In herbal medicine the digestive health of a person is often the first aspect looked at when evaluating their overall health, or lack thereof, because the digestive system is responsible for so much in our bodies. This system is made of our digestive tract, which runs from the opening of the mouth, through the throat, esophagus, stomach, and intestines all the way down to the anus, basically like one long tube, and includes important functions of the liver, gall bladder, and pancreas as well. Aside from these organs, there are three key aspects to a healthy digestive system that play very important roles in our health and well being. These are digestion, absorption, and elimination.
When our food is properly broken down in our stomachs, we have good digestion. The nutrients of our foods are then delivered to our livers which process the nutrients and send them into the bloodstream to be carried to different parts of the body. When the body is able to utilize these nutrients, we have absorption. For example, when we are able to absorb the calcium from our food, rather than it being ignored and excreted, the calcium lends itself to strong bones, healthy blood, and other important chemical processes. When we absorb vitamin C, it lends itself to healthy skin and gums. Finally, when all the “leftovers” of digestion and absorption are excreted, we have elimination. These keys to a healthy digestive system are necessary because we rely on receiving an abundance of nutrients from our food that can be used in the body's processes and also rely on getting rid of that which the body can't use. The body eliminates unused nutrients, but also bacteria, parasites, and other waste products that we don't want circulating in us!
When any of these processes becomes imbalanced or weak it can create many problems for our bodies, including generally weakened health. When digestion is sluggish, it interferes with absorption and elimination thus creating a less nourished body and a more waste-ridden one. Poor digestion also promotes candida overgrowth and all of the problems that can bring to our health, including gassiness, becoming bloated, weight gain, fatigue, and much worse. Poor digestion can even interfere with how our hormones are processed. When our nutrients go unabsorbed, due to poor digestion, this lends to a multitude of health problems including fatigue, weak teeth and bones, brittle hair and nails, hair loss, poor growth in children, emaciated musculature, anemia, weakened offspring, osteoporosis, and much more. When unexpelled waste circulates and settles in our tissues, as is the case with poor elimination, it lends to a more acidic body (see my blog on ACID VS. ALKALINE), feelings and symptoms of illness and moodiness, poor skin health as the skin and liver become taxed by trying to eliminate that which the bowels cannot, “female problems” such as PMS and Endometriosis, and can support disease by lowering the immune system and preventing the body from being able to cleanse or “detoxify” itself.
These weakened processes and an overly acidic bloodstream are incredibly common due to our diets of acidic foods, namely coffee, sugar, breads and grains, meats and animal by-products, alcohol, and minimal amounts of vegetables, supportive herbs, and water (proper hydration).
To heal and restore proper digestion and absorption it is important to begin by restoring proper elimination (see the end of this blog), evaluating your diet and lifestyle (as an Herbalist I do consultations on health with people), making small changes in diet and lifestyle, and using certain herbs which support the digestive processes and organs. The suggestions for the small steps I've mentioned include:
*SWITCH TO WHOLE GRAINS and eliminate refined flours and sugars as much as possible.
*DRINK A MINIMUM OF 2 QUARTS OF WATER PER DAY (not drinks with water in them, but actual, plain water) and drink it long before or after your meals as drinking during meals decreases your stomach acids and therefore interferes with digestion!
*CONSUME SMALLER PORTIONS OF MEAT AND LESS FREQUENTLY. Our bodies are not designed to eat meat at every meal, especially in giant "industry-sized" amounts! Keep intake down to once a day, or less, depending on how much meat your body seems to need to thrive; 1-3 ounce portions, or less!
(As a lifelong vegetarian, and adamant vegan for four years, I finally accepted at 35 that some people do just fine as vegetarians, but others do not at all; Most bodies, nutritionally,need some meat consumption for optimal health. That's just a fact of our biological make up. Our vegetarian ancestors died off for a reason, after all. The choice to spare the lives of animals is often a deeply compassionate one, but I'm over the argument that "vegetarians are quacks" vs. "meat eaters are evil." I'm a firm believer in people deciding for themselves what food is best for their bodies [and a huge fan of Dr. D'Adamo's Blood Type Diet). Anything else is presumptuous, self-righteous, and self-absorbed, in my opinion. But this is a rant for another blog, I think.)
*CONSUME DARK CHOCOLATE when in need of treats as it has reported benefits to our well-being and isn't full of refined flours and mounds of sugar like most other treats and desserts tend to be. (When you can, make sure it is labeled “fair-trade” to avoid eating chocolate produced by child slave labor.)
*EAT AS MANY PORTIONS OF VEGETABLES AS YOU CAN EVERY DAY! A meal made of a green salad every day is a great start! You can make a variety of salads by changing the dressings, meats, veggies, and other toppings you add to it. I LOVE a romaine lettuce, kale leaf, green onion, Fuji apple, avocado, and crouton salad with honey mustard dressing! If eating raw vegetables makes you tired or frazzled afterward, you're veggie-digesting stomach acids are low and will need to be rebuilt via herbs and adapting to this new, nourishing and stimulating “diet.” Include vegetables in every dish possible, make entire meals from veggies when possible, make fresh juices from veggies and a store-bought JUICER whenever possible (these need to be drunk immediately because the enzymes die off quickly after juicing) -but no combining veggies and fruits together aside from the use of apples and lemons with veggies. I personally LOVE carrot, kale, lemon, ginger juice and kale, apple, and cucumber/celery juice! Although I've never been one for tomatoes, broccoli, nor lettuces in my juice. You'll have to experiment with what pleases and/or nourishes you. “Green juices” are excellent for our digestive health because they will get your bowels moving and will start helping your body eliminate wastes, acids, and “toxins,” while re-mineralizing and alkalinizing your body. When our bodies start really flushing waste, it can make a person feel pretty funky. This “detox” process, especially when someone is new to it or has a lot of stored up waste in their system from years of a sluggish digestive tract, can cause migraines, emotional outbursts, lethargy, nausea, and more. It's important to take these steps slowly depending on your level of health and stamina! Small amounts of juice can be added to our daily (or weekly or whatever works for you) regimen as we're making small, beneficial changes toward better health, rather than juicing to the point of feeling ill!
WE'RE ANIMALS WHO ARE MEANT TO EAT FIBROUS PLANTS FROM THE EARTH LOCAL TO US! INGREDIENTS THAT HAVE BEEN PROCESSED OUT OF THEIR NATURAL STATES ARE NO LONGER FOODS FOR OUR BODIES ANYMORE. It's important to enjoy what we eat AND find a healthy balance of foods that nourish us.
Always consult a doctor before using herbal medicines or making big changes if you're on any medications or have a life-threatening condition.
*TAKE SUPPORTIVE HERBS FOR DIGESTION. These are my favorites:
*Slippery Elm powder- add one teaspoon or tablespoon, depending on desired consistency, to a cup of hot -yet drinkable- water. Add a dash of cayenne pepper if you can handle it without digestive upset. Stir and drink before it becomes too think which can happen somewhat quickly! This herb is nutritive, and therefore nourishing, especially to people who are undernourished, but it also coats and soothes the entire digestive tract, relieving it from inflammation and thereby allowing it to heal and supporting its return to proper function. This herb helps bring balance to bowel movements, whether they have been too frequent or infrequent. It's an important supportive herb to the actions that stronger herbs have on getting the digestion moving again!
*Bitter herbs- These will stimulate digestive stomach acids, peristalsis (the movement that the digestive tract is constantly performing to get the food from our throats to digestion to absorption to elimination), and the liver so that it may perform its functions in the process of digestion more efficiently. My favorites include dandelion and chamomile in a daily tea, salad, or tincture. If possible, take a Milk Thistle tincture daily to protect and nourish the liver ESPECIALLY when using bitters that stimulate it. It will help your liver, and therefore your mood and the hundreds of actions the liver performs, while you are transitioning to a healthier lifestyle. This will make the process MUCH easier on you!
*Ginger- incredible for digestion, circulation, and weight loss. This herb can be eaten in salads, stir-fries, etc. I prefer juiced ginger with apples, carrots, and/or lemons!
*Cathartics (in particular, those listed here are gentle cathartics AKA aperients)- these herbs strengthen the digestive tract as they help clean it (by stimulating elimination): Licorice (be careful as this herb can raise blood pressure), flax seed (be careful as these and their oil can go rancid very easily. They need to be kept cool), liquid chlorophyll in water daily -see my blog CHLOROPHYLL. Fresh fruits and fibrous foods like veggies and whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, etc.) act as aperients as well. Hydrochloric acid tablets can also be taken to stimulate stomach acids, if needed.
*Papaya tablets, bromelain tablets, and pineapple juice to stimulate enzyme production, if needed.
*FINALLY... STOP BOMBARDING YOUR SYSTEM WITH JUNK FOODS THAT ARE HARD TO DIGEST. It will go a long way toward repairing your health, I promise you.
To heal and restore proper elimination we can pick from a variety of bowel cleanses ranging from simple to intense in effect and duration. These are very important in regaining eliminative health and in supporting other cleanses. The waste that juicing and performing specific cleanses (liver or kidney, for example) causes our bodies to release for elimination, will circulate in our bloodstream, making us feel horrible (cranky, lethargic, sick, etc.) until it can be eliminated through the bowels. It also taxes our other eliminative organs -the kidneys, liver, skin, and lungs when the bowels don't flush these wastes quickly and properly. Bowel health is incredibly important in this regard.
Humans are supposed to have a large, smooth, healthy bowel movement after each regular meal and every time we don't (which is a sign of sluggish digestion and usually due to our diets), feces becomes impacted along the walls of the intestines. When we do bowel cleanses, it allows us to move all this old fecal matter out and to then flush old waste from the body, get to work on restoring proper digestion, and improve the health and strength of the entire digestive tract. Bowel cleanses are important when doing any other type of cleanse for health, and as a regular part of health maintenance in any diet that doesn't cause regular bowel movements with each normal sized meal (such as a diet lacking whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables). Bowel cleanses can be done seasonally or more often and should be done, at the very least, once every year. How often do you provide maintenance to your car? Your home? Now how about your internal health?
SIMPLE BOWEL CLEANSE: Follow this 5 day cleanse (up to 10 days, if you can):www.herbdoc.com
For 5-7 days: only fruits, veggies, beans, and small amounts of whole grains eaten each day, 2-3 quarts of pure water each day, preferably green juices and fresh soups each day, NO refined flours or sugars, NO animal products, NO alcohol. 3-5 smoothies DAILY of a banana, juice, 1T liquid bentonite clay, 3 T psyllium husk (adjust as needed) OR 3-5 of these glasses, replacing the banana and juice with water. If you're a coffee drinker, go ahead and have your morning cup; you don't want a simple bowel cleanse to send you into complete “detox mode” and give you migraines and such. If quitting coffee is important to you, make it a separate event where you support the change by drinking green juices that alkalinize you and flush the coffee acids out of your system. THIS simple cleanse is just to get your bowels moving and your digestive system healthier and happier. 2 enemas per day. If you are eliminating a LOT, enemas are not completely necessary EVERY day, but they are incredibly beneficial so do as many days as possible. They also relieve detox headaches so do one if you feel a headache or migraine coming on! And you want to eliminate as much fecal matter as possible during an enema. This means taking in as much water as possible and holding it in for as long as possible before you let it out in the toilet. The amount of water you can hold will increase as you eliminate more and more new and old fecal matter.
DON'T BE ALARMED when you see what many people call “The Ropes.” You can “Google-images” it for an idea of what the old fecal matter will look like when eliminated! Because it is old and full of waste and hardened from becoming impacted along the walls of the intestines, it is dark and hard and long and “ropey.” It's a little intimidating the first time around!
I've read online that some people believe colon cleansing isn't needed and that this stuff nicknamed “the ropes” isn't actually old poop, but is really just new poop that is made to look funny by the colon cleansing products as a marketing scheme to make you think you need their product...
Let me tell you that I have eliminated “the ropes” when fasting on water and not taking any colon cleansing products! THIS IS SOMETHING OUR BODIES MAKE AND OUR HEALTH IMPROVES WHEN WE ELIMINATE IT. If left there, it releases waste back into our bodies that was meant to be eliminated and is a perfect breeding ground for parasites.
STRONGER SIMPLE BOWEL CLEANSE: Follow the above, but fast from solid foods for as long as possible. When you're not putting in solid foods that need to be digested by the body, you'll have no new food waste to eliminate and will instead eliminate more old fecal matter. Enemas are crucial here for flushing the old fecal matter. As someone who doesn't fast well, I find 4-5 smoothies (as described above), daily, sustains me and produces a great bowel cleanse!
STRICT/INTENSE BOWEL CLEANSE: #1. Eat fruits and vegetables only, along with 2-3 quarts of water, and freshly juiced juices as often as possible, every day. Include a daily, big green salad for the first week to two weeks BEFORE beginning the cleansing products (either smoothies/drinks or products from the link listed above).
This is a RAW FOOD, VEGAN diet that will help cleanse, alkalinize, and nourish your body while you're preparing for a stronger detox and bowel cleanse. If you are a coffee drinker, quit coffee before you begin this cleanse to have the withdrawal symptoms out of the way. Detox/flushing symptoms can be hard enough to cope with! If you're a smoker, conquer that habit before you move on to this stricter, more intensive cleansing and stick to the simple bowel cleanses until then.
#2. Follow step #1 above and add 1-3 daily smoothies as listed under SIMPLE BOWEL CLEANSE, take 1-2 enemas daily; after 1-2 weeks of this, begin your juice-fast! This means you'll be living on raw juices and herbal laxative drinks with NO FOOD and NO SMOOTHIES (this is not a water-fast. If you want something that intense, I recommend getting the advice and guidance of an experienced naturopath). The liquid bentonite and psyllium husk must now be drunk from large glasses of water. Take chlorophyll in water each day and juiced green veggies as often as possible. Continue with 2 enemas daily. Follow step 2 for 1 week.
#3. SUPPORT all this hard work, when it's time to stop your fast, by very carefully and slowly breaking your fast with a piece of fruit. EASE BACK into eating with foods that are easily digested (compared to starchy grain foods, animal products, sugary foods, alcohol, etc.).
#4. Don't waste your hard work on reverting back to a way of eating that hurts your health. You deserve to feel good and live well in your own body.
Here's to our health!
(I graduated from The American College of Healthcare Sciences in Portland, Oregon in 2006 with my two year diploma in Medicinal Herbalism, with honors.)