
Commonly, we produce less digestive enzymes as we age, especially hydrochloric acid and pepsin in the stomach. This is associated with a vast array of symptoms and conditions, including mineral deficiencies, chronic intestinal infections, asthma, chronic auto-immune disorders, eczema, pernicious anaemia1 and the full range of digestive issues.
There are many ways to improve digestion, even while we reduce or avoid foods that are difficult to deal with. Herbal remedies support the body’s production of enzymes by stimulating the vagus nerve and enteric nervous system to secrete digestive juices. Usually there is a bitter involved here..
It may also be prudent to take digestive enzymes, especially if stomach acid has been compromised. These can make up the shortfall where the body is not able to produce enough enzymes itself. Personally, I will recommend these in the short term, while the other diet and lifestyle factors are brought into balance, although sometimes we need to use them for longer periods of time.
Probiotics and prebiotics help to repair the intestinal landscape so commensal bacteria can assist digestion while also crowding out pathogenic microbiota.
Herbal remedies also work to repair the mucosal layer in the digestive tract, reducing inflammation, infection and hyper-immune responses.
Lastly, digestive motility can be corrected with herbs that either promote peristalsis – wavelike movements of the intestines- or reduce rapid transit time as is the case in diarrhoea. Appropriate fibre intake from plants works beautifully to normalise bowel transit time and sufficient water intake is important to hydrate the bowel and soften the stool. If digestion is weakened, it is best to drink water separately from a meal, to prevent further dilution of digestive juices.
With the large array of tools at our disposal, it is always a joy when a client is able to report normal bowel movements, pain free abdomen, less anxiety about food and more energy as a result.
When digestion works, the rest of the metabolism can optimise and we again can enjoy the wonders of being in a body.
As a herbalist at heart, I can’t imagine addressing digestive health without employing a number of herbal remedies to affect positive change. Fennel, Chamomile, Agrimony and Cinnamon are just some of the jewels in our dispensary.
Naturally, herbal medicine is a part of our treatment options. Herbal remedies work to soothe or stimulate, tone or relax, soothe or warm, replenish or detoxify, as needed and the blends can be different for each person at any stage in life.
Here are four of our most loved digestive remedies:
Soothing and aromatic, Fennel has been used for eons to calm griping, painful wind, spasms and bloating. It is well tolerated with no side effects noted and has a delicious taste, making it easy to give to children (and husbands)
Fennel’s energetics are dry and warm1, meaning it helps a ‘boggy’ digestion, where there is not enough digestive fire or where there is fermenting stagnation.
The carminative action is due to the stimulation of the gastrointestinal mucous membrane, which in turn stimulates the pancreas to increase its secretions8, resulting in quicker and better digestion.
Another classic herbal remedy, chamomile works on the nervous system to reduce tension and pain. This generalised nervous tension manifests as irritability, muscle pain, poor sleep and restlessness. From a digestive point of view, chamomile is great for irritable bowel symptoms, which are often exacerbated in times of stress. Taken long term, chamomile can alter the microbiome favourably, to allow healthy biota to flourish while reducing pathogenic numbers.
Chamomile is gentle and well tolerated, although people allergic to the daisy family should avoid this plant. It has an aromatic, sweet and slightly bitter2 taste and grows easily in most countries. Used for grumbly tummies and temperaments of all ages; babies, adults and the aged all benefit when experiencing colic, peptic ulcers, cramps, gas and diarrhoea.
The volatile oils are bactericidal and fungicidal, especially against gram positive bacteria and candida albicans7.
Henriette Kress says it can stand in for Mummy’s hugs and even uses it long term for PTSD, giving 3-6 cups of strong chamomile tea until the person starts to relax again.
Agrimony is an astringent, which ‘pulls together swelled mucosa, stops bacteria from wreaking havoc, acting locally for the whole length of the digestive tract.
Part of the rose family, Dr.Bach used agrimony for states of hidden despair, while keeping up a rosy exterior. This corresponds to herbal tradition, where it is employed for infections, swellings in the digestive tract which can fester away while a person does their best to get on with meeting expectations in the outer world.
Maria Treben also uses it for cirrhosis of the liver, liver congestion and diseases of the spleen5. The tea has a blood cleansing effect and as a bitter, stimulates the organs to detoxify waste and assimilate nutrients. It has been found to relieve indigestion and acidity of the stomach.
Cinnamon is warming and spicy, reducing stagnation and supporting the digestive fire. It is anti-inflammatory so can relieve pain beyond the digestive arena. Cinnamon affects blood sugar levels positively and is employed in insulin resistance to support pancreatic function. It grows well in tropical regions, with warm, moist conditions. As such it is also a remedy for fungal infections which can proliferate in warm, moist regions of our body – it is a powerful antiseptic, with antiviral and antifungal properties.
At Heidi’s Herbals, we make popular tea blend called Digestive Soother which contains the above herbs and others. What’s even better is that they taste wonderful as a tea after meals.