A Wholistic Approach to Digestive Issues
By Laurance Layne
This article is designed to let the reader, whether a patient, prospective patient, or health professional understand how herbs and natural healing work to heal digestion and relieve symptoms
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First, it is helpful to look at your state of health beyond your diagnosis. Diagnoses can be useful, but in the area of digestion they often don't point the to way of getting well. In fact many people suffer from digestion problems even with state of the art diagnosis and medical care.
Our first goal in helping the patient to get well is to remove blockages to health. We like to say that the blockages to health can be structural, physiological, psychological, or energetic. Once blockages have been removed or reduced, the body can then begin the process of healing. This leads to improved function of the organs, glands, tissues, and cells leading to increased health in the body as a whole. It's helpful to see this process in the form of a list:
- Remove blockages
- Healing begins
- Increased function of organs
- Improved tissue health
- Whole body functions better
When we're working with digestion, we don't see digestion as separate from the rest of the body. While it is the main system we are working with, we have to take into account all the other body's systems. This is the main difference between wholistic healing and regular medicine.
Let's look at someone who has "acid reflux," or "heartburn." It's debatable whether acid reflux is a disease (GERD) or, as we believe, a lack of function. At present, for the purpose of medical diagnosis, it's considered a disease. In our clinic, we might suggest a number of initial approaches:
- Release diaphragm (under ribcage) muscles with therapy techniques
- Teach patient to do exercises or self massage to release abdomen
- Use of folk remedies to reduce symptoms (see Digestive Wellness Program)
- Discover what foods are irritating to gut
- Find lifestyle factors which can reduce symptoms ie. sleep positions, habits, etc.
- If needed, use metabolically "cooling" herbs to further reduce symptoms
Most of the above is designed to "put out the fire" of gut inflammation and ease esophageal reflux. Since most people are interested in reducing symptoms, this approach is helpful and helps people realize that digestive disorders can be managed by natural healing. But it is our intent to help the body heal, and have health restoration, not just manage symptoms.
How is Healing to Occur?
By observing what the body is trying to do or cannot do, and helping it move in the direction it is trying to go. This is where the true gift of herbal healing comes in. Herbs can actually be used to strengthen digestive function, and to heal the tissues of the digestive organs themselves.
In our hypothetical acid reflux patient, once the fire has been reduced, we want to repair the tissue of the gut, and make sure the digestive system is functioning normally. This is the time to work on establishing healthy eating habits or at least integrating foods that are healing for the digestive track. The herbs that work in this second step are called tonics or restoratives. They come from a wide variety of traditions and countries, including China, India, Europe, and North America.
A Chinese herbal tonic for digestion would be called a chi tonic. Chi in this clinical context means not only "energy," but motive power, immune function, and digestive power. A typical Chinese herbal tonic for digestion and immune function is the Four Gentlemen. It consists of the herbs:
- Ginseng or Codonopsis
- Poria Mushroom
Taken over time this or other formulas like it builds digestive function.
Another herb formula, from India, is called Chai. Many people are familiar with Chai as a beverage, but it has health-building properties for the gut. This is in keeping with Ayurveda, the traditional healing science of India. Ayurveda suggests that using spicy herbs increases digestive power. A typical Chai tea consists of:
- Black Pepper
The European tradition uses bitter herbs to improve bile flow and enhance peristalsis. A typical "bitters" is a herbal formula like Swedish bitters or a formula we make called Florida Orange Bitters. Some of the herbs we use in that formula are:
- Angelica Archangelica
- Artichoke Leaf
- Florida Citrus Peels
Natural healing in North America has tended to focus on bowel cleansing, and while not a cure-all, bowel cleansers or tonics can help not only the Large Intestine, but the whole digestive track, and body tissues in general. A typical bowel formula would be one created by Dr. John Christopher, FenLB, also known as the Lower Bowel Tonic:
- Cascara Sagrada
- Red Raspberry
As the reader can see, these formulas give a lot of choices and directions to go towards for gut healing.
How Do We Know Which Formula Will Work Best?
The traditional systems of healing these formulas came from have ways of looking into the metabolism and determining which patient gets which herb or formula. Some of the methods of assessment include looking at the tongue, which reveals the state of the digestion; feeling the pulse, which tells us how much energy the organs are receiving; palpating the abdomen, which shows us how much congestion or weakness is present in the digestive system; and examining the eyes, face, and complexion to classify the patient's constitution.
It is easy to see that the wholistic herbalist uses a set of criteria that is quite different than that of regular medicine. As noted earlier, it is also important to think in a wholistic way about the body–we are not just treating "the digestive system," "the stomach," or a set of digestive symptoms, we are working with the whole body. We are promoting health, not fighting disease. Ideally, a wholistic approach is treating the underlying causes, not just the symptoms.
This philosophy is perhaps the greatest tool available to be used by the wholistic digestive healer. Philosophical outlook is an assessment strategy and problem solving method. This includes language and lexicon, that is, different ways of classifying and interpreting physiological function and the nature of symptoms themselves.
Symptoms show up in the upper gut, middle gut, or lower gut and need specific herbs and supplements to affect each area. Rather than a long list of digestive "diseases" like IBS, IBD, GERD, we can describe lowered gut function in a more wholistic way. We can look at the body as being out of balance and ask: How do we bring balance to the body? This context gives us quite a few ways of looking at how the digestion works and some descriptive terminology that is functional in nature and not based on a disease model:
- Leaky Gut Syndrome
- Intestinal Dysbiosis
- Altered Metabolism
- Enzyme Deficiency
- Gut Inflammation
- Slow Transit Time (Poor Peristalsis)
- Candida Overgrowth
- Food Intolerance
- Abdominal Adhesions
In a similar way it is helpful to think outside of the box to understand how treatment methods we call "physiological therapeutics," or the use of therapies, can improve digestive function. What are these therapies? Examples include hydrotherapy, or water therapy, to influence and improve the circulation and nervous system control of the digestive organs. Castor oil or herbal packs on the abdomen have long been used to help detoxify digestive organs and improve function.
Massage of the abdomen and organs can help digestion. Spinal manipulation, reflexology, and acupuncture can also help digestion. What all these therapies have in common is that they increase blood flow to the digestive organs and bring balanced "tone" to the nerves controlling those organs. When integrated with an herbal regimen, these therapies create a multiplier effect, with each therapy adding to the others and increasing the overall effect.
A few words should be said about the role of time in healing. Even by matching the best herbs and supplements to the patient's constitution, chronic digestive problems of long duration can take a long time to heal. A case of constipation and poor transit time that someone has had for a year will probably heal faster than the same symptoms someone has had for ten years. The rule of thumb for healing is one month of treatment for every year the person has had the problem.
There are stages to healing. We can also call this the process of healing. Sometimes it is better to take certain types of herbs before others.
Dr. Christopher had his rules for herbal healing:
- Cleanse (herbs that detoxify)
- Nourish (herbs that feed the organs)
- Heal (herbs that heal tissues)
In actuality, sometimes the digestive organs must be strengthened before they can be cleansed. But if the colon is over burdened, for example, it is necessary to cleanse and detoxify before healing and building tissues. Each person is an individual and needs and individualized approach.
The Functional Medicine model also uses "stages of healing" for digestive disorders:
- Remove (remove irritants or blockages–sounds familiar!)
- Replace (support digestion through use of supplements, enzymes–and herbs)
- Reinoculate (build up the gut flora with friendly microorganisms)
- Repair (heal intestinal mucosa through nutrition)
The herbal philosophy in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) also has a treatment approach that involves stages and timing. The analogy of a tree is used. The underlying causes of disease are called the "root." The symptoms are called the "branches." While in wholistic healing we are always working with underlying causes, sometimes the symptoms must be addressed. "Putting out the fire" for our hypothetical acid reflux sufferer is a "branch" treatment, while improving his digestive "chi' is a "root" treatment. Some Chinese herbal formulas treat both root and branch.
We hope that this article has been helpful in learning about a wholistic approach to digestive issues. The traditional use of herbs for digestion is very effective. Most of the time herbal healing is not complicated, but it has to be done in the right way. Patience is required and sometimes determination. Sometimes problem solving is involved and the type of herbs and formulas being taken must be changed. That's why herbal healing is a give and take partnership between patient and practitioner. It is important you ask all of your health care professionals questions about your treatments. It is especially true with herbalists, since understanding the wholistic context is part of having a successful healing experience.
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