Case Studies: Healing Herbs for Healthy Digestion

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At 15, Emily already had struggled with her weight for several years. She had been a “pleasingly plump” child, a condition encouraged by her family members, all of whom were also heavy. Hormonal changes and problems with other students in junior high school contributed to accelerated weight gain and by the time Emily was 14, she weighed 150 pounds, although she was small-boned and stood about 5’4″. Her increasing weight made her feel anxious, and a pattern of emotional swings alternating with food bingeing, especially on carbohydrates, became familiar and well-established.

Emily’s mother, Karen, brought her into my clinic, and the three of us sat down to discuss weight, diet and natural medicine. Emily’s father was a chiropractor, and the family embraced a wholesome diet and lifestyle. What she ate at school, however, was another matter.

Karen was a bit aggressive, and after 10 minutes, had Emily in tears. The girl’s mother could not understand why Emily ate so much “junk” at school. Observing the two interact said a great deal about how family relationships can help resolve tough personal issues, or how they can contribute to problems.

Research shows that much of early weight gain in children is genetic. However, learned behavior about food choices and portion sizes also has enormous influence. Once fat cells are activated in the child’s body, they become more ready receptors, and the “food to fat” syndrome becomes an easy and familiar pathway in the young adult. Add to these predisposing factors weak digestion (spleen qi deficiency in Traditional Chinese Medicine) and the propensity of many modern children to watch TV excessively, play computer games and engage in other passive non-activities, and it is easy to see why so many young people today are overweight. A new government health survey in 2002, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that in children ages 6 to 11, nearly four times as many (15 percent) are overweight than in the period of 1963 to 1974. That’s more than one child in seven, at this early age. Recent research shows that about 60 percent of adults are overweight — defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 25 — and nearly one in four is obese (with a BMI greater than 30).

Because childhood is such an important time in setting the stage for adult health, the chance to talk with mother and daughter together was a great opportunity. I told Karen that the best way (in fact, nearly the only way) to help her daughter was to be a good role model. A child doesn’t have much of a chance when all the other family members are sitting around watching TV and eating frequent sugary snacks. In Emily’s family, food choices were generally healthy, but the amount of food and activity was a problem for all the family members. Here is the plan I wrote out for Karen and Emily.

It’s OK to Have Fun

• Take an hour a day to enjoy an active sport or activity as a family. Set up a badminton or volleyball net on the front lawn and encourage neighbors to join in. Even ping-pong can be an active sport. Take folk-dancing lessons together. Walking, hiking, biking, swimming and Frisbee are other activities to enjoy.

• Restricting kids from sweets and high-carbohydrate foods is ineffective if the parents don’t play by the rules, too. As a family, work out menus together that focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, well-cooked beans and a little fish. Have fun planning and making creative lowfat and low-sugar meals. Educating yourselves about nutrition can be a great family adventure.

• Watch videos on health or healthy cooking together. Try downloading some of the food preparation videos on

• Try herbal teas and other preparations to strengthen digestion, which promotes healthy weight.

When the digestive system is not working well to produce all the enzymes needed to turn food into energy and muscle, more food goes directly to fat. The body needs digestive fire in order to completely burn food and eliminate wastes. Many herbal preparations can help with this process and are among the most popular prescriptions written by TCM practitioners. Regular acupuncture or acupressure can also help a child or adult maintain a strong, effective digestive system.

When I examined Emily, I found a lot of mucus on her tongue, which was quite swollen and pale. Her tongue also had “tooth marks” at the edges showing that as it expanded, it had formed around the teeth. These were all signs of deficient spleen qi, one of the most important indicators that the digestion is not producing energy, healthy blood and strong muscles.

My goal as a practitioner was to help Emily realize the importance of strong digestion, to recognize when her digestion was not functioning well and inform her of some things she could do to enhance her digestive fire. These guidelines were effective for the adults in her family as well.

Here are the strategies I recommended for Emily and her family.

• Work up and down the big muscle on the outside of the shinbone with your thumb, especially the area a few inches below the bottom of the kneecap. Find sore or especially sensitive areas and press on them for a few minutes. This area is associated with the digestive system. Or visit your acupuncturist for digestive-strengthening treatments. Once a week for six weeks or so should make a big difference.

• Chew food at least 15 to 20 times for each bite. Digestion starts with enzymes from the mouth.

• Eat simple foods and not too many complex combinations. Avoid coating foods with lots of butter or other fats, which slows digestion. Avoid cold drinks during meals as this can reduce digestive efficiency by limiting blood flow and diluting digestive juices.

• When you have that full feeling long after a meal, don’t be afraid to skip a meal and drink one of the digestive teas.

Family Results

This family was already aware of the great benefits of some of these herbs, so it was easy to encourage them to use some of them on a regular basis for several months, which is what provides the best effects for balancing weight. The next time Emily came in, several months later, she told me she had lost nearly 15 pounds, and I could really see the difference. Of course, these good results were because of the total program of health she was following with her family, although she felt like the herbs were a significant part.

Emily was studying the herbs and having fun brewing up some small blends. Emily told me that she had even developed a strange taste for some of the bitter herbs. She had a laugh sharing some of the bitters with her friends and watching their faces after a big (and uninformed) taste.

Warning Signs of Weak Digestion

• Watch for digestive symptoms such as gas, pain, abdominal distension, constipation or loose stools
• Fatigue is a common sign of poor digestion
• Sudden water- or fat-weight gain
• Weakness and heaviness in the arms and legs
• Poor muscle tone
• Noticeable, dramatic change in appetite
• If symptoms persist, work with a knowledgeable practitioner of natural medicine, and if you have symptoms such as blood in the stools, or if your symptoms become more severe, visit your family doctor.

Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his 30 years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is the creator of the correspondence course Foundations of Herbalism. Visit his website

“Case Studies” is not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider.

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