Herbal Approaches to Digestive Health

Key Topics: Digestive Health
July 25, 2019 • 5 min read

The fast-paced Western lifestyle offers many exciting opportunities; however, the human body was not necessarily designed to keep up with the demands that this lifestyle places on its physiology. Increased stress and productivity demands create a shift in the amount of excreted cortisol, a stress hormone, which has cascading effects within the body. In particular, cortisol levels can have a significant effect on the digestive system. Nutritional modifications, lifestyle changes, and the incorporation of specific plant constituents, like Berberine and Black Cumin seeds, have been shown to help balance the effect stress has on the digestive system.

One of the body’s biological adaptations under states of stress is to divert blood from the digestive tract to the heart, brain, and extremities. Digestive fluids and enzyme secretions slow down in order to preserve energy. These adaptations occur because the body is preparing to either “fight” or “flight,” a response that was helpful centuries ago for those who had to periodically “fight” for their food and “flight” away from predators. However, in the modern world, individuals experience this state of sympathetic activation a majority of the time. The consequence is that the digestive system suffers, which in turn has an effect on many aspects of the body and health. (9)

Healthy digestion is at the root of well-being. Traditional medicines like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine build their foundation on the process of digestion as “digestive fire” or “sacred fire.” Digestion is a process of “fire” turning food into energy. Circulation deficiency in the digestive system due to the stress affects the body’s ability to digest food. In addition, since physiological stress can cause a disruption of the secretion of digestive fluids and enzymes, stress ultimately affects the body’s ability to absorb and assimilate nutrients. Disruption of digestion can also affect bacteria in the digestive tract, which can have an effect on the immune system and mental health.

The link between nutrition and mental health is strong, as reported from the Harvard Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Eva Selhub reports: “What you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.” As Selhub explains, “95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons. It makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions.” The neurotransmitter serotonin is responsible for mood regulation and is often referred to as the “happy brain chemical.” Thus, if there is a disruption of this environment of the healthy and unhealthy bacteria, this can lead to issues like depression and anxiety. An individual may also suffer from symptoms like gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. A healthy bowel environment also ensures that the body is not exposed to toxins produced by unhealthy intestinal bacteria, which can contribute to poor immune function. (1, 4, 7)

There are many ways to improve digestion in today’s fast-paced lifestyle. It is important to down-regulate the nervous system before eating by creating a practice around mindful eating. This consists of slowing down to eat, taking a breath before consuming food, and making sure to chew each bite and taste each flavour. This will allow the nervous system to shift into the parasympathetic mode which promotes gut motility and secretion of digestive fluids and enzymes (“rest and digest”). Mindful eating has also been shown to decrease cortisol levels, which in turn helps to decrease inflammation and reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome.

Another way to improve overall health and digestion is to make mindful food choices when eating. Choosing fresh whole foods and organic when possible will make a big difference. Unprocessed food free from herbicides, preservatives, and other chemicals will create less damage and toxic load on the body after consumption. Fresh whole foods contain more nutrients and antioxidants that help to boost the immune system and increase overall health.  Making sure to consume adequate amounts of dietary fiber will help to ensure adequate elimination of toxins from the body via feces. This in turn also helps to lower lipid levels in the body which is helpful for metabolic syndrome. In addition to nutritional suggestions and lifestyle modifications, consuming constituents from specific herbs that help to increase digestive function and overall health can be very helpful. One specific constituent that is found in a number of different plants that has been shown to be very helpful is called Berberine.

Berberine is a chemical plant constituent found in several plants including European barberry (Berberis vulgaris), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Goldthread (Coptis groenlandica), Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium), and Phellodendron (Phellodendron amurense). Berberine is an anti-microbial isoquinoline alkaloid that stimulates intestinal contraction. Berberine is also bitter, which helps to stimulate secretion of digestive juices. Berberine helps to maintain a healthy bowel environment by cleansing and promoting health in the lower gastrointestinal tract, encouraging proper intestinal flora. It may have a selective antimicrobial effect by inhibiting harmful bacteria and leaving probiotic flora alone. This effect on gut health has been shown to improve immune function and reduce risk of metabolic syndrome by lowering cholesterol levels and improving glucose intolerance. Improvement of the gastrointestinal tract flora has also been shown to improve anxiety and depression in a study done on those with irritable bowel syndrome. Berberine can be very helpful for improving overall digestive health and helping the body maintain balance. Berberine is however contraindicated in pregnancy and lactation and can interact with immunosuppressive drugs. It is best to consume under supervision of an informed clinician. (3)

In addition to Berberine, the culinary herb Black Cumin contains plant constituents that help to improve digestive function and overall health. Black cumin (Nigella sativa) has been used for centuries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia to promote health and is often used in the cuisines of these regions. Black Cumin seed has a slightly aromatic smell and a bitter, peppery taste. It is traditionally used in India and the Middle East for indigestion, loss of appetite, fever, diarrhea, general weakness, and arthritis. Traditional texts record a long history for Black Cumin seeds with many actions, applying to many body systems. Within the herbal tradition of India, Black Cumin seeds are used to promote “digestive fire” and support fat metabolism. This strong digestive fire helps to support overall health and vitality, increases immune system function, and aids in the elimination of potential toxins from undigested food in the digestive tract.  Studies have also shown that Black Cumin seeds significantly improve lipid levels in those with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or risk of those conditions. Thus, Black Cumin seeds help to provide a balancing effect and metabolic support for the typical Western diet and help to balance out the physiology of those with a typical fast-paced lifestyle. (2, 4, 6, 8)

With the help of intuitive and powerful plant compounds like Berberine and those found in Black Cumin seeds, achieving improvements in overall health in today’s busy society becomes more manageable.  In addition to these compounds and nutritional modifications, mindful practices and self-focus will have a huge impact on the nervous system and in turn improve overall health.

WholisticMatters would like to acknowledge Dr. Jenny Cundari, BSc, BPHE, ND,  for her contributions to the content of this article.

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