One of the ironies of life is that in old age we often return to infancy. We may become helpless, dependent on our own children for care, and can't control our bowels or urinary functions. I've watched this happen in some families, and although it's embarrassing for both parents and children, why should it be? After all, the parents gave the same care to their children for many years, and it's only fair that this care be reciprocated.
I had a 75-year-old patient, whom I'll call Betty, who had problems controlling her bowels for about nine months. She had to wear a diaper and couldn't go very far away from a bathroom when she went out, severely limiting her ability to travel and explore new places, which she was fond of doing. She came into the clinic with a diagnosis of chronic colitis and was taking an eight-month course of a commonly prescribed anti-inflammatory, which her doctor said should relieve the symptoms.
After seven months or so, Betty started wondering why she should continue to take the medication if it wasn't working. Together, we looked up the drug and noted that one of the most common side effects was diarrhea. Besides, Betty told me that she had several kidney infections when she was young, and the drug was also mildly toxic to the kidneys. I was concerned because infections can weaken the kidneys and make them more susceptible to the toxic effects.
I checked Betty's pulse and tongue to assess the present condition of her internal organs and overall health status. She had a clean but very pale tongue, with little coating, and her pulse was thready and weak. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, these symptoms indicate that she was suffering from deficiency of qi (vital energy), blood, and hormones. In other words, she was generally depleted and run-down. She told me that she had lost about thirty pounds and was quite a bit weaker than she had been seven months earlier. She felt like she was ``going downhill fast.''
Herbs can help soothe the intestinal tract and relieve inflammation
What I found sad was the care, or lack of it, that Betty was getting from her doctor. She couldn't get in to see him--he was booked for two months, and she didn't want to press the issue. Like many elderly folks, Betty accepted what her doctor said as gospel and didn't think to challenge his diagnosis or prescriptions. It took Betty many months to come to the conclusion that a better way might be accessible to her through natural medicine.
Betty and I talked about her diet, and I concluded that she couldn't be getting all the nutrients she needed, because her absorption was so poor due to the diarrhea. The next step was to design an easy-to-follow program for Betty.
First things first: Nutrients and fiber
First, Betty needed to get more nutrients into her system. I gave her a ``super nutrition drink'' recipe (see sidebar), and she agreed to drink it daily. I had Betty alternate this nutrition drink with a fresh vegetable juice every three days or so, knowing she had a juicer. A few to a dozen dandelion leaves juiced with carrot, celery, and beet is a great mineralizer. I asked her to drink about six to eight ounces.
Betty also agreed that she would start reducing the anti-inflammatory drug by half. After a week, she'd eliminate it altogether. Because several good studies show the efficacy of psyllium (Plantago spp.) for reducing diarrhea, I had her start on a teaspoon of psyllium husk and seed (50/50 blend) in a cup of warm water every morning, making sure to follow up with two cups of ``Restore the bowel'' tea. The herbal tea was designed to soothe her intestinal tract, reduce inflammation and irritation, and provide some bowel tone. Bowel tone is similar to muscle tone and is achieved through colon stimulation. Betty had no signs of high blood pressure or water retention, so I wasn't concerned about giving her up to 4 g of licorice a day.
To prepare ``Restore the Bowel'' tea, simmer equal parts of marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis), shredded or powdered, and licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) for fifteen minutes. Then add an equal amount of chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita) and steep the mixture for fifteen minutes, strain, and drink a cup two to three times daily.
When it comes to clinical practice, I have a saying: ``Expect a miracle, but don't get discouraged if one doesn't occur.'' When Betty called me two days later to say that her diarrhea had stopped for the first time in months, I was pleasantly surprised. Patients often report immediate improvement after a visit to the clinic, partly because of the psychological boost from all the encouragement we give. But two weeks later, Betty was having the opposite problem--constipation. These results weren't as surprising, however, because constipation is a common side effect when withdrawing from pharmaceutical drugs that produce diarrhea.
With a little extra help from the herbs and superfoods, Betty's strength and enthusiasm came back over the next few months, and her diarrhea did not come back! She continued on the psyllium, bowel toners, and superfoods for several more months. After her bowels became regular, I added an equal part (with the other herbs) of yellow dock (Rumex crispus) to her tea as a mild bowel regulator and cleanser. Along with the psyllium, this kept her regular.
Christopher Hobbs's case studies are gleaned from his thirty years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is an Herbs for Health editorial adviser and licensed acupuncturist. He is the author of