Digestive problems are common and very diverse and can affect different areas of the gastrointestinal tract and symptoms that, no matter how mild, can affect the person’s quality of life. Although each case needs an excellent diagnosis to make the best medical and dietary treatment, in many situations, medicinal plants can be the first line of care to prevent problems from perpetuating and becoming more complicated.
Most frequent alterations:
The reflux of stomach contents into the oesophagus is normal, it can happen in a mild form sometimes in healthy people, but when this reflux causes symptoms or complications, it is called Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD).
Functional dyspepsia is a term for recurrent signs and symptoms of indigestion without apparent cause. It is also called stomach pain and can be caused by heavy meals, a non-optimal function of some part of the digestive system, or other factors such as stress.
As each person has their intestinal rhythm, the most appropriate thing is to define this problem as a decrease in the number of times stools are evacuated, being these difficult to expel, of less quantity or volume, as well as a more significant defecation effort.
Flatulence or meteorism:
This problem has to do with the excessive generation of gases in the intestine due to fermentation processes that cause discomfort and even pain.
It is the occasional presence of stools that are more liquid than usual, generally accompanied by an increased number of bowel movements that infections or dietary changes can cause.
Phytotherapy can help us mitigate many of these alterations and protect digestive function, both at the stomach and liver and biliary levels. Having these health tools at hand can be very helpful, as well as being familiar with some of the main herbs and their effects on the digestive system.
Herbs with bitter components improve almost all aspects of digestion, promoting digestive secretions and speeding up digestion. These compounds bind to bitter receptors, increase salivation, stimulate the production of digestive juices from the stomach and pancreas, improve the flow of bile from the gallbladder, and increase the tone of the oesophagal sphincter.
The most popular in this group are gentian (Gentiana lutea) but also barberry root (Berberis vulgaris), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and artichoke leaf (Cynara scolymus).
They help by stimulating the digestive process in people who complain of slow or heavy digestions. Peppermint (Mentha × Piperita) is one of the digestive herbs best known for relieving dyspepsia, and it can also prevent vomiting after huge meals. It is often paired with pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), which has many components with antispasmodic properties useful in stomach pain and cramps. Also, the tasty and aromatic ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a widely used digestive remedy that reduces spasms, is antiemetic (anti-vomiting), and increases the secretion of digestive juices, including bile and saliva. Ginger contains ingredients that also soothe the intestine and aid digestion by increasing peristalsis.
We can also use black pepper (Piper nigrum) to stimulate the acid secretions of the stomach and improve gastric emptying. However, it is not indicated in people with gastritis as it can be irritating. Cinnamon, ginger and barberry also help lower blood glucose levels after meals.
They activate the digestive tract, speed up and stimulate digestion, and reduce gas. Anise (Pimpinella anisum), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and cumin (Cuminum cyminum) are very effective as antiflatulents, but also cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), dill (Anethum graveolens), caraway (Carum carvi) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) are carminative. Chamomile (Chamaemelum Nobile) also has these properties and is also calming, and relaxing thanks to a flavonoid called apigenin, which will help when there is pain and gastrointestinal spasms. In these cases, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is also very useful. Oregano (Origanum majorana) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris) can also be very helpful in reducing gas and intestinal cramps.
Gastric mucosa protectors
Marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) is used for inflammation of the stomach lining. To use marshmallow root, mix one tablespoon of the herb in bulk powder with food at each meal. Calendula (Calendula officinalis) can also be of great help, and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) as natural antacids. Turmeric root (Curcuma longa) and ginger (Zingiber officinalis) help keep inflammation under control also at the digestive level. Liquorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) protects the digestive mucosa by increasing the production of mucin, a secretion that protects against digestive juices. If liquorice is not glycyrrhizinate, that is, it contains glycyrrhizic acid, it should be taken into account as it would be contraindicated for hypertensive people. Linden (Tilia sp.
Biliary function stimulants
Choleretic or cholagogue, some plants help produce bile acids or their secretion by the gallbladder, allowing the digestion of fats in the small intestine. This is the case of artichoke (Cynara scolymus) and mate (Ilex paraguariensis), gentian (Gentiana lutea) and liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) as choleretics and milk thistle (Sylibum marianum), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and mint (Mentha x Piperita) as cholagogues.
Digestion can also improve if we optimize liver function, and in this sense, boldo (Peumus boldus), thanks to the presence of cineole, has hepatotoxic and stomach-protective properties. Marian cardio (Sylibum Marianne) stimulates and protects the liver and should be used in capsules because its bioactive components are not soluble in water, so an infusion will not have any effect. Turmeric (Curcuma longa), with its great compendium of properties, also seems to improve liver health.
They promote intestinal peristalsis due to an irritative reflex due to the presence of anthraquinone compounds. Among the best are senna leaf (Senna alexandrina), cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana), and some aloe leaf preparations (Aloe vera). They should always be used short-term to treat brief episodes of acute constipation.
Laxatives with fibre and mucilage that increase the faecal bolus
The most famous example is psyllium seed (Plantago spp.) which balances intestinal function and relieves pain in people with chronic constipation and good water intake. Plants with mucilage-forming fibres help keep stool moist and slippery enough to pass without difficulty. In this group, we also find marshmallow root (Althaea Officinalis), slippery elm bark (Ulmus rubra) and mullein leaf (Verbascum spp.).
Psyllium’s ability to absorb fluids makes the herb helpful in treating diarrhoea. Additionally, as it travels through the intestine, the psyllium mucilage creates a calming effect that can help relieve cramps. Peppermint oil (Mint x Piperita) is a relaxant for the muscles of the intestinal wall, and if this effect is sought, it should be taken in the form of gastro-resistant capsules.
Pregnancy and lactation care
Some medicinal plants are not recommended during pregnancy, especially in the first trimester, or during lactation, due to the lack of data on their safety or even, in some cases, because they are contraindicated:
Chamomile oil, saffron, boldo, comfrey, ginkgo Biloba, raspberry leaf tea, barberry, wormwood, rhubarb, celery, passionflower, verbena, holy thistle, lemon verbena, horsetail, avocado, basil, anise, cinnamon infusion, eucalyptus, mint, fig, fennel, hypericum or St. John’s wort, mint pennyroyal, oregano oil, parsley infusion, liquorice root, rue, aloe vera or infused aloe vera, linden, horehound, mistletoe, catnip, hibiscus flower lemon verbena, alfalfa, lobelia, labrador tea, nettle, coca, estate, rosemary infusion, sage, maidenhair, coriander, cat’s claw, mallow, mandrake, angelica, lion’s tail, privet, cockscomb, plantain and saddlebag.