The Herbalist Is In: Leaky WHAT Syndrome?

By Merry Lycett Harrison

Herbs that heal in the digestive tract.
-by M.L. Harrison
herbs.jpgI am concerned about my digestive tract. The doctor examined my stomach with an endoscope last week and diagnosed me with acid reflux disease, and there are early signs of a duodenal ulcer and colitis. I feel run down and have a hard time getting a good night's sleep because of the discomfort I feel. I am sure I don't eat right. Are there any herbs that can help me?

Living in a stressful culture where you can have French pastries for breakfast, pizza for lunch and Chinese food for dinner, combined with too many cups of coffee, glasses of wine and/or sweets makes for a sure-fire recipe to disrupt and distress the gastrointestinal tract. This can do more than create physical discomfort, it can also lead to irritability, headaches, mental fogginess, exhaustion, depression, nutrient deficiency and more.

When I see a client with a diagnosis like yours, I consider a condition herbalists call leaky gut syndrome, which is brought on by chronic irritation, inflammation or injury of the wall of the GI tract. Constant inflammation erodes the gut lining, creating permeability that allows toxic wastes and chemicals from the digestive tract to leach into the blood stream. When this occurs, the body starts working to eliminate the foreign substance. This reaction taxes both the  body systems and our energy and may develop into an irreversible, systemic condition that some practitioners believe leads to debilitating autoimmune disorders.

This condition is complicated to rectify, but herbs present us with the perfect opportunity to heal the damaged tissues, or at least improve their quality and function. We must address the situation from as many angles as possible.

First make the effort to identify the offending substances or stressors that cause the irritation. Is there a food allergy? If the digestive tract is already sensitive, eating the wrong kinds of food, large quantities of food, or too many varieties of foods can set off a reaction. Check in with yourself; you probably have a pretty good idea of where to begin managing your intake to minimize harm.

Reducing inflammation is the first order of business with this botanical approach. Turmeric is very useful here. I saw an item on the news recently that said studies are being done to determine whether turmeric may help reduce the risk of colon cancer. Turmeric has many other benefits: It is an antioxidant and it supports liver function, among other things.

Demulcents help reestablish the health and integrity of the mucousal lining of the gut. Slippery elm and marshmallow root can be used interchangeably.

People with the harmful digestive conditions mentioned here will actually double over or at least put their arms around their stomach when a sudden offense occurs, such as the wrong kind of food or a bitter argument. Antispasmodics such as wild yam and passionflower are good herbs to use for this.

As for herbs that can help you manage stress and actually reduce the physical stress response, ginseng, lemon balm, eleuthro, and kava kava are just a few that I would recommend depending on how you react to stress.

Once the lining of the GI tract begins to heal, astringent herbs can  tonify the tissues. Goldenseal is especially useful, as are white oak bark and witch hazel.

During detoxification, protecting the liver while supporting its function with herbs is essential. Some to consider are milk thistle, schisandra, dandelion, Oregon grape and burdock. The diruetic properties of nettle, cleavers and celery seed help clear toxins.

Licorice can also play a useful role. Its properties operate on all these therapeutic levels.

The inclusion of daily doses of probiotics, beneficial bacteria that live in the gut, like Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum can help maintain healthy gut flora. Supplementing digestive enzymes and essential fatty acids can be helpful, too.

Finally, don't be too hard on yourself about eating right. I always tell my clients, "When you feel better, you can do better." As your digestion gradually improves, so should your energy. Then you can turn your attention to eating food in ways that won't tax the digestive tract and your body. Eat consciously. Avoid coffee, tea, and colas, fatty or spicy food, mint, chocolate, onions and tomatoes. Using herbs and food together allows the body to do the healing work necessary to resolve your chronic ailments. It probably took years for it to set up in the body, so it usually takes a long term protocol to turn it around. 

Merry Lycett Harrison, RH (AHG) is a clinical herbalist and owner of Millcreek Herbs,

This article was originally published on May 31, 2007.