Woodland Herbs October 2010

In this issue
Therapy of the Month

This month's therapy is  Herbalism

Welcome to your regular newsletter from Woodland Herbs. We hope you will find it interesting, entertaining and useful. If you do not wish to continue to receive this email please use the link at the bottom of this email.

The Digestive System: Are you really what you eat?

Rather than 'you are what you eat', it would be more accurate to say 'you are what your digestive system allows you to absorb'. Though hardly as snappy, it gives a more accurate indication of this complex system of organs and its importance to health. There are four main sites of digestion that food passes through. These need to be working well in order to absorb nutrients from what you eat.

In the mouth, the teeth and tongue break food down into smaller bits for easy passage down the oesophagus into the stomach.  The saliva also starts digesting carbohydrates, including sugars. Once in the stomach the food remains here for as little as 30 minutes or as long as a few hours, depending on whether you've eaten a tough steak or a squashy vegetable stew. Churning helps disassemble the food further, while stomach acid kills unhelpful micro-organisms. Also in the stomach, proteins from your diet, including meat, are broken down into easily absorbed amino acids.

A massive 90% of absorption takes place at the next organ; the small intestine, where food is mixed with bile from the liver, pancreatic juice and intestinal enzymes, making the particles small enough for nutrients to be extracted. In the next organ, the large intestine, which is about 1.5 metres in length water, salts and other remaining nutrients are removed, with the indigestible leftovers being expelled later.

How long is too long?
We Brits are supposedly obsessed with how often we 'go', but given the prevalence of our digestive problems, perhaps we're not as concerned as we might be.

Transit time is the length of time it takes for food to be ingested, processed and eliminated. Depending on who you speak to, a transit time of anything between 24 and 72 hours is considered normal, while others suggest a shorter time of between 18 and 30 hours for optimal health. While it is generally considered good practice to have a bowel movement once a day, if this can only be achieved by straining, don't force it. Different foods have different transit times, so it is impossible to give a precise figure.  The most important thing is to be comfortable.

A very short transit time, e.g. diarrhoea, can be detrimental to the whole body in the long term, causing dehydration and nutritional deficiencies. Likewise, a long transit time, or constipation, is a problem for many. Take a look at a compost heap and you'll see how decaying food attracts parasites and breeds bacteria. Left to fester in the colon, the decomposing food leaches toxins into the blood, putting the liver (the blood's cleaner) into overdrive and causing a host of uncomfortable symptoms, from sleep problems to bloating and acid build-up. Small wonder we're crotchety when we're bunged up!

Common Digestive System Complaints

Our gastrointestinal tracts are subjected to many potential problems and illnesses.  This is partly due to diet and lifestyle, but more simply down to the fact that it includes so many organs and is intimately linked to all the body's other systems. And just as problems in the digestive tract can affect the whole body, problems in other parts of the body often affect the digestion, for example anxiety affects many people's digestion. Below are some of the most common digestive complaints, as well as useful herbs and lifestyle measures. If you suspect you may be suffering from any of these conditions but do not have a diagnosis, we recommend you speak to your GP or Medical Herbalist.

Heartburn is a feeling of discomfort or burning in the stomach (at the bottom of the middle of the rib cage) or in the oesophagus (the pipe from the mouth to the stomach). The burning feeling may be felt in the back, as well as the front. Causes can be due to excess stomach acid, too little of the protecting stomach mucous, or a problem with the valve at the top of the stomach.

Ulcers (stomach or duodenal) may occur when the balance of acid, protein enzymes and mucous is disturbed in the stomach and/or small intestine, the protein enzymes and acid can start to damage the walls of the digestive tract. This can have a number of causes, the most commonly treated cause by the NHS is an overgrowth of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori.

Cramps and/or bloating are experienced by many. Causes can be simple, such as over eating specific foods, or even hormonal issues. It can be the sign of a long term infection, imbalance or food intolerance. Symptoms can vary from a minor discomfort to severe pain which can impact on your ability to work.

Diarrhoea and/or constipation are often seen as the opposite to each other, but it's common for people to experience both, and often they can be symptoms of the same underlying problem. Causes may include infections, issues with fluid intake, anxiety, different foods or alcohol (e.g. many people experience diarrhoea after a night of heavy drinking), side effects to medicines, overeating and eating at inappropriate times. Many causes can often be rectified simply, whereas more complicated conditions may need specialist help. A change to your bowel habit can be an important sign, and if you cannot find the answer, we suggest you consult your GP or a herbalist.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is the most common functional gastrointestinal disorder, IBS can only be diagnosed once other more serious complaints are ruled out (a diagnosis of exclusion). It can be related to a stressful life event or infection, with some authors pointing to abnormal gut flora or a malfunction of the immune system as its cause.

Other digestive system conditions such as piles ( haemorrhoids ), coeliac disease, diverticulitis, inflammatory bowel diseases (e.g. Crohn's disease) and a number of gall bladder, liver and pancreas problems may also be diagnosed by your doctor. More information is available on these and in many cases herbal and natural remedies may be of benefit.

Did you know? Most often used to treat anxiety and tension, German Chamomile (Chamomilla recutica) can be used to help settle a nervous stomach. Infuse a couple of teabags or teaspoons of the flowers leaves in boiled water for 5-10 minutes and enjoy before each meal.

Herbs and supplements for healthy digestion

There are gentler ways to ease your ailments than chalky antacids and gut-squirming laxatives. Often, simple, relatively familiar measures may help, such as drinking water to aid constipation, or aiding the expulsion of gas and reducing spasms by sipping Peppermint tea after a meal and cooking with culinary herbs such as Rosemary, Fennel and Ginger.

If you're looking to stimulate digestion, bitter herbs such as Centaury and Gentian Root can increase stomach acid and digestive enzyme flow, and decrease transit time. Fibres such Flax Seeds aid transit in the lower intestine, while traditionally used laxatives such as Senna Pods are helpful for occasional use (always increase your fluids when taking anything which hastens transit).

Did you know? Campari and Martini contain Wormwood and Gentian, two bitter herbs which help stimulate the secretion of digestive juices. All the more reason to enjoy an aperitif!

Anti-inflammatory herbs are useful to soothe the gut of those suffering occasional diarrhoea (not related to an infection). Irish Moss is soothing and is also nutritious, helping to replace the nutrients lost. Omega 3 fatty acids, found in oily fish, flaxseeds and algae, aid repair and are often used along with L-glutamine. L-glutamine is an amino acid which helps repair the walls of the intestines. Liquorice has been shown in scientific studies to reduce Helicobacter levels in the stomach. For this use, it is most commonly taken in the form of Deglycyrhized Liquorice   to avoid increasing blood pressure.

A range of herbs may be applied externally to non-bleeding piles. For example Horse Chestnut may be appropriate.

It is also possible to take supplemental digestive aids such as betaine hydrochloride (which provides extra stomach acid), digestive enzymes to supplement the liver and pancreas and even lactase enzyme for people who are lactose intolerant. Some other simple supplements include: Medicinal Charcoal a symptomatic remedy which can absorb the gases that can cause bloating; Citricidal a grapefruit seed extract useful for travel to prevent stomach bugs; and probiotics are often very useful (more about them later).

Does my diet and lifestyle matter?

Yes, hugely. With the tendency to cram as much into our days as possible and to eat convenience food on the hoof, it's not surprising that sometimes our bodies protest.

In fact, adopting a more 'old fashioned' or Continental approach can be advantageous: picture the large French or Italian family enjoying a lingering meal well into the evening. We may not have the balmy nights, but we can make the effort to at least sit down, slow down and take pleasure in our food, without forgetting our manners (chew well and keep the mouth closed!). Of course, it matters just what that food is. A diet high in fresh fruit, vegetables, pulses and wholegrains will ease the load on our digestive system, as will the use of culinary herbs.

Water is absolutely essential for good, easy digestion (and we don't mean an extra bottle of cola). A very simple tip to support digestion is to sip warm water throughout the day. Comforting in the colder months, the warmth will gently stimulate digestion. Try adding some grated fresh Ginger if you're feeling bloated or nauseous, or a squeeze of lemon if you're sluggish.

Don't Burn Out

Caffeine, sugar, alcohol and tobacco, used habitually by many in an attempt to control stress and fatigue, all upset gastric juices, as does stress itself, a major cause of digestive problems.

Taken as teas, Chamomile , Lemon Balm and Passion Flower will hydrate and soothe the mind and body. Many people will remember as children that a simple tummy  rub can be calming and soothing, so don't be afraid to  try it as an adult. Bodywork techniques such as Massage, Bowen Therapy, Thai Yoga Massage, and Shiatsu aid the release of deep-seated tension while Acupuncture, Reflexology, Ear Candling and Reiki are used by many for stress management.

probioticSupplement of the Month - Probiotics
Hardly an ad break goes by these days without the mention of probiotics and prebiotics. Just what are they? Put simply, probiotics are beneficial bacteria that fight off the 'bad' bacteria in the intestines. Prebiotics are not friendly bacteria themselves but a soluble fibre that friendly bacteria feed on. Chicory, artichokes, leeks and onions are all natural sources of prebiotics. FOS (fructo-oligo-saccharides) is another prebiotic available in powder form.

A high sugar diet and overuse of antibiotics can lead to an imbalance of digestive bacteria, commonly leading to inflammation and the overgrowth of intestinal yeast (Candida albicans). This balance is compounded by age, with the amount of beneficial gut bacteria dropping sharply after age 40. When we are ill, or over-stressed, the balance is compromised further.

Lactobacillus acidophilus is the most familiar strain of probiotic and daily doses typically span from half a billion up to several billion bacteria and may be used daily. A higher dose is often recommended during and after the use of antibiotics, or a bout of 'holiday tummy'. The bifidus family of bacteria Bifidus is the other main bacteria in the gut, it is normal to supplement with both types. Babies and infants may also need supplementation, and are best with powders containing a probiotic mix designed specifically for that age (e.g. Probioeasy or ABCdophilus ).

Top tip: Probiotics are best taken with food to protect them from stomach acid.

slippery elmHerb of the Month - Slippery Elm and Psyllium Husks
Used by Arab physicians since the Middle Ages as a common remedy for constipation, Psyllium Husk ( Plantago psyllium ) contains both insoluble and soluble fibre. Adequate fibre aids bowel function, retaining fluid in the bowel, preventing constipation, and also providing bulk to reduce the severity of diarrhoea. The soluble fibre forms a gelatinous mass when combined with water which can also soothe the bowel wall, reducing diarrhoea caused by irritation. Taken 20 minutes prior to a meal, it's highly important to take it with a lot of water - one teaspoon of Psyllium to at least one glass (250 ml) water. Psyllium may make antibiotics less effective, so be sure to leave a few hours between taking each.

Like Psyllium, Slippery Elm ( Ulmus fulva ) is usually taken in water, though it can also be taken as a tincture. As its name suggests, Slippery Elm also forms a gelatinous (slimy) substance when added to water, therefore some prefer to mix it with a recognised slimy food such as yoghurt. It's used traditionally to sooth and promote healing anywhere in the GI tract, from the oral cavity, where it can be used to pacify raspy throats, to the colon, where it soothes inflammation and irritation. It is often used as a mild laxative, to calm heartburn (acid reflux) and may support the healing of ulcers. As well as the single herbs, at Woodland Herbs we provide a ready-made mix of Slippery Elm and Psyllium Husk, which has little taste and is tolerated well by most. Because Slippery Elm coats the digestive tract avoid taking it at the same time as medication.

Cautions and contraindications: We normally recommend seeking advice from your doctor, herbalist or other health professional if taking prescription medicines and thinking about self-treating with herbs.

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This Month's Therapy: Herbalism 

The regulation of medical herbalism is changing in the new year and we need you to help. If you would like to find out more and how you can help influence the regulation of professional medical herbalism visit www.glasgow-herbalist.co.uk for more info.  

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