Most people have had digestive issues at one time or another - one of the hazards of living in a fast-paced society, eating on the run and having to make do with convenience foods from time to time.
We always take an evidence-based approach and in this article we aim to provide you with an overview of the first stages of digestion, what may cause digestive upsets and a good range of herbs to help remedy many typical gut complaints.
Table of Contents:
- Digestion Begins in the Mouth
- Chew Slowly and Mindfully
- Herbs for Oral Health
- The Stomach
- Causes of Poor Stomach Function
- Herbal Remedies for the Stomach and Gut
In truth, we only really think about our digestion when it’s not working and then it’s pretty obvious that something is not quite right.
Bloating, gas, indigestion, reflux, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhoea and constipation are typical examples of a digestive system that is out of sorts.
Many factors have an impact on the digestion, and these include:
- poor nutrition
- sedentary lifestyle
- ill health
- food allergies/intolerances
In the human body the main sites of digestion are the oral cavity, the stomach and the small intestines.
When you tackle digestive issues, you have to start at the top where the process of digestion begins - the mouth.
Next stop is the stomach, which should be well prepared for the food when it arrives.
Making sure your stomach is doing its job properly is key to a healthy digestion.
Improving these two phases of digestion paves the way for seamless digestion and optimum absorption of nutrients through the small intestines.
We need food to survive, but in order to utilise food for nourishment and energy, it must be broken down sufficiently to be absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to the cells and tissues.
Any interruption to this process can lead to undigested food and poorly absorbed nutrients resulting in many of the typical problems associated with digestive issues such as bloating, cramps and indigestion.
Just the smell of food can generate saliva, which kickstarts the digestive process.
Saliva is secreted by the salivary glands in the mouth and contains an enzyme, salivary amylase, which breaks down starch.
The presence of saliva also triggers the stomach to produce hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes in preparation for the arrival of food.
Hands on food preparation and taking time to appreciate the appearance and smell of each meal can help to pre-programme digestion before eating even begins.
It may seem obvious but eating slowly and chewing well can improve your digestion enormously.
- The more thoroughly food is chewed, the more its surface area is increased. This ensures greater exposure to the digestive juices needed for efficient digestion.
- Eating slowly allows time for the signals from the senses and the gut to travel to the brain and enteric nervous system, stimulating the production of digestive enzymes, muscular contractions and other processes necessary for each stage of digestion.
- This also allows time for the body to register the presence of food and send the appropriate satiety signals to the brain. Overeating is a common culprit for bloating and indigestion.
- A good way to slow down the rate of eating is to put your knife and fork down between each mouthful.
- The act of chewing shreds fibres, mashes and macerates food and mixes it with saliva.
- If food is not chewed properly, carbohydrate digestion is impeded, and digestion may take longer. Poorly digested carbohydrates can lead to fermentation and bloating.
- Taking smaller bites and chewing food 20-40 times until it’s liquid will ensure it is properly broken down.
- Mouth ulcers, bad teeth and gum disease can all affect your ability to chew, plus don’t forget the stomach has no teeth, so your mouth has to do most of the hard work first!
The following herbs will help to keep your gums and teeth healthy and your mouth free of infection:
This may explain why it has been used traditionally for centuries to cure toothache, reduce oral infections and prevent bad breath. (1)
Cinnamon bark is also considered to have astringent properties, which provide further valuable benefits.
Astringents contract, firm and strengthen oral tissue, as well as reduce surface inflammation and irritation.
Rinsing with diluted cinnamon oil after brushing your teeth may help to prevent cavities and also kill harmful bacteria that could cause gum disease.
As well as helping to clear the airways, eucalyptus is great for promoting oral health because of its antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic and stimulant properties.
This perfect combination helps to boost circulation and speed up the healing process.
It is ideal for combating oral infection and mouth ulcers.
Recent research has discovered that adding eucalyptus to chewing gum has a significantly beneficial effect on plaque and gingivitis. (2)
Myrrh - commonly used as a home remedy for mouth ulcers in Saudi Arabia. It is a gum resin obtained from the shrub-like tree Balsamodendron Myrrha, which grows in Northern and Eastern parts of Arabia and Africa.
Myrrh acts as an antimicrobial and antifungal healing tonic and stimulant; it also has carminative, expectorant, diaphoretic, anticatarrhal, expectorant, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and astringent properties.
Myrrh is also thought to protect against the development of gastric ulcers.
Research has confirmed that Myrrh promotes healing and repair of damaged tissue over short periods of time, but should be used in a solution as concentrated raw doses can be toxic locally, paricularly on open wounds. (9)
The stomach is the next port of call once your mouth has taken care of liquidising the food into what is known as a soft bolus.
The job of the stomach is to further break down the food you have swallowed - this is possible through the combined processes of mechanical contractions and chemical actions.
Together the food is mixed with gastric juices, to produce a thick liquid substance called chyme.
Enzymes present in the gastric juice chemically digest large macromolecules into smaller units.
Gastric juice consists of:
- Hydrochloric acid - activates pepsin and kills any pathogenic bacteria naturally found in food
- Pepsin - breaks down protein into smaller chains of amino acids called peptides
- Gastric lipase - digests fats
- Intrinsic factor - binds to vitamin B12 and aids its absorption
- Mucus - helps protect the stomach lining
The stomach produces about 1-2 litres of gastric juice per day, which transforms the food particles into chyme.
This thick semi-fluid mass is passed into the small intestine where additional enzymes continue to break down the chyme into even smaller molecules.
Once this is accomplished, the nutrients are absorbed across the intestinal wall into the blood stream.
There are a number of factors that may affect the function of the stomach and cause unpleasant symptoms:
- low stomach acid - common in the elderly and amongst those with chronic stress
- bacterial/fungal overgrowth (Helicobacter pylori, parasites, candida)
- viral infection (stomach flu)
- digestive enzyme deficiency
- food intolerances/allergies
- excessive alcohol consumption
- too much spicy, fried or fatty foods
Reducing stress, fighting bacterial and viral infections and making sure the stomach has enough acid and digestive enzymes are key to a healthy stomach.
In addition to this, a healthy balanced diet with regular exercise and plenty of sleep are also vital components.
The following herbs may help to achieve optimal gastrointestinal function:
Agrimony is a gentle herb and is therefore suitable for both children and the elderly suffering with diarrhoea. Its active constituents, ellagitannins, impart its astringent properties. (4)
It also contains a variety of flavonoids, thought to contribute to its antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory effects.
A bitter tasting herb, agrimony has an additional benefit of toning the digestive tract.
Aloe is a cactus like plant and both the gel and the latex resin can be used, with their soothing, healing and stimulating properties.
The inner leaf generates a bitter latex resin that contains anthraquinone glycosides.
These compounds act as a stimulating natural laxative so may be beneficial for individuals who suffer from sluggish digestion and constipation. (6)
When the resin is taken orally it usually takes 6-8 hours to produce a bowel movement.
Protozoan infections that result in diarrhoea include giardiasis, dysentery, candida and Vibrio cholerae.
Some of the active ingredients in barberry are berberine, palmatine and berbamine, all of which have antibacterial properties.
It is particularly effective for adults with diarrhoea, but also useful when used for children and infants experiencing loose, watery stools.
Carob pods have a gum-like stability that acts as a thickening agent, helping the body retain water and hold together the runny stools.
The seeds from this plant are a popular remedy for constipation.
Flaxseeds are an excellent source of fibre and omega-3 fatty acids.
The fibre in flaxseeds is responsible for its effects in treating constipation.
The seeds should be crushed or ground to gain the benefits.
It contains some of the most bitter compounds in the plant kingdom.
Just a few drops of this bitter herb are thought to stimulate the secretion of stomach acid and gastric enzymes.
It is also recommended for those suffering from indigestion due to over-eating resulting in heaviness, bloating and reflux.
It is probably one of the most well-known plants in terms of its ability to relieve nausea.
Herbalists classify ginger as a pungent bitter and use it to treat not just nausea but also flatulence, intestinal cramping and indigestion.
It is ginger’s non-volatile phenolic compounds (gingerol and shogaol) that are considered the main active ingredients.
It is a gentle yet effective relaxing agent that can be used any time of the day or night.
When psyllium encounters water, it quickly swells and turns into a mass that adds bulk to the stool and assists in the transit of waste through the intestinal tract. (5)
The larger stools press against the walls of the large intestine, triggering the contractions that are felt prior to passing a bowel movement.
When stress activates the flight or fight response, digestion is shut down, reducing the secretion of digestive juices and hindering peristalsis (the muscle contractions that push food through the digestive tract).
No matter what imbalances are present, stress seems to make digestive problems worse.
The gut has been described as the centre of all human emotion – we often talk about having a ‘gut’ feeling and most of us have experienced butterflies in the stomach, when anxious or stressed.
In challenging situations these feelings may induce nervous diarrhoea or constipation.
It contains the gel-like substance mucilage that soothes the mucus membranes of the mouth, throat, stomach and intestines, making it an excellent remedy for reflux.
It is also an ideal therapy for constipation and other symptoms of IBS, such as bloating and abdominal pain. (10)
The World Health Organization supports the use of curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) to treat acid reflux, flatulence and atonic dyspepsia. (3)
Herbal remedies have very powerful effects and can interact with orthodox medication, so great care should be taken before using them.
At Amchara we recommended that you consult with a qualified Personalised Health Practitioner if you are considering herbs for any digestive issues you may have.
Why not take advantage of a complimentary consultation with one of Amchara’s expert Personalised Health practitioners?
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