In part one of this article series I outlined herbal approaches to healing the gut and alleviating symptoms of hyperacidity. I also addressed some causes of digestive distress, the role gastric acid plays in digestion, and gave instructions on how to take a hydrochloric acid (HCl) home test to determine excess or deficiency. In part 2, I’ll recommend herbal approaches that balance HCl deficiency. I will mention some basic benefits of pre and probiotics, enzymes and vitamin supplementation, and discuss the use of lymphatics for malabsorption.
An estimated 25% of Americans self treat or are diagnosed with excess stomach acid, but I’ve never heard how many people suffer from under acidity. Thankfully, the past decade has brought greater awareness of this imbalance, and has opened the door to understanding the role HCl plays in chronic syndromes, digestive disease and dysfunctions.
My awareness of low stomach acid was first introduced to me by Simon Mills, a wonderful British herbalist who consulted with me on my own digestive diseases about 15 years ago. He said that no matter where the dysfunction lies it is important to treat digestion from the stomach down. And he is right. One may have Colitis (affecting the colon) or Chron’s disease (affecting the small intestine), or perhaps someone has a general diagnosis, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Regardless of the ill, the fact still remains that digestion is askew at the beginning. And it’s important to ascertain if there are inappropriate levels of HCl.
Note: It is essential to take the HCl self test as printed in article one of this series before making assumptions about your condition. And if you have an Irritable Bowel Disease-not Syndrome-it is best to consult a trained professional before beginning an herbal protocol, especially if you are on medications.
Energetics for Low Acidity
Hyper and hypo acidity have similar symptom pictures. Because of this, we use similar energetic/herbal action protocols to work with the conditions. The difference, though, is in recommend plants for treatment.
Some of the terms below were defined in the part 1 of this series.
• Achlorhydria is a plant that stimulates the secretion of hydrochloric acid. These plants are gold to those who don’t produce enough, and in some cases can turn a mild condition around quickly. The plants in this energetic category are all warming to a degree. They are: cinnamon, cardamom, orange peel, ginger, prickly ash (specific for poor peripheral circulation), cayenne, Angelica archangelica, and wild carrot seeds (the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace flowers).
• Anti-bacterial. Hypo acidity calls for different agents then hyper. A few that I employ here: Oregon grape root, cinnamon, calendula.
• Anti-inflammatory plants for hypo acidity: Lymphatic anti-inflammatory: calendula, cleavers, red root. Plants that affect the tissue (lining of the stomach small intestine and colon) only are: peppermint (slightly drying), plantain (moistening), marshmallow (cooling and extremely moistening and slippery)
• Anti-spasmodics Some great anti-spasmodics for underproduction of stomach acid: cramp bark, shepherd’s purse (if there is blood in the stool), motherwort (also a nervine tonic; can be an emmenagogue so beware), fennel, catnip
• Bitters are contraindicated for early healing stages of excess HCl, but they are an important part of healing low HCl. Bitters can stimulate bile production in the liver, release of bile from the gallbladder, and increase gastric secretions. They improve the body’s ability to break down proteins, fats, and sugars, making nutrients more bio-available. A few are: gentian (non-irritating and very bitter; excellent for food allergies), red root (bitter and astringent lymphatic), oregon grape root (non-irritating bitter excellent for food allergies), dandelion root (bitter, salty and mildly sweet; non-irritating), yellow dock (balsamic, slightly bitter and earthy, aids absorption of iron and clears mucous from the intestinal tract)
• Carminatives: fennel, peppermint, catnip, caraway, holy basil, cardamom, orange peel, ginger
• Cholagogue: stimulates the release of bile from the liver and the release of bile from the gallbladder into the small intestine: milk thistle, dandelion root, gentian, Oregon grape root, artichoke leaf
• Choleretic: stimulates the hepatocytes in the liver to produce bile; milk thistle, dandelion root, culvers root
• Demulcents: marshmallow root (most demulcent), and plantain. Both are also anti-inflammatory. Marshmallow root is anti-spasmodic. While plantain is mildly so, it has the ability to heal mucous membranes and draw substances from tissue.
• Nervine tonics calm and balance the nervous system. They restore normalcy where there was once overstimulation. Some of my favorites for too little HCl: calendula, blue vervain, cleavers, lemon balm, peppermint, catnip.
Conditions of Low Acidity
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is considered by many to be a condition of stress and/or anxiety. I agree with this for the most part. In my experience, those diagnosed with it typically have a poor diet, and, in some cases, undiagnosed food intolerances/allergies.
Some doctors have begun to support this theory, and often recommend those with the symptoms of IBS to get tested for Celiac Disease, encouraging patients to try a gluten free diet. The elimination of gluten works for some. For others, though, the quest for digestive health continues.
Symptoms of IBS are quite similar to those with high HCl, but I’ve seen that those with IBS typically have low HCl. Other complaints are bloating, irregular bowel function, headaches, flatulence, feelings of being easily overwhelmed, distended belly and spasms in descending colon.
Obvious energetics to consider are: achlorhydrias, anti-spasmodics, carminatives, anti-inflammatory, bitters, nervines and anti-anxiety herbs.
Another complaint that can stem from low levels of HCl is chronic indigestion. It is often considered a sign of hyper-acidity, but unless your HCl levels have been tested, don’t be so certain.
Symptoms of indigestion are burping after meals, upper abdominal pain and bloating, nausea and vomiting in extreme cases.
As with any digestive malady, it is important to do dietary manipulation. In other words, if you know that eating greasy food brings on symptoms, then please discontinue eating greasy foods. Other triggers of indigestion are, but not limited to, alcohol consumption, sugar, over consumption of food, and stress.
If you determine that your chronic indigestion is exacerbated by the inadequate production of HCl these possible energetics may help instill balance: achlorhydrias, carminative, anti-spasmodics, nervine, anti-inflammatory, bitters.
Details on a Few Plants
While there is no one plant answer for IBS or chronic indigestion, peppermint helps quite a few people. I’m not referring to the enterically coated peppermint essential oil capsules here. In part because I don’t believe there is enough evidence showing long term use is safe. And I don’t typically recommend the ingestion of essential oils. But there are many reasons why peppermint tincture or tea is a good thing to try.
Energetically, peppermint is anti-spasmodic, carminative, anesthetizes mucous membranes of the stomach lining, and is an anti-emetic-used for nausea and vomiting. This plant also promotes liver and gallbladder function, acting as a mild choleretic and cholagogue.
Peppermint is specific for: chronic disease of gallbladder and pancreas, poor digestion with fermentation, gas, low intestinal bowel flora.
Contraindications: Peppermint is not for inflammation of the stomach lining or ulcers.
Dosage: Tea 1-2 tablespoons per 8 oz. cup of hot water (never boil the leaves). Steep 5-10 min., and drink after or between meals. Tincture single dose: 2-10 drops 2-3 times daily after or between meals.
Lemon balm herb and flower is another plant which helps digestive distress. Those with digestive woes are prone to stress that has adverse effects on the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Lemon balm is a nervine tonic that calms and sedates the ANS, and has a history of assisting people who suffer from anxiety related to hypertension, hyperthyroidism, and nervous stomach. It is also a weak anti-spasmodic and carminative. I have used it on clients with dyspepsia who tend toward nervousness leading to over consumption. It combines nicely with peppermint for this.
Normal dosage is 1-2 tablespoons in 8 oz. water steeped 5 min. and drunk between meals 3-4 times daily; 5-20 drops tincture between meals 3-4 times daily.
Malabsorption and the Role of Lymphatic Herbs
Malabsorption occurs when food is not properly broken down, and nutrients are not absorbed by the villa in the small intestine. A few symptoms include gray skin, hair loss, withered looking tongue, loss of muscle tone, lack of skin elasticity, exhaustion and diarrhea or constipation.
While bitters assist the process of breakdown and elimination, the absorption part can be complicated by inflammation affecting the villa. These villi are home to tiny lymph vessels. So it takes a lymphatic anti-inflammatory to decongest them, increasing the surface area.
My favorite lymphatic tonic for relieving this congestion is red root (Ceanothus americanus). Red root’s astringent properties give it the ability to re-tone the mucosal lining of the small intestine and lessen lymphatic inflammation and congestion, thus increasing the capacity for nutrient absorption by the villa. It also tones the spleen, which assists in moving nutrition up into the body, and waste down and out and is anti-diarrheal. It only takes about 5 drops of tincture 2-4 times daily taken for about 4 weeks to yield positive results.
Examples of Tincture Formulas
It is best to make a formula that is specific to your needs. But here are some examples to get you thinking.
• Irritable Bowel Syndrome w/ hard dry stools, stress, spasms, bloating after eating, and poor peripheral circulation: tincture of equal parts prickly ash bark, ginger and dandelion root; 10-25 drops daily before meals; between meals take a few oz. of marshmallow root infusion
• IBS w/diarrhea, spasms, anxiety and bloating: Tincture equal parts: catnip or motherwort, yellow dock root, and caraway seed; if more support is need to increase HCl add 2 milliliters of wild carrot seed (Daucus carota) to your formula; take 10-15 drops before meals
• Celiac or food allergy (post elimination) w/ gray skin, hair loss, malabsorption syndrome (inability to assimilate nutrients), bloating, anemia, diarrhea: Tincture of equal parts yellow dock root, red root, cleavers, fennel; 15-25 drops 3-4 times daily with meals; peppermint tea between meals if tolerated and desired
• Inability to digest fats with bloating after eating: Tincture equal parts: caraway seed, ginger root, dandelion root, artichoke leaf take 10-15 drops before meals
• Nervous Stomach Between Meal Tea: 1 teaspoon each of dried peppermint, lemon balm and catnip with a bit of orange peel and honey in 8 oz. hot water steeped 7 min. Drink 2-4 cups daily or as needed.
Other plants I love to include in digestive tinctures are cinnamon, turmeric, and Angelica archangelica. They warm the stomach and increase hydrochloric acid production.
Health in a bottle is expensive and there are a lot of products to sell, see and purchase. We are told many millions of reasons why we need them.
Some products are good and quite useful. Some can be essential. Others, though, are unnecessary for most people, especially those with digestive disorders. I’ll elaborate bellow.
Probiotics are good microorganisms that assist the process of digestion through fermentation in the large intestine. But they also support a healthy nervous and immune system, and protect our intestinal and urinary tract from harmful bacteria. Probiotics balance colon function and decrease incidence of food intolerances.
They need to be introduced as live cultured sources to the digestive tract. Great food sources of probiotics are: sauerkraut and pickles (made through natural fermentation without vinegar-Bubbies brand, for example), miso, kimchi and yogurt.
While food sources of probiotics may be enough, some say that further supplementation is needed. If you have a generally healthy digestive tract food will probably do the trick. But if you are someone who has used antibiotics or has a chronic digestive condition, it’s best to also take a supplement.
Prebiotics are food for good bacteria/probiotics. They pass through the digestive tract undigested to become this food source. They balance colon function (relieving constipation or diarrhea), support the growth and proliferation of healthy bowel flora, assist assimilation of calcium, and some even say prevent type 2 Diabetes.
A few food sources of prebiotics are: Bananas, chicory root, dandelion root, burdock root, Jerusalem artichoke (sun chokes) onions and garlic.
Prebiotics also come in supplement form. I’ve noticed in the last 5 or so years more and more companies include them in their probiotic supplements. This can make taking prebiotics easy. It can also be troublesome, because prebiotics can cause gas and bloating. This symptom is most noticeable when one first begins taking them, and for most people it can diminish with time.
If the problem persists, one can try using carminative herbs to lessen gas and bloating. But if the problem is extreme, I recommend people consume prebiotics as food only, and purchase a probiotic that doesn’t include them.
A healthy individual produces enzymes to assist catalytic breakdown and conversion of food for absorption. When the digestive tract is stressed, however, enzyme production can take a dive. I believe increasing digestive capacity with bitter herbs is best. They have the ability to increase HCl production, and stimulate enzyme secretion. This means helping the body remember how to do its own work, and encourages independence.
The problem with digestive deficiencies, though, is they can take some time to reverse. In cases where bitters don’t seem to be enough or are too irritating, it’s a good idea to try an enzyme supplement for a month or so while healing occurs. One I commonly recommend is Rainbow Lights Complete Enzyme System.
Most people who have difficulty assimilating nutrients from food will have similar problems breaking down a vitamin supplement. I’ve heard of many who pass supplements whole, literally flushing money down the toilet. And unabsorbed portions burden organs of elimination as the body struggles to excrete them. This process can be especially hard on the urinary tract, and the stress can accumulate to manifest as kidney deficiency.
My recommendation is work with food as your healing agent, pro and prebiotics, enzymes if needed, and herbs to support digestive balance and elimination first. Deal with vitamin supplementation on a need only basis. For example, someone highly anemic may need iron. Or someone suffering from severe and chronic muscle spasms may need magnesium. In this case, reach for a whole foods supplement, such as Rainbow Light or New Chapter.
Changing Food Routines
When we commit to getting well, we step on a path and engage a process. There will be times when we celebrate our advances and times we lament over frustrations. But the fact is the tools we develop in the process are as important as the healing itself. They are the change our body asked for in its illness and dysfunction.
But change is difficult, so here are a few tips to help along the way.
1. Whenever you subtract something from your diet, especially if it is a favorite, be sure to put something in its place. The law of substitution works, and can help one remain positive.
2. Get out and exercise with a friend or neighbor. Food restrictions and digestive woes can lead to depression and isolation as the person tries to avoid the culprit foods and avert temptation.
3. Make weekly trips to the farmers market or begin a plot in a community garden. This can lift the mood. And eating fresh produce improves the taste buds, lessening the blow dealt them and the body by processed food.
4. Address fears and emotional issues that are masked by food addiction or intolerances. Aromatherapy baths, journaling or talking to someone can help.
5. Grow some flowers to cut and keep in your home, and share them with others. A big mood elevator and stress reliever!
I know firsthand the difficult task involved in healing the gut. It’s not a straight road with clear signs that give answers to problems. It takes tinkering and adjusting, a willingness to embrace change, and it takes time. In some cases, it can take years. But the payoff is a healthier and more diverse diet, perhaps even some new friends along the road, and fresh ways to experience and appreciate life.