Herbal Therapeutics: The Digestive System

Considered one of the most important systems of our body, the digestive system is the major organ of digestion, absorption, assimilation, distribution, and elimination and is directly involved with the processing of everything we eat. Every bite of food we eat travels the 19-20 feet of our small intestines where it is decomposed and reabsorbed into the system. A highly complex and efficient system that begins at our mouth and ends at our rectum, the digestive tract winds its way through our entire body. It measures about 30 feet long in the average person with a total surface that is some hundred times larger than our skin! The millions of tiny finger shaped villi that line the small intestines increase its total surface area to that of a full size tennis court.

The digestive tract is inhabited by millions of bacteria that exist in symbiotic relationship with one another. Their job is to digest, assimilate, distribute, and eliminate all of the food we eat. The number of living microbes that inhabit the digestive system equal the number of cells we have in our entire body! The mouth alone is populated by over 100 trillion microorganisms. Looking into a microscope and viewing these living organisms is a science fiction story come alive. There is a complex network of nerves that program the digestive system. Our stomach produces about one to two quarts of stomach acid a day, the amount produced being directly affected by the state of the nervous system. The nervous system is directly linked with the digestive tract; often nervous system disorders contribute to digestive problems. Often referred to as a “web of enteric brains”, (enteric here meaning “gut”.), it is suggested that the digestive system is ruled by a “gut level intelligence”. So often we FEEL things in our guts and have a “gut level” intuition about a situation. Though it is true “we are what we eat”, it is as important HOW we eat the food that we are, and what condition our digestive system is in when we eat it.

With the exception of the common cold, digestive ailments have the distinction of being the most frequent disorder of men and women. About 13 million people in the United States suffer from some digestive disorder. Almost 20 percent of all hospital admissions and 30 percent of all surgery are due to digestive difficulty. This is partly true because of the complexity of this amazing system and because of the many organs it encompasses. It is also true because this system deals not only with organic disturbances such as injury or structural abnormality of the organs, but also with a mass of functional disturbances caused by ill eating habits, stress, tension, and the consumption of less-than-good-for you-foods. Though so many people suffer from digestive disturbances, the good news is that most digestive disorders are avoidable and/or correctable by changes of lifestyle and habits. Problems of the digestive system respond beautifully to natural treatments including herbs, diet, and stress reduction techniques.

Most herbalists and other holistic therapists agree that a well functioning digestive system is the primary foundation for good health and often will attend to digestive disorders first before attempting to treat other health problems of the individual. A properly functioning digestive system is essential to the health of the entire body and is needed to assimilate and eliminate all the nutrients we eat.


The digestive system consists of:

(1) The mouth
(2) The esophagus
(3) The liver and gall bladder (covered in Lesson Two)
(4) The stomach
(5) The large intestines
(6) The small intestines
(7) The rectum and anus

Each of the above “parts” plays a major role in the digestion and distribution of the food we eat. The mouth is considered the first organ of digestion and saliva a digestive juice. The food is initially broken down by chewing and by the secretion of saliva in the mouth. The saliva also “signals” the proper intestinal digestive juices to begin flowing. After it is sufficiently broken down, the food passes from the esophagus to the stomach where it is further processed by digestive juices. The entire length of the digestive tract is lined with mucus membranes that secret different digestive juices needed to break down bacteria and food. The mucus membranes also serve as a protective coating for the delicate membranes of the digestive tract. From the stomach, the food passes into the small intestines where it under goes even more intense processing. Digestive enzymes and bile secreted by the gall bladder, liver and pancreas further break down this nutritional soup. After intense processing, part of the “soup” is reabsorbed back into the blood stream and transported to the liver where it will undergo a biochemical transformation and utilized as food for the entire organism. Indigestible parts move on into the large intestines where further usable substances such as water and electrolytes are extracted. The remaining unusable waste material is passed on through the colon and excreted through the rectum. What a journey each bit of food we eat must go through! Think about it next time you take a bit of something!


Herbal Repertoire for the Digestive System

As you’ve learned in your studies of herbology, where there is a need there is an herb to fill it. Since the digestive system is so complex and involves so many different organs, there is a myriad of herbs used to treat this system. For your benefit, I have grouped common herbs used for the digestive system according to their actions. This gives a more comprehensive understanding of how they benefit the digestive tract.


(1) Bitters

Bitter herbs promote appetite and stimulate production of saliva. All have in common the characteristic of being bitter! The bitter the better! The intense bitterness of these herbs stimulate the taste buds which send a reflect action to the brain. If bitters are taken via capsules they will not have the same affect on the digestive system because the taste buds are unable to respond by sending signals to the brain to get those digestive juices flowing. Most bitters work directly on the liver stimulating digestion, elimination, and the production of bile. In most cultures bitters were an important part of the diet. However, in this country, people have an aversion to bitter tastes. Some people don’t even recognize a true bitter, but confuse it with sour tastes.

Bitters are essential to good digestion, a healthy, liver, and proper elimination. I strongly encourage you to introduce bitters into your diet. Learn to take bitter herb teas, to experience what bitter tastes do for your system. We shy away from what is bitter in life, yet life is bitter sweet and one must learn to partake of the bitters to truly experience life. In balance, it strengthens our inner well being. Certainly these bitter herbs are among those most highly regarded.


Golden Seal

Oregon Grape Root

Gentian Root

(2) Laxatives and Purgatives

There are many herbs that help in the evacuation of the bowels, but some can be irritating and depleting to the digestive tract. The best laxatives are those that (a) stimulate the natural secretions of the digestive juices, (b) those that provide bulk and mucilage in the system, and (c) those that stimulate a mild peristaltic action. Avoid those laxatives and purgatives that work primarily by irritating the intestinal linings and causing intense peristaltic action.


Rhubarb Root
Aloe Vera

Licorice Root

Cascara Sagrada

Some herbal laxatives can cause griping and are quite strong. Research those you plan to use before beginning to experiment with your own blends. I use flax and psyllium for bulk mucilage in my laxative blends. They sooth and coat the irritated intestines. Carob and licorice are sweet, mild laxatives that I use as balancers in formulas. For small children, they may be the only laxatives I use. Cascara sagrada, rhubarb root, senna and aloe vera all have very active effects. I will usually use these only in formula with other herbs as they can cause griping and extensive bowel elimination. In any event, I stress stressing that you begin lightly when you are first learning about laxative herbs. I had some interesting experiences when I first began experimenting with laxative blends (on myself!). I learned very quickly how effective Cascara Sagrada and Senna are and that a little bit goes a long way!

(3) Sialagogue

Sialagogues are herbs that stimulate the activity of the salivary glands. Digestion begins in the mouth and is activated by saliva which breaks down large carbohydrates into smaller units which can then be processed in other parts of the digestive system. Sialagogues include bitters which also stimulate saliva production. 

Other sialagogues include:

cayenne and
turkey rhubarb root.


(4) Carminatives

These are among the most common used digestive herbs. Most are familiar as culinary and tea herbs. The carminatives have long been included in cooking because of their ability to reduce gas in the system and to aid in digestion. Though they were at one time included in recipes because of their carminative properties they are now considered familiar parts of many recipes. In the days of the pilgrims and puritans, when young and old alike spent many a long hour and day in worship, carminative herbs were taken along to meetings and chewed as “meeting seeds”; the mixture of seeds helped calm the growling stomachs. Carminatives contain volatile oils that affect the digestive tract by relaxing the stomach muscles, increasing peristalsis, and reducing the formation of gas in the stomach.





(5) Demulcents

You are already familiar with Demulcents. They are a marvelous group of herbs that are, in essence, useful for every part of the body! They are essential to the health of the digestive tract and help maintain a healthy mucus membrane lining. Demulcents are used to soothe and protect irritated, inflamed intestinal tract. They are also useful to use with laxatives and lower bowel formulas to tone or “buffer” the formula. Demulcents serve to lubricate the alimentary canal making for easier elimination.


Irish Moss

Slippery Elm

Comfrey Root
Marshmallow Root

(6) Hepatics

Among the most important of the digestive herbs are those herbs that work directly on the liver which is one of the primary organs of digestion. Whenever digestive disturbances occur, especially chronic long term problems, it is essential to consider the liver in the treatment plan. Review Lesson Two in conjunction with this lesson.


I’ll let you provide them! You should be very familiar with the Liver herbs!


(7) Stomach Anti-Spasmodics

Anti-spasmodics are herbs that rapidly relax nerve response that causes spasms. They work through directly on the central nervous system.