Herbs for Those with Stomach Aches, Ulcers, and Heartburn
Reproduced with permission, c. 2002, Susun S Weed
1. What is the biggest mistake people make about stomach ache?
Calling it stomach ache. The stomach (fortunately) does not ache. Usually when people say their stomach aches, they mean they have a gas pain. Gas pain can be severe pain. My friends who work in emergency rooms say you wouldn't believe how many people come in for what turns out to be gas pain.
2. What herbal allies would you recommend for those dealing with:
Herbalists, myself included, see heartburn as a lack of HCL (hydrochloric acid) in the stomach, instead of the prevalent opinion, that it is caused by too much acid. So instead of trying to turn off production of HCL (as drugs attempt to do), herbalists seek herbs that increase HCL, such as dandelion ( Taraxacum officinale). In my book Healing Wise I devote an entire chapter to dandelion, with lots of recipes and ideas on how to use it.
You can use any part of dandelion: the flowers make dandelion wine, you can cook the greens, or eat them in salad, you can even cook the root, or make a vinegar with it (my favorite), or tincture it. Some people make a coffee substitute from roasted dandelion root. Any way you take it seems to work. (A standard dose would be 10-20 drops of the root tincture taken at the beginning of the meal.) Dandelion, and its friend chicory (Cichorium intybus), which is a fine substitute should you have access to one and not the other, are true tonics. That is, the more you take them, the less you need them. You don't have to keep taking this remedy forever. After 3-6 weeks you'll find you need it less and less.
In Europe it is customary to take bitters before a big meal. Most mild bitters, such as yellow dock (Rumex crispus), cronewort/mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), gentian (Gentiana lutea), barberry (Berberis vulgaris), and Oregon grape are liver tonics and digestives. They aid in digestion, and decrease risk of heartburn, by increasing production of both HCL and bile.
A few more tips for those who suffer from heartburn:
- Eat less at each meal
- Stay upright after eating; no lounging around or sleeping
- Avoid eating late at night
- Reduce the amount of coffee you drink
- Don't overdo it with the orange juice, either
- Use slippery elm lozenges (available in health food stores) for immediate relief from heartburn
The herbs that increase HCL in the stomach, such as dandelion, also decrease ulcers, which are the result of a bacterial infection. When stomach acid is increased, that bacteria has a harder time of it and is less likely to cause ulcers.
Amusing isn't it that medical science says "OK, there must be a mind/body connection, because gastrointestinal ulcers are caused by stress"; only to find out what my herbal teachers taught me long ago: bacteria cause ulcers.
Here's one way to kill that bacteria (besides taking drugs): Get a food grater with a very fine grating side. Grate a large potato as finely as possible. Into another bowl, grate ¼ to ½ of a cabbage. Let them sit for 10-15 minutes, until liquid starts to collect in the bottom of the bowls. Use your hand, or something hard, to press and squeeze the potato until it is dry. Throw away the pulp and keep the liquid. Repeat with the cabbage. Don't use a juicer. There are plant starches that you don't get when you use a juicer. A food processor is ok.
Put the liquids in separate jars in the refrigerator, taking 1-3 tablespoonfuls 2-3 times a day. The more severe the symptoms, the larger and more frequent the dose would be. I expect symptomatic relief within 36-48 hours. But this remedy is safe to take for weeks at a time if needed.
If you can't make the potato liquid, you can buy potato starch and mix it with water. Instead of the cabbage liquid, you could buy coleslaw. It isn't the same as grating the potato and the cabbage, but it is better than nothing. And even if it doesn't work as fast, if that is what is available to you, use it.
2c. Stomach ache?
To me, this means gas pain. Herbs that relieve gas pain are called "carminatives" because they make you "sing" (carmen). Many aromatic herbs are carminatives, especially the seeds of members of the Apiaceae family including dill seed, caraway seeds, fennel seeds, anise seeds, coriander seeds, and cumin seeds. Just put a big spoonful in a cup, cover well with boiling water, steep five minutes, sweeten if you like, and drink.
Ginger is another readily-available carminative. Especially warming to the gut. You can make a tea with powdered ginger, or use up to a tablespoon of fresh ginger per cup of water for a strong brew. Ginger works best sweetened with honey. NASA found it would counter the nausea of space-sickness. You can also buy crystallized or candied ginger to take traveling with you.
The fastest remedy for gas pain is two capsules of acidophilus. I expect pain relief in 5-10 minutes. And I don't pay much attention to the expiration date on it. I keep mine in the refrigerator, and use them so rarely that I often have a bottle for ten years - and they still work.
Eating yogurt helps prevent gas pain, and can be used as a remedy, but it is not as fast as the acidophilus. A quart of yogurt a week is a good goal. And buy plain yogurt. No need to pay a fancy price for white sugar and poor quality fruit. Add maple syrup or honey and fruit of your choice, fresh or frozen at home. Make your own fantasy yogurt creation.
And the bitter tonic herbs mentioned above are also excellent allies to take long-term if you have frequent gas pains.
When I was in Spain I often had to eat late at night. Then I would take a sip of their very strong coffee, served in tiny cups. It had just the right amount of push to get that food into my digestive tract and still allow me to fall asleep at a reasonable time.
But most people in America drink coffee in the morning on an empty stomach. Might this be one reason so many are in such digestive distress? Instead of coffee, try this:
- Put one ounce by weight of dried peppermint leaf in a quart jar and fill to the top with boiling water.
- Cap tightly and allow to steep for 4-8 hours. (OK to let it steep while you sleep.)
- Strain the plant material out after the allotted time, squeezing it well.
- Then drink the liquid: hot or cold, salty or sweetened, with milk or whiskey or what have you.
- Refrigerate what you don't drink then. This will stay good in the refrigerator for up to three weeks.
Peppermint helps move the intestines and make you feel really awake, just like coffee. I would not use it if someone were feeling nauseated, as it tastes vile on the way back out.
3. Can people expect quick relief from these remedies? (See above)
With dandelion, you often see results in the first 24 hours.
4. How often would you have to take these remedies? (See above)
5. Do you think the public dismisses herbal remedies as a last resort?
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 90% of the health care given on any day is given in the home by the woman of the home. Just by cooking dinner a woman can heal her family and keep them healthy. She can protect her husband's heart by using lots of garlic. And protect his libido by serving less soy.
Many Americans have food phobias. Think about how many people are frightened of drinking milk. How many won't eat bread. I go into the health food store to get bread and there are loaves with no flour, and those with no yeast, and those without wheat, and I wonder where all the bread has gone.
We have a national history of food phobias, starting with Graham (inventor of the healthy graham cracker), continuing with Kellogg (of breakfast flake fame), and right into the modern day's current fads (no fat? no carbs? all protein? all raw?). Not too much has really changed. More and more people are learning about herbal medicine, but I am sure many of them think it is difficult and arcane. They may be unaware that herbal medicine is the medicine for the people, of the people, and by the people.
6. Are there any warnings about any of the herbal remedies taken to relieve stomach ache?
I specialize in safe, food-like herbs. I prefer them to drug-like herbs. The remedies I have suggested here are as safe as foods, taken in food-like quantities. When herbs are powdered and encapsulated, they can be dangerous. They are more like a drug and you have to be more careful. I use herbs because they aren't drugs.
7. Are there foods that can initiate a stomach ache?
Beans! The magical fruit. So good for us, but so hard on the guts. And even worse when they are soy beans. The gas people get from tofu and tempe and soy beverage is outrageous.
From regular beans, try this simple five-step approach - guaranteed to reduce how much you "toot"
(i) Soak your beans overnight in a generous amount of cold water. Add a piece of wakame or kombu if desired.
(ii) Rinse beans thoroughly in cold water (retain seaweed).
(iii) Cover beans with fresh cold water, add retained seaweed, and cook until tender.
(v) Reheat beans to serve.
8. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes, I believe all peppers are upsetting to the digestive tract. I suggest avoiding black pepper and cayenne, jalapeno and all others if you are prone to heartburn, have frequent gas pain, or suffer from irritable bowel or even simple diarrhea.
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Vibrant, passionate, and involved, Susun Weed has garnered an international reputation for her groundbreaking lectures, teachings, and writings on health and nutrition. She challenges conventional medical approaches with humor, insight, and her vast encyclopedic knowledge of herbal medicine. Unabashedly pro-woman, her animated and enthusiastic lectures are engaging and often profoundly provocative.
Susun is one of America's best-known authorities on herbal medicine and natural approaches to women's health. Her four best-selling books are recommended by expert herbalists and well-known physicians and are used and cherished by millions of women around the world.
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