by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
To learn more about the intricate connections between emotions and our digestion, see our other articles on GI health:
Long before Pepcid, Alka-Seltzer, TUMS or Pepto-Bismol hit the shelves of your local “apothecary,” people everywhere regularly turned to the plant materials that grew around them to heal their digestive system complaints. Today, many of these same botanical remedies remain in widespread use for common symptoms of digestive system problems. Bouts of nausea, motion sickness, morning sickness, vomiting, heartburn, dyspepsia, bloating, belching, flatulence, or diarrhea, when occasional or mild, can all be self-treated, frequently to good effect. More serious or persistent digestive disorders, such as a parasitic infections, chronic acid reflux, Crohn’s, or peptic ulcers, among others, should be discussed with a qualified professional. While these more problematic digestive concerns can also be treated with herbs, results can be much more variable, and professional guidance will help ensure you a better outcome.
Meant for the milder or occasional GI upset, this is an introduction to a handful of gentle, “kitchen-garden” remedies still being cultivated, blended, and administered today to good effect. Most women can safely use these herbs as antidotes to the occasional GI upsets we nearly all experience from time to time. (If your GI symptoms persist or worsen, please do consult with a qualified healthcare professional for assistance.)
The botanical nervines
Because digestive system problems and disturbances are so often tangled up with stress, anxiety, and tension, we favor a group of herbs known as botanical nervines. For those whose digestion is easily disrupted by emotional upset, botanical nervines can have a pronounced positive effect on the nervous system that is followed naturally with GI relief.
The way in which botanical nervines generally improve digestion is by reducing the stress response — an adaptive triggering of the sympathetic nervous system accompanied by a simultaneous turn-off of any other bodily function not required in an emergency for survival. In essence, these herbs help heal our nervous stomachs by making us more serene — but they do this in a range of intriguing ways that we’re only just beginning to understand.
We’ve learned that one of the most valuable features of plant medicine (phytotherapy) is that certain plants have what are termed biphasic effects, or adaptogenic effects. This means they may have complementary and overlapping actions, depending on the particular conditions existing within the body at that moment in time. In the case of nervines, some herbs can function both as relaxant nervines — which are thought to work by relaxing constricted or contracted tissues in relation to the nervous system — and as stimulant nervines — thought to stimulate lax or stagnant tissues in relation to the nervous system. Others are more nutritive for the nervous system. Here are five great botanical nervines that aid digestion.
The digestive benefits of herbs in the mint family derive largely from the aromatic oils and phenols that accumulate within tiny, hairlike glands — trichomes —that lie scattered along their fuzzy square stems and leaf surfaces. The use of essential oil of peppermint as a digestive aid probably dates back to ancient Greece; several thousand years later, a body of scientific research now exists that supports its use, particularly in the form of delayed-release, enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules for symptomatic relief of irritable bowel syndrome. An enteric coating on the capsule allows for the oil of peppermint to pass undegraded through the more caustic upper regions of the GI tract to the lower intestine, where, as reported in The Lancet nearly 30 years ago, it has the effect of a gentle smooth-muscle relaxant, calming digestive spasm, inhibiting GI contraction, relieving gas, and reducing pain and discomfort.
A cautionary note: enteric-coated peppermint is well-tolerated at the commonly recommended dosages, but higher doses may cause adverse effects. Caution is also urged with anyone with GI reflux, hiatal hernia, or kidney stones — please see a qualified naturopath or herbalist for proper advice and oversight.