WISDOM FROM THE WILD CHILD GARDEN: OCTOBER 2022: HERBAL DIGESTIVE SUPPORT: PART I:
HERBAL DIGESTIVE SUPPORT: Good digestive health is an important factor in overall health. It helps ward off common digestive issues such as upset stomach, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and stomach ulcers. The digestive system plays an important role in immune function through stomach acid and enzymes that sterilize food, and good bacteria in the gut that fights disease and promotes wellness.
THE DIGESTIVE SYSTEM: includes the digestive tract, or GI Tract, which is made up of a series of organs, and the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. The main purpose of this complex system is to break down proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals from the food and drink consumed. This allows the body to use those nutrients.
The Digestive Tract: The digestive process starts as soon as a bite of food is taken. Chewing mechanically breaks down the food, and saliva, a digestive juice, begins breaking the food down at the same time. Once swallowed, the food proceeds down the esophagus into the stomach where stomach acid and enzymes continue the digestion process. Next, the small intestine continues to process what has been ingested, and sends nutrients into the bloodstream, where the body can make use of them. The small intestine is where most nutrient absorption occurs. The large intestine is full of microorganisms, also known as good bacteria, that feast on any undigested food. Before the leftovers are disposed of via stool, the large intestine soaks up any remaining water. The other three organs involved in digestion, the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder, create and store excess digestive juices.
The gut is filled with nerve cells that receive and provide information to the brain. It also produces 90% of the body’s serotonin, a hormone that regulates mood and emotions.
THE GUT-BRAIN AXIS: This axis connects the nervous system of the gut, called the enteric nervous system, with that of the brain, communicating necessary information from one to the other. This axis is also considered the “core stress efferent axis” that orchestrates adaptive responses to stressors of any kind.
The response from the brain influences motility, secretions, nutrient delivery, and microbial balance by stimulating the vagus nerve. In contrast, the response from the gut influences neurotransmitters, stress and anxiety levels, mood, and behaviors through chemical messengers of peptides and hormones. The microbiota of the gut, including a wide variety of numerous microorganisms and bacteria, plays an important role in how nutrients, hormones, and other metabolites are metabolized. This greatly influences how the immune, endocrine, and nervous systems function. A large part of the influence the gut has on the brain via the Gut Brain Axis is due to the gut microbiota.
The longer perpetual digestive symptoms are present, and the longer we live in a state of chronic stress, the more disabled the Gut Brain Axis becomes at communicating from either end. Gut dysbiosis has been directly connected with central nervous disorders such as autism and anxiety-depressive behaviors, and gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and leaky gut syndrome.
HERBAL ALLIES FOR GUT HEALTH: TROPHORESTORATIVES: Herbs that support and nourish healthy nervous system function are essential in supporting a healthy Gut Brain Axis, and nervine and nervous system trophorestorative herbs are crucial.
The vagus nerve connects the enteric nervous system and the nervous system of the brain; therefore, healthy vagus nerve function is an important factor for a healthy Gut Brain Axis.
Incorporating herbs that nourish and tonify nervous system function help the body stay in a parasympathetic, rest and digest, nervous state and only enter a sympathetic, fight or flight, nervous state whenever actually necessary. Issues like chronic stress and inflammation in the gut provoke the brain to start its hormonal stress cascade which pushes the body into a frequent sympathetic nervous state.
OATS (Avena sativa): such as milky oats and oat straw, are classic nervous system trophorestorative herbs that are also highly nourishing. Oats lend specific aid to the Gut Brain Axis through its positive effects on brain cognition and memory.
Oats soothe irritated gut mucosa and serve as a substrate for healthy microflora in the gut. This supports balanced vagus nerve function and builds up the nervous system as a whole.
Oats are known for their neurorestorative properties, aiding in memory, focus, and stamina, and Milky Oats contain high levels of bioavailable nutrients such as silica, magnesium, calcium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin B complex, and vitamin A and C.
SKULLCAP (Scutellaria laterifolia) aerial parts: works on directly restoring and relaxing the nerves. The effects of chronic stress, including both mental and digestive stress due to symptoms of GI imbalance, causes the parasympathetic nervous system to become less stimulated, and the sympathetic nervous system to become less inhibited. This results in a frequently tense and nervous state even when there is not a directly stressful situation presently occurring.
Skullcap relaxes overly tense and “frayed” nerves so that the body can repair nervous system tone and enter a more normalized parasympathetic state again. Skullcap also soothes the digestive lining of the gut and supports gut healing. It acts as a trophorestorative, calming the nervous system and regulating the gut-brain axis as well as the vagus nerve connecting the brain to the gut.
BLUE VERVAIN (Verbena hastata) aerial parts: works as a nerve relaxant and nervous system trophorestorative, with a specific focus on rebuilding the nerves in the motor-nerve area. When used in combination with other nervines and tonic herbs, blue vervain offers a key component in helping rebuild a shattered nervous system and vagus nerve function.
Blue Vervain is also a digestive stimulant, improving digestive function by increasing saliva production and promoting both stomach acid and digestive enzyme production. It is an especially good herb to use if digestive issues are stress related. It works by helping to stimulate the appetite and relaxing the stomach when tension is held there. Blue Vervain tea can also be useful in helping to alleviate cramps, bloating and flatulence.
VIOLET (Viola odorata) flower & leaf: also works directly on restoring and relaxing the nerves. Violets contain a large amount of mucilage, or soluble fiber, and are helpful in lowering cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber is also helpful in restoring healthy populations of intestinal flora, as beneficial bacteria feed off of this type of fiber.
Violet Flower & Leaf are alterative and lymphatic, which makes them useful for chronic infections and detoxification. Violets are perfect for spring months when the body is out of balance. The cooling and moistening properties make this flower useful when inflammation is present in the urinary tract, gastrointestinal tract, or respiratory system. Violets can be prepared fresh as a tincture, used topically as a poultice, brewed as an infusion or syrup, or dried or wilted and infused into an oil.
HERBAL ALLIES FOR GUT HEALTH: MILD ADAPTOGENS: Adaptogens are best used for supporting the Gut Brain Axis only when they are non-stimulating or mild in nature and taken in smaller doses. Mild adaptogens have more of a normalizing effect without always triggering the nervous system to enter a state of “fight-or-flight.”
GOTU KOLA: (Centella asiatica): leaf: is a mild adaptogen that is ideal for supporting healthy GBA function. Valued for its central nervous and immune restorative effects, gotu kola is an essential herb to draw from in states of cerebral and nervous system dysfunction. It also carries vulnerary function and is considered a connective tissue restorative externally as well as internally, lending benefit to states with impaired intestinal lining and “leaky gut” type symptoms. Gotu kola has also been shown to dramatically increase the activity of glutathione peroxidase and the overall amount of glutathione, one of our main antioxidants which plays an essential role in keeping the effects of oxidative stress on Gut Brain Axis function under control.
HOLY BASIL/TULSI (Ocimum tenuiflorum): aerial parts: also known as Tulsi, Holy Basil has a unique place in the Materia medica of Ayurveda. It’s been called “The Incomparable One” and “The Queen of Herbs”, thanks to both its bounty of uses in herbalism and its role as a sacred plant in Hindu spiritual practices. Tulsi is a restorative adaptogen that helps to uplift the spirit as well as modulate response to stress, assists the body in detoxification, protects against oxidative damage, limits chronic inflammation, is a restorative tonic, and has an ability to clear and disperse sluggishness and stagnation from many systems of the body, including the mind, the respiratory system, and the digestive tract.
Tulsi is a valuable mild adaptogen to incorporate into an “all-inclusive” Gut Brain Axis formula or protocol. Tulsi carries a direct focus on balancing physical, chemical, metabolic, and psychological stress, offering direct support to Gut Brain Axis function from the “top-down”. Tulsi offers positive effects on cognitive function and memory, helping the body adapt to stressors which interfere with and impair healthy Gut Brain Axis function. In addition, Tulsi has been shown to carry antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral qualities, lending benefit for a healthy ecology in the gut.
SCHIZANDRA (Schisandra chinensis): berry: is a unique herb that is classified as a non-stimulating and restorative adaptogen due to its ability to regulate the body’s natural stress response. Traditionally used for thousands of years, schisandra’s importance has spanned into the modern era through supporting contemporary health problems such as nervous system disorders connected with Gut Brain Axis imbalances. Schisandra carries a restorative effect on the brain and central nervous system and has shown to stimulate nerve cells directly. This nerve and nervous system action can lend direct benefit to the Gut Brain Axis, vagus nerve, brain, and gut.
Schisandra is known in Chinese medicine as five flavor berries, called Wu Wei Zi, because it contains all five flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, and sour.
HERBAL ALLIES FOR GUT HEALTH: PREBIOTICS: are a type of fiber that serves as food for the beneficial microorganisms in the digestive tract. Prebiotics are non-digestible, and they travel through the digestive tract unscathed, so that they can give the gut bacteria what it needs to flourish. Incorporating herbs which nourish and support the microbiota of the gut is an essential part of building a protocol around healthy Gut Brain Axis function. Using prebiotic herbs daily can help ensure that the beneficial bacteria in the microbiome of the gut are well-fed and nourished.
CHICORY (Chichorium intybus) root: is a prebiotic-rich herb which also serves as a digestive system restorative through acting on the pancreas, helping stimulate healthy enzymatic secretions.
Approximately 68% of chicory root fiber comes from the prebiotic fiber inulin, which improves digestion and bowel function, and helps relieve constipation. It may also help prevent diabetes by raising levels of adiponectin, a protein that helps control blood glucose levels. Chicory root is high in antioxidant compounds that may protect the liver from oxidative damage.
DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale) root & greens: contain prebiotic function in addition to serving as a bitter digestive stimulant. The bitter constituents in dandelion root can also specifically stimulate gastric and pancreatic enzymes which help ensure healthy and complete digestion of food. The vagus nerve contains bitter receptors all along its branches or “root system,” therefore, the bitter action in dandelion can also help normalize Gut Brain Axis function from the “bottom-up.” Dandelion also assists in normalizing gastric emptying and elimination patterns, promoting healthy signaling from the gut to the brain.
Dandelion greens can be cooked or consumed raw, and they are a great source of prebiotic fiber. Each cup of greens contains 2 grams of fiber, and a high portion of this fiber comes from inulin, which reduces constipation, boosts immunity, and increases friendly bacteria in the digestive tract.
ELECAMPANE (Inula helenium) root: contains a ton of inulin, a prebiotic fiber that feeds the good bacteria in the digestive tract.
Elecampane is also one of the few warming bitters, making it fantastic for stimulating digestive function, especially in those with a cold constitution. Digestion is a process that requires a lot of heat, and by taking Elecampane right before a meal, the bitter action that stimulates all of the digestive secretions, and the warming action ensure that food is fully digested.
HERBAL ALLIES FOR GUT HEALTH: PROBIOTICS: are good bacteria that help restore a healthy balance to the gut microbiome, also called intestinal flora. Addit