Mother Earth Living

Q and A: Herbal Assistance for Digestive System Problems

In every issue of Herbs for Health, professionals from a variety of health-care fields will answer your questions about using medicinal herbs. Herbalist Mindy Green and physician Robert Rountree responded for this issue.


An avid believer in the curative and restorative powers of herbs, I was most interested to find your magazine at a local bookstore. I have some concerns about my mother that might be addressed in your column.

A very fit 79-year-old, my mother finds herself slowed by chronic diarrhea, which she’s had for at least five years. There is no apparent physical dysfunction causing it, and she has been thoroughly examined for cancers and/or any other medical condition that might explain the symptom. At the moment, she lives on over-the-counter diarrhea medication. I would be grateful for any suggestions concerning herbal remedies for her condition. Any relevant readings you can suggest would be welcome as well.
Bridgeport, West Virginia

It eases my mind to know your mother has been thoroughly checked for cancer or other problems that might be causing the diarrhea, since this can be a symptom of many serious diseases. Many herbs are helpful against chronic diarrhea. I would start with slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) bark powder, a safe, gentle, soothing herb that also provides some bulk. The mildly astringent raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus and R. strigosus) or the slightly stronger blackberry root (R. fruticosus and R. villosus) may also prove helpful combined with the soothing marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) root, the anti-inflammatory German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), and the carminative peppermint (Mentha ¥ piperita).

Diet is also important. Food allergies may be a factor, and I believe that eating enough dietary fiber and avoiding refined foods is beneficial. The seeds of flax (Linum usitatissimum) ground to a powder and sprinkled on food would help relieve any inflammation of the mucous membrane of the colon. Acidophilus also can promote good bowel hygiene and may reduce bacteria that can cause intestinal putrefaction.
–Mindy Green

It is very rare for a person to have chronic diarrhea without any discernible cause. I assume that your mother has had routine X rays and/or colonoscopy (direct examination of the bowel wall with a fiberoptic scope), but I wonder if she has had a comprehensive digestive stool analysis. Several specialty labs around the country offer this test. One is Great Smokies Diagnostic Laboratory in Asheville, North Carolina, (704) 253-0621.
–Robert Rountree


I recently received your September/October issue and read it cover to cover. Thank you for a well-balanced, interesting, informative magazine–a rarity in today’s publishing society.

I have been using fenugreek tea and chamomile to treat irritable bowel syndrome and intestinal spasms, but I am concerned about the effect fenugreek tea may have on fibroid tumors. The tumors, diagnosed two years ago, are causing no problems but are numerous. There are no herbal practitioners in rural upstate New York, and I find it very difficult to obtain information on combinations of herbal remedies and interactions between them. Also, is there any way to estimate the strength of herbs grown in my garden as opposed to those available commercially?

Any help you can offer would be appreciated.
Redwood, New York

Studies show that fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is nontoxic, both internally and externally, and contains saponins and flavonoids, potential precursors to steroidal hormones. Though this is a bit controversial, most herbalists agree that phytosterols (plant hormones) are beneficial in cases of estrogen-dependent problems such as uterine fibroids or breast cysts. These plant estrogens are believed to protect the body from human estrogen by binding to and occupying receptor sites. Vitex (Vitex agnus-castus) is also used to treat fibroids by regulating estrogen levels during menstruation.

Growing your own medicinal herbs is an empowering process. As long as they are harvested at the optimal time and dried properly, they will be fresher and better than what is normally available commercially.
–Mindy Green

Fenugreek seeds are high in diosgenin, a hormonelike chemical that may account for fenugreek’s uterine stimulant effects. Whether this could increase the growth of fibroids is unknown, but I think the amount in your tea is un­likely to be a problem.

You also may want to take enterically coated peppermint capsules, which can be very effective for intestinal cramping and spasms.

The larger question regarding interactions between herbal remedies is a complex one. Although there are more published data than ever before, this work is still in its infancy, and reliable information is hard to come by. One useful text is Botanical Influences on Illness, by Melvyn Werbach, M.D., and Michael Murray, N.D. (Third Line Press, 1994).
–Robert Rountree

Editor’s note: According to scientific research, the strength of a plant’s active ingredients can vary with soil fertility, water, shade, insect damage, and especially with the strain of herb used, so it’s difficult to estimate the strength of the herbs you grow or of commercial ones unless the product is standardized to a certain potency of an active ingredient.
–Robert Rountree

Mindy Green is an herbalist and aromatherapist who ­currently works at the Herb Research Foundation and teaches at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies in Boulder, Colorado.

Robert Rountree, M.D., is a physician at the Helios Health Center, a multidisciplinary holistic clinic in Boulder, Colorado. He serves on the advisory board for the Herb Research Foundation and is the author of Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child.

  • Published on Jan 1, 1997
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