Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Helpful herbs for the digestive system and Spring Tonics

Digestive system troubles & herbs which help relieve these

This month I have been set the task of researching the digestive system with particular reference to elimination, constipation & diarrhoea and herbs that are helpful for these conditions.  The diagram below shows the different parts of the digestive system and their functions, which are essential to good health.  The digestive system has four activities - ingestion, digestion, absorption and elimination, which removes unwanted matter such as indigestible food, metabolic waste products and toxins from our bodies.  The condition of our bowels has a fundamental effect on the rest of the body.

Digestive System diagram 


Constipation is not a disease but is a symptom of an underlying problem.  The key symptoms of constipation are lack of bowel movements for more than 24-48 hours, low abdominal pain or gripes and difficulty passing stools.  It is common during pregnancy, old age and while travelling.  Causes of constipation include sluggish digestion, lack of exercise, suppressing the urge, food allergy, gut flora imbalance and overgrowth of Candida in the bowel, nutritional deficiencies, excess refined foods, insufficient dietary fibre, low fluid intake and tension due to stress. Constipation can be related to conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and bowel obstruction.  Many medications have a constipating effect including codeine, tranquillisers & iron supplements. 

Linseed, Fenugreek or Psyllium seeds help bulk out bowel contents and move them along, soak 1-2 teaspoons of seeds in a cup of hot water for 2 hours, add lemon or honey if desired and drink at bed time.   It is important to drink plenty of water as well when taking these.  Mucilaginous herbs such as Marshmallow and Plantain can be used for a gentle laxative action by absorbing water and bulking out stools, which is useful if stools are dry.  This action is in contrast to Senna and similar remedies for constipation such Alder Buckthorn bark, Rhubarb Root and Yellow Dock Root which contain anthraquinones which have a stimulant action on the muscles of the bowel, which can be necessary to retrain the bowel muscles in cases of chronic constipation which may occur particularly with older people.  Adding Ginger or Fennel is useful to relieve colic which might be caused by using these remedies.  Syrup of Figs is a traditional remedy for constipation, recipes can be found in 'Grow your own drugs' by James Wong and 'Kitchen Medicine' by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal. 

Bitter liver herbs stimulate digestion and ease bowel movements. Decoctions of Liquorice, Dandelion root and Burdock root are effective for mild constipation.  Yellow Dock root decoction or tincture is helpful for mild constipation and stimulates the digestion.  Rosehip tea is also a mild laxative, strain to remove the irritating hairs.  Raw or cooked Elderberries have a potent laxative effect.  Blackthorn leaves & flowers can also help constipation. However it is important to find and treat underlying causes of constipation, rather than relying on laxatives which can make the problem worse in the long run.  For stress-related constipation take Chamomile, Lemon Balm, Dill, Hops, Vervain or Cramp Bark, which is a smooth muscle relaxant.  Garlic, Burdock or Marigold are helpful for an imbalance of gut flora.

Doses of herbal remedies for constipation in older people may generally need to be lower due to slow metabolism.  Constipation in children needs to be treated with gentle laxatives such as Psyllium seeds and other gentle remedies such as Chamomile rather than stimulating purgative herbs such as Senna or Rhubarb Root.  Flavouring agents such as Chamomile, honey, Peppermint or Liquorice may help make herbal remedies more palatable for children to take.  Violet Syrup is particularly recommended for constipation in children - see recipe in last week's blog post.


Diarrhoea is caused by the body attempting to rid itself of poisons or irritants, inflammation or infection in the gut.   Key symptoms are loose frequent stools and abdominal cramps or griping pain.  It is usually short-lived, lasting only a day or two.   Intolerances to gluten-containing and dairy foods can cause diarrhoea.  Red meat and raw food can aggravate it so these are best avoided till fully recovered.  It can be caused or exacerbated by stress.  It is important not to stop the process but to address the underlying causes.  Herbal remedies try to assist the process while soothing the bowel and reducing inflammation.  It is vital to drink plenty of fluid to replace water and electrolytes lost through diarrhoea to prevent dehydration.  James Wong gives a recipe for a Herbal Rehydration Tea in 'Grow your own drugs' and there is a recipe for a Lemon Sherbet Rehydration Remedy in 'The Domestic Alchemist' by Pip Waller.  

Diarrhoea can be relieved by using astringent herbs such as Agrimony or Blackthorn which are especially suitable for children.  Other astringent herbs which can help relieve diarrhoea include Blackberry leaf, Black Tea, Cinnamon, Goldenrod leaves, Ground Ivy, Hawthorn, Lady's Mantle, Meadowsweet, Mullein, Oak Bark, Raspberry Leaf, Rose petals, Shepherd's Purse, Speedwell, Strawberry Leaf, White Deadnettle, Wood Avens and Yarrow which dry up secretions and tone the gut lining.  Mucilaginous herbs such as Slippery Elm, Marshmallow and Plantain help relieve diarrhoea by reducing irritation of the gut lining and act as pre-biotics to encourage helpful gut flora.  Anti-spasmodic herbs such as Peppermint, Catmint, Ginger, Dill and Chamomile relieve pain from cramps.

For diarrhoea caused by infection use anti-microbial herbs such as Thyme, Chamomile, Cinnamon, Garlic & Ginger.  Cooked Carrots have been found to have an anti-bacterial effect in the gut.  The anti-bacterial properties of raw honey can help treat diarrhoea.  There is a recipe for Meadowsweet Anti-diarrhoea Honey in 'The Domestic Alchemist' by Pip Waller.   Chamomile, Hops, Meadowsweet, Self-heal and Yarrow relieve inflammation.  Chamomile, Hops, Dill and Lemon Balm help reduce stress-related diarrhoea.  Rosebay Willowherb enhances enzyme production in the stomach and pancreas so is helpful for preventing & remedying diarrhoea caused by dietary changes. An infusion of Coriander seed is a safe remedy for diarrhoea in children.  Grated Apple is a simple remedy for childhood diarrhoea and grated Apple and Ginger are good for settling the stomach after a bout of diarrhoea. 

Signs of possible serious bowel disease that need medical investigation are:
- Constipation that is persistent, develops suddenly or with pain.
- Diarrhoea that is sudden & painful or continues for longer than a week or is recurrent or is accompanied by fever or where there is blood, mucus or pus in the stools.
- Any unusual change in bowel habits.
- Recent travel to a foreign country or contact with someone else who has travelled to a foreign country.
- Recently drinking water from a stream, river or lake.
- Persistent diarrhoea in children.
- Extreme acute abdominal pain.

Herbal Terminology

This month's herbal terms are:

Spring Tonic

Herbs which were traditionally used as spring tonics are often liver stimulants, to strengthen the liver after eating poor food during the winter, which help to cleanse and tone the whole body.  Our modern processed, chemical laden diet puts pressure on our livers all year round, so we can benefit from a spring tonic at any time of the year.  At this time of year spring tonic herbs such as Dandelion, Chickweed, Chives, Cleavers and Nettles are thriving.  They help cleanse the blood, strengthen the liver and gently detox the body.  It is good to eat them every day from now until they become too tough in the early summer.


Herbs containing viscous sap that soothes inflammation.  Mucilage is a sugary, gel-like substance that draws in water to form a viscous fluid.  When taken orally it coats internal mucous membranes, protecting them from irritation and inflammation.  Herbs containing mucilage are cooling and soothing in their action.  Mucilaginous plants include Mallows, Violets, Plantain seeds, Linseed and boiled Onions.


Herbs that induce perspiration, enabling toxic wastes to be eliminated via sweat.  Diaphoretic Herbs are widely used in feverish conditions to reduce a high temperature.  Herbs with a diaphoretic effect include Catnip, Cayenne, Elderflowers, Garlic, Ginger, Peppermint, Rosemary, Thyme, Vervain and Yarrow.


'Bartram's Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine' Thomas Bartram.
'Grow your own drugs' James Wong.
'Holistic Anatomy' Pip Waller.
'Kitchen Medicine' Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal. 
'Letting in the Wild Edges' Glennie Kindred.
'Practical Herbs 1 & 2' Henriette Kress.
'The Complete Book of Herbs' Lesley Bremness. 
'The Complete Herbal Tutor' Anne McIntyre.
'The Domestic Alchemist' Pip Waller.
'The Herbal Drugstore' Linda B White & Steven Foster.
'The Herbalist's Bible' Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal.
'The Herb Society's Complete Medicinal Herbal' Penelope Ody.
'The New Holistic Herbal' David Hoffmann.
'Wild Drugs' Zoe Hawes


This month one of my tasks was to design my own spring tonic.  With some ideas from Sarah Head's blog post on Spring Tonics http://kitchenherbwife.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/spring-tonics.html 'Herbal Remedies' by Christopher Hedley & Non Shaw, 'Kitchen Medicine', 'Hedgerow Medicine' and 'The Herbalist's Bible' by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal I put together a recipe for a Spring Tonic as follows.

Spring Tonic 
4 sprigs of fresh Rosemary
2 sprigs of fresh Sage
3 sprigs of fresh Marjoram
A handful of fresh Nettle tops, washed
A few dried Mugwort tops
A few slices of fresh Ginger root
An aril of Mace
About 1/3 of a Nutmeg grated
A stick of Cinnamon
A screw-top bottle of Red wine

Pour out about 1/4 pint of red wine & reserve this.
Poke the ingredients through the neck of the bottle into the wine using a chopstick.
Pour some of the reserved wine back in to bring the liquid back up to the top of the bottle neck.
Put the screw-top back on and put the bottle in a warm cupboard to steep for 3 weeks.
Strain through muslin into a clean sterilised bottle.
Have a tablespoon or small shot glass when in need of a tonic, such as after illness.
Ingredients for Spring Tonic

 Spring Tonic ingredients steeping

Chickweed Salve

I made Chickweed Salve from the Chickweed oil I infused a couple of weeks ago - see previous blog post of details of making Chickweed Oil.  Some gunge had settled to the bottom of the jar, I carefully poured off the clear oil and filtered this through muslin.  I measured the oil which came to 100ml and added 1/8 of this quantity as beeswax, in this case 12.5 grams, with an accurate electronic scale to measure this.  I heated the oil and beeswax in a pan over a larger pan of gently simmering water and stirred with a chopstick until the beeswax had all melted.  I poured the liquid into jars and left to set.  This salve should be useful for irritated skin conditions, particularly eczema.

 Chickweed oil & beeswax 

 Chickweed salve freshly poured into jars

 Chickweed Salve ready for use