The Digestive system


Lata Chettri-Kennedy

Herbs directly affect our alimentary canal through the metabolization and absorption of the vast range of phytochemicals they contain and also through actions they trigger in various parts of the digestive system.

The food we eat should really be our medicine.  
Most of the digestive disorders and diseases in our culture are caused by consuming  overly processed foods, high concentrations of salt, sugar, chemical additives, preservatives used to make the foods taste and look better longer.  Consuming too much alchohol, carbonated drinks, tobacco, drugs, over the counter or prescription drugs can cause a great deal of damage over time. 
A meaningful life, healthy diet, exercise, and  adequate sleep is vital for optimum health. 
We need:
Water.  It is crucial for the blood and lymph that transport the nutrients and waste products from our organs.
Carbohydrates.   Complex carbs such as starches, potatoes, bread, rice etc.  They provide fuel in the form of calories.
Proteins.  Support the growth and repair of tissues, produce antibodies, hormones and enzymes which are essential for all chemical reactions in the body.  Meat, fish, eggs, dairy, poultry, beans, and nuts. 
Fats.  Protect internal organs, provide energy, insulate against cold and help the body absorb certain fat soluble vitamins which includes vitamins A which is essential for good vision, D which is important for healthy bones,  K for blood clotting, and E for limiting the formation of harmful free radicals. 
3 kinds of fats:  Saturated found in meat, dairy, coconut oil.
Monounsaturated found in olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil
Polyunsaturated found in Corn, cottonseed, safflower and sunflower oils.  An important group of polyunsaturated fats are EFAs known as arachidonic acid (found in meats), linoleic acid (found in seeds, nuts, grains and legumes) and Alpha linolenic Acid (found in greens, Algae and some seeds, legumes and nuts).  Linoleic acid and Arachidonic acid are the basis of the omega 6 EFAs.
Alfalinoleic acids are the basis of Omega 3 EFAs.  They are essential to us as they cannot be synthesized in the body from other nutrients.  For the formation of healthy cell membranes, for proper brain and nervous system development, and for the formation of Eicosanoids (thrombones, leucotrienes, and prostaglandins).  Found in seeds, (chia, flax), nuts (walnuts) and vegetable oils
The important omega 3 EFA Eicosapentaenoic acid acid is found in fish.  Effectively alleviates inflammation.
Vitamins and minerals.  Herbal infusions are a great source for Vitamins and minerals and other micronutrients.  These are needed only in trace amounts, yet an absence or deficiency can cause major illnesses.
Dietary Fiber.   Soluble fiber dissolves in water, becomes jellylike in the intestines and helps elimination. Insoluble fiber (cellulose) part of the plants that the body cannot digest, remains unchanged and provides bulk to make stools easier to pass.  Both types of fiber satiate hunger, reduce intestinal transit time, relieve constipation, increase stool weight and solubility of bile, serve as prebiotics to increase number of beneficial intestinal microflora, increase production of short chain fatty acids, reduce GI problems and promote overall health.  Psyllium, chia, flax seeds are some examples.
We are have more bacterial cells than human cells.  We are 95 percent bacteria.  Fermented foods, such as kim chee, sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, kefir and kombucha are rich in probiotics.  Consuming prebiotics provides an environment where probiotics flourish in the intestines.   Dandelion, burdock, slippery elm, marshmallow root have inulin which benefecial bacteria thrive on.  Maintaining a diverse gut flora is vitally important for immunity. 
Eat a variety of local organic foods and wild foods to ensure you get enough calories, protiens and fiber as well as vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients.  Wild plants have more nutrients, and fiber than cultivated plants because they are naturally resistant to disease and climate conditions.  Completely avoid GMOs. 
Some dis-eases associated with a low fiber diet:
Metabolic syndrome - Obesity, gout, diabetes, kidney stones, gall stones, Liver disease
Cardiovascular - Hypertension, cerebrovascular diseases, heart disease, pulmonary embilism (when there is leaky gut syndrome) Undigested particles pass through the membrane of the small intestine and block one of the various arteries of the lungs.  
Colon - Constipation, appendicitis, diverticulosis, diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, colon cancer, IBS, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease
Dental issues such as Gingivitis- Foods rich in fiber clean the teeth and strengthen gums as well. 
Autoimmune diseases - MS, dermatological conditions, Allergies 
As soon as our olfactory senses trigger the production of saliva in our oral mucosa, our digestive processes have begun.  Saliva lubricates the mouth, moistening food so that it is chewable and swallowable as well as protecting the mucosal lining of the mouth.  Human sallva is 95 percent water.  The rest is made up of electrolytes, mucus, enzymes, glycoproteins and antibacterial compounds that protect the teeth from bacterial decay.
Sialagogues herbs such as Ginger, Cayenne, Mustard, Horseradish, Echinacea, Gentian, increase the flow of Saliva.
Starches are processed in the mouth and assimilated into the blood stream.  Signals are dispatched to the entire digestive tract about what enzymes are needed to break down the food that is on its way down to the stomach. Peristaltic waves begin with swallowing throughout the entire digestive tract.  The food, somewhat processed, passes through the esophagus and into the stomach.  The PH of the stomach should be around 2.  This amount of acidity is what is needed to break down proteins and render them assimilable by the intestines.  The lining of the stomach is incredibly tough in order to maintain such an acidic atmosphere.  The parietal cells in the lining of the stomach produce digestive acids (HCL) and Intrinsic Factor.  This glycoprotein is necessary for the absorption of vitamin B12 later on in the small intestine.  
When someone complains of heart burn or acid reflux and blames it on over acidity, the reverse is often true.  It may be that the muscular valve at the end of the esophagus, is not closing properly (smoking weakens the esophagal sphincter) and acidic discharges are entering the esophagus.  Sleep is important for good digestion!  Melatonin produced by the body helps close the esophagal sphincter.  This need is greatest at nighttime.  Hops has bioavailable Melatonin. Plus its a great antimicrobial bitter!! 
(Many people use proton pump inhibitors to shut down production of stomach acid.  These dramatically deplete magnesium which is critical to muscle function in the body, not just affecting peristalsis, but low levels of Magnesium can lead to  fractures in people over 50, seizures and even cardiac arrest.  Dark leafy greens, Kale, Chard, cooked nuts and seeds, fish, legumes, whole grains, Avocados, Yogurt, Bananas, and Dark chocolate are good sources of Magnesium.)
We need stomach acids to render proteins and B12 assimilable to our bodies as well to destroy pathogens.  With reduced stomach acids, the risk of GI infection is increased.  Stomach Acids are the body’s first line of defense in coordination with the lymph tissue in the small intestines.    
Bitters certainly taste that way, and they trigger a whole range of reflex responses in the body.   Bitters promote the flow of digestive juices, aiding digestion, liver function and elimination.  Angelica, Dandelion, Gentian, Burdock, Barberry, Hops, Valerian, Yellow Dock, Wormwood and St. John's wort are some excellent bitters.  Turmeric, Shittake Mushroom and Milk thistle are bitters that have hepatoprotective properties.
Demulcents such as Comfrey, Slippery Elm and Marshmallow are helpful in cases of heartburn and acid reflux as they provide mucilage that coat, protect and soothe inflamed or irritated internal tissue.
Peptic ulcers are mucosal erosions in the stomach or the duodenum (which is the first part of the small intestine).  Demulcents are extremely efficient here as they literally form a barrier protecting the damaged tissue.  Comfrey especially, as it is also an excellent vulnerary.  Literally knitting the damaged tissue together.  Demulcents might be combined with antibacterials such as Goldenseal to deal with bacterial infection.
The Duodenum, is where the food goes to after leaving the stomach and before entering the small intestine.   Iron is absorbed in the duodenum.  The lining of the duodenum releases the hormones Secretin and Cholecystokinin.  Secretin regulates the balance of water throughout the body.   Cholecystokinin  alerts the liver and gall bladder to release bile.  It also signals the pancreas to secrete bicarbonate to neutralize the acids in the broken down food and to send digestive enzymes such as trypsin, lipase and amylase as needed. 
Through the process of diffusion the nutrients from the digested food is absorbed in the mucosa of the small intestine.  This mucosa is wrinkly and has many folds called plicae circulares, which covered with villi (shaggy hair) which increase surface area allowing for more absorption.  Each villus has a network of lymphatic vessels and capillaries which further the transport of the nutrients via blood vessels to different organs of the body.  The undigested food passes on the large intestine.
The colon absorbs water, the remaining absorbable nutrients and vitamins which are created by the colonic bacteria - such as vitamin K (synthesized by the ecoli bacteria in our colon) (which is important for blood coagulation and normally not ingested in enough amounts) , vitamin B12, thiamine and riboflavin. It also compacts the food, and stores the feces in the rectum until it is eliminated via the anus.
Dis-eases that affect the Digestive tract:
Diarrhea and vomiting are the body’s mechanisms to rid itself of toxic poisons.  Replacing fluid loss and electrolytes is crucial, especially in children and older people.  For persistent diarrhea, astringents such as Agrimony, or Red raspberry can be combined with carminatives such as Meadowsweet, ginger or cinnamon.  Strong astringent herbs such as White Oak bark or Coptis root may be called for.  Anti microbials such as Garlic or Echinacea certainly would be helpful.  Slippery Elm is very soothing and anti-inflammatory.
Constipation can be remedied with a diet that is fiber rich.  Adding psyllium, chia, or flax seeds to the diet.   Exercise in combination with ingesting bitter herbs that increase muscle tone and encourage peristalsis, such as Yellow Dock, Dandelion, and Ginger is important especially when the muscular activity in the digestive tract is weak.  
Constipation due to stress or tension in the gut can be addressed using nervine and antispasmodic herbs.  Chamomile, ginger, and wild yam are great antispasmodics,  nervines such as valerian, and hops are great bitters as well. 
Irritable bowel syndrome is when there are bouts of Diarrhea or constipation and gastric distress such as bloating, flatulence and cramping.  In such cases keeping a food diary is vital as this could be a symptom of an allergy to a certain type of food.  The elimination diet is helpful to pinpoint the particular food the body isn’t tolerating.  IBS can lead to Colitis, which basically is an inflamed Colon.  The stools may be bloody or mucousy.  In addition to using the herbs listed above, Anti-inflammatory herbs such as Chamomile, Marshmallow, and Slippery elm in combination with Astringent antibacterials such as Goldenseal, Cranesbill and Coptis would be helpful.
Diverticulosis is greatly remedied with a diet high in fiber and exercise as well.  Diverticuli are pockets formed where intestinal wall is weak.  Lack of fiber in the diet makes it difficult for the intestines to move the feces through and this weakens these muscles  over time.  Psyllium, chia, or flax seeds are good fiber sources.  Anti inflammatories such as licorice, chamomile and antispasmodics like wild yam and ginger can help with pain and inflammation.  
The gall bladder is where bile is stored.   Gall stones and calculi are created when there is too great a concentration of bile causing crystallization.  These can block the bile duct and cause extreme pain and Jaundice.   The gall bladder can thus become inflamed or infected.  Bitter herbs such as Dandelion, Oregon grape, fringe tree bark, combined with soothing demulcents such as Marshmallow root can be effective remedies.  
Depression and Anxiety may be also be symptoms of, or caused directly by, digestive distress, or malabsorption of nutrients.  In addition to maintaining a healthy, diverse gut flora, bitters regulate blood sugar levels and are often combined with nervine herbs that reduce anxiety and alleviate depression.  Valerian, Hops, St. Johnswort and Chamomile are bitters that are also excellent nervines.  

Listed below are just a few herbs that are beneficial to the Digestive process and their relevant actions:

Chamomile:  Matricaria Chamomilla

Antiinflammatory, Anxiolytic, Anodyne, Aperient, Bitter, Nervine

Comfrey:  Symphytum Officinalis  

Antiinflammatory, Demulcent, Mucilagenous, Vulnerary

Dandelion: Taraxacum Officinale

Bitter, Cholagogue, Diuretic, Digestive tonic, Hepatoprotective, Nutritive

Fennel:  Foeniculum vulgare

Aromatic, Carminative, Galactagogue

Gentian:  Gentiana Lutea:

Antithelmintic, Appetite stimulant, Bitter, Cholagogue, Hepatic, Sialagogue

Ginger:  Zingiber officinale

Antiinflammatory, Antispasmodic, Carminative, Circulatory stimulant, Diaphoretic, Sialagogue

Hops:  Humulus Lupulus

Anxiolytic, Bitter, Nervine, Sedative

Licorice: Glycyrrhiza Glabra 

Antiinflammatory, Demulcent, Expectorant,

Meadowsweet: Filipendula Ulmaria

Antiinflammatory, Alkalizing, Anodyne

Marshmallow:  Althea Officinalis

Antiinflammatory, Demulcent, Mucilagenous, Nutritive

Milk Thistle:  Silybum Marianum

Aperient, Bitter, Cholagogue, Galactagogue, Hepatoprotective, 

Slippery Elm:  Ulmus Fulva 

Antiinflammatory, Demulcent, Nutritive, Vulnerary

Turmeric: Curcuma longa

Antiinflammatory, Antispasmodic, Antimicrobial, Bitter, Carminative, Cholagogue, Hepatoprotective and Vulnerary

Valerian: Valeriana Officinalis

Anxiolytic, Bitter, Sedative

Wild Yam: Dioscorea Villosa

Anti-inflammatory, Antispasmodic, Bitter, Cholagogue, Demulcent

Wormwood: Artemesia Absinthium

Antithelmintic, Bitter

Yellow Dock:  Rumex Crispus

Bitter, Hepatic, Laxative, Nutritive

c. 2006 Lata Chettri-Kennedy

Lata Chettri-Kennedy