The digestive system lends itself to a wide variety of herbal solutions. This system includes the liver, pancreas, esophagus, stomach, duodenum (leading from the stomach to the small intestines), small intestines and large intestines (colon).
Age-related changes do occur in the digestive system. The salivary glands may produce less saliva, thus fewer digestive enzymes. Past age twenty, the stomach slows its production of gastric juices. Degeneration of the stomach’s mucous lining may cause inflammation. Both the liver and pancreas produce fewer enzymes. Intestinal muscles may weaken, and the lining of the intestines may become thinner and less elastic, producing pockets (diverticula) that can swell and become infected. Food takes longer to travel through the small and large intestines and the intestines may absorb fewer nutrients.
Obviously, dietary choices play a very important role in the health of the aging digestive system. Whole grain, high-fiber, fresh foods are preferred over highly processed foods. Reducing or eliminating coffee, alcohol, and nicotine have obvious health benefits, as does lowering fat intake. Herbs can benefit the digestive system in many ways.
- Bitter herbs, such as blessed thistle or gentian root, can increase digestive juices and aid in digestion.
- Demulcent herbs rich in mucilage,such as slippery elm bark or marshmallow root, can relieve inflammation and soothe irritated tissue.
- Carminative herbs can help relieve gas in the digestive system. They include many common culinary herbs, especially the seeds of carrot family members such as dill, fennel, and caraway.
- Anti-inflammatory herbs such as chamomile reduce inflammation. Antispasmodics such as chamomile and peppermint can alleviate muscular cramping.
- Laxative herbs such as cascara sagrada or psyllium seed, if used only occasionally, have noticeable benefits.
The two primary herbal stars for treatment of digestive ills are peppermint and chamomile, both of which make pleasing beverage teas. Both help ease the symptoms of the three most common forms of indigestion—acid, gastric, and nervous.
Peppermint is great both to stimulate and soothe digestion. In Germany, peppermint and its essential oil are considered effective antispasmodics for treating upper digestive distress, antibacterial agents, and promoters of gastric secretions. Peppermint is widely prescribed for these purposes in Europe
How to take it: One or two teaspoons of the dried leaves can be infused in hot water. Heat water until it just begins to simmer (don’t boil). Then pour the hot water over the dried leaves. Allow the tea to steep for ten or fifteen minutes in a covered container. Sip after or between meals to help relieve indigestion.
The dried (or fresh) flower heads of chamomile are used in modern herbal medicine as an anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, antiseptic, and carminative, especially for digestive disorders. Chamomile is official in the pharmacopeias of more than two dozen European countries; its labeling in France states that it is “traditionally used in the symptomatic treatment of digestive disorders.”
How to take it: The easiest way to use chamomile is tea, which is widely available. Bring the water to near simmering (don’t boil), then pour the hot water over the flowers and allow to steep for about twenty minutes. Sip as needed, consuming up to three cups of chamomile tea a day. As with peppermint tea, sipping is the best method to relieve digestive upset.
Steven Foster is an authority on medicinal herbs and the author of many books, including Steven Foster’s Guide to Herbal Dosages (Interweave Press, 1999).
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