Digestive Wellness

Our digestive system breaks down our food to provide the building blocks that give the structural integrity of our body, the nutrients that sustain all our metabolic processes and the energy so that we have the fuel to function.  It is also central to handling waste materials left over from all these processes.  We are literally what we eat and what we don’t excrete!

No wonder then that addressing digestive function is central to what a Medical Herbalist does to address any chronic health problems.  As holistic practitioners we might seem a bit obsessed with good gut health, but without digestive wellness you can’t possibly function at optimum well-being.

As well as treating digestive problems as part of an holistic protocol to resolve other health problems Medical Herbalists are often called upon to specifically treat digestive disorders.  Many people seek practitioner support to treat problems such as irritable bowel, inflammatory bowel disease, constipation, indigestion and reflux, diverticulitis and even haemorrhoids.  Literally the whole digestive system can benefit from the tonic effects of herbal medicine.

When looking at digestive health from an holistic perspective a Medical Herbalist will consider digestive enzyme function – are you over or under secreting stomach acid; pancreatic enzyme health – are you having problems handling carbohydrates; bacterial balance – are your gut bacterial levels off balance?    They will also be thinking about liver and gallbladder health, the health of the gut membranes lining the digestive system and the tone of the muscles of digestion – are your bowels over relaxed or over tense?  They can then determine the best combination of herbs to treat your specific problem, to get your digestive system functioning properly again.

Allopathic drugs will tend to have a single mode of action, for example antacids will only suppress stomach acid or laxatives will only stimulate the bowel, whereas one herb will often have several different therapeutic effects.  Herbs tend to work differently in that they contain a complex array of natural chemicals that work together for a more broad acting and gentler action.  Because of the buffering effects of different constituents in herbal medicines they tend to have much fewer of the side effects associated with conventional drugs.   Take our humble chamomile with its anti-inflammatory mode of action that helps to soothe an inflamed stomach, its bitter compounds which gently nudge a sluggish liver into action and its antispasmodic aromatic compounds that soothe smooth muscle spasm easing digestive cramps.

Many herbs work in this complex way, having several complementary modes of action, which when combined with other carefully selected herbs in a tailor made prescription can have potent therapeutic effects.  Key for digestive health are the calming aromatics, the stimulating bitters, the soothing mucilage remedies, the relaxing nervines and the tonic astringents.  An experienced Medical Herbalist knows which mode of action they seek to remedy an illness and which herbs to combine to get best results.

When it comes to digestive health a detailed case history will normally give the experienced Medical Herbalist enough clues to know how to address what is going on.  Particularly so with problems such as IBS, when no clear underlying pathology is apparent to the conventional practitioner, yet distressing symptoms are present.    In this situation having plenty of the time to take a detailed look at not only the digestive system but at diet and lifestyle factors  can reveal where a herbalist may help to improve function to bring about a resolution of symptoms.

Many people come to herbal clinic having undergone investigations and having tried their GPs prescription yet haven’t resolved their digestive disturbance.    Commonly we see people who wish to use both herbs and conventional medicines together to control problems such as Crohns disease or colitis.  This is well within the remit of a Medical Herbalist who has both the medical training and understanding of conventional therapeutics to offer support.

Whatever the digestive complaint a good detailed look with a fresh eye reviewing diet, nutrition and a detailed assessment of digestive function may net beneficial results and can be seen as a good investment for both current and future whole body health and well-being.

By Keren Brynes MacLean MNIMH

Keren is a Consultant Medical Herbalist and owner of Health Food and More in Kirkcaldy. The Consultant Medical Herbalists working within Health Food and More are all experienced Members of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists.