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Absorption - an herbal approach

by Keith Robertson(more info)

listed in colon health, originally published in issue 13 - July 1996

A tube may be defined as a long thin object which does not contain much, leading to the use of the word as a popular insult in Scotland! In terms of very basic anatomy, we can think of the body essentially as a tube and the digestive system, rather like the hole in a doughnut, as still being in essence part of the outside world.

Absorption in terms of digestion must then take into account both that which we wish to absorb and also those things that we would rather not. Despite the advances in modern medicine, human beings seem to be getting weaker, and the main system that seems to be affected, alarmingly, is the digestive system. People feel under par and question; am I missing some essential vitamin or mineral, or, worse, am I not absorbing some essential ingredients from my food?

Herbal images

A great deal of Herbal practice involves consideration of diet and, in a clinical setting, we must always try and rule out frank intolerances, such as in gluten enteropathy, or dangerous deficiencies such as B12 deficiency. The nutritional considerations are obviously of prime importance, and are discussed at length elsewhere in this issue; however, we will return to the issue of absorption of toxins and allergens below.

Herbal Medicine works best when it follows the philosophy of going with the body rather than forcing or trying to take over the body's processes. Lifestyle is also of prime importance. For instance, no amount of ingested calcium is going to make it to the bones without weight-bearing exercise to request it – pre-menopausal people take note! The other mainstay of this philosophy is to use the whole plant and, if we apply this approach to nutrition, organically grown fruit and vegetables provide a wonderfully balanced source of vitamins and minerals which humankind is unlikely to attain in a tablet. The availability of organic products in some areas may be depressing but by advocating them we at least highlight the need to carefully peel the layers of pesticides away from commonly available foods. This is a sad indictment of modern farming methods on two counts, for if it is not in the soil then it cannot be in the plant, and furthermore by peeling the skin we destroy an area where many of the vitamins and minerals are stored.

We mentioned above about unwanted absorption. If the gut wall is damaged, as in gluten intolerance, foreign proteins and toxins can leak through causing untold damage. This is also found commonly with dairy products and Herbalists often proscribe these in allergic conditions and also in general GIT conditions. Herbal strategy in this instance is surely to help heal the bowel wall and so alleviate the problem, rather than a lifetime ban on the protein responsible. With a leaky bowel wall the judicious use of tannins may well be indicated. Plants often produce tannins as a protection and we all know the slightly unpleasant experience in the mouth given by very stewed tea. Basically, tannins precipitate proteins, easily seen by the use of oak in the tanning of leather (Fascinating nature fact #2,458; when oaks are attacked they warn their surrounding friends by the use of pheromones to increase their production of tannins). They can be used to the same effect on damaged tissues internally and externally to form a false skin – the archetypal herbal tannin is Hamamelis virginiana (witch-hazel). This is fine on the outside where it can be monitored, but internally the danger is that although they will stop foreign proteins being absorbed and may even help to neutralise them in the bowel, they can also stop healing agents getting to a deeper ulcerated tissue, thereby masking a more serious underlying complaint. Therefore, their use tends to be short-term in serious complaints and for longer term treatment, gentler agents such as Agrimonia eupatoria (agrimony) are indicated.

Herbalists are also not shy in probing patients, however reluctant, about their 'bowels'. Pale stools can suggest liver problems; fatty, foul-smelling non-flushing stools point to a fat absorption problem. To some people, not being able to absorb fat might sound like a good idea. However, we have to remember that the fat-soluble vitamins, A,D,E and K, may well be affected if this mechanism is not working properly. The liver is ultimately the command centre for digestion, absorption, assimilation and eventual elimination of food and it is for this reason that Herbalists pay such importance to it in treatment. Herbal strategies often work by assisting the liver and/or protecting it from further damage; Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) and Carduus marianus (milk-thistle) are very useful in this respect. In contra-distinction to this, orthodox drugs, having done their work, have to be detoxified by the liver, and so giving an often over-burdened system even more work to do. A person's liver may well pass the rather superficial liver function test yet may still be working under par sub-clinically and in need of some assistance.

When a patient walks in to the Herbalist's, they come under the penetrating gaze of the practitioner, who should be able to tell so much from the person's appearance – is their hair dead or alive'? Do their eyes sparkle? Is their skin healthy? In cases of absorption problems, we would look closely at the mouth. Cracks at the side of the mouth are a general sign of vitamin deficiencies, in particular the B vitamins. The tongue, in Vitamin B12 deficiency, becomes red and looks like raw meat. Modern clinicians look at the tongue and take the pulse, but probably miss out on the vast amount of information available, such as is codified in Ayurvedic medicine.

In Ayurveda, the presence of teeth impressions like small scallop marks around the perimeter of the tongue is said to indicate unabsorbed nutrients in the bowel. This sign is seen slightly differently in Chinese medicine, as the tongue is seen to be swollen. If accompanied by bloating, diarrhoea and signs of general cold, it may point to a spleen yang deficiency, which could also ultimately affect absorption. Traditional Chinese medicine sees the importance of the sweet taste for nourishment – unfortunately this was laid down when sugar was still safely locked up in vegetables, fruit and whole grains. The modern extraction and isolation of sugar is probably the major cause of the epidemic of ill health in society as we overindulge our natural craving for 'sweet' things, with the important 'bitter' taste often avoided.

For herbal strategies to be successful, they must eventually aim to rebalance the body and then move on to let it do its work. No amount of remedies will alter a bad diet or replace exercise. There are many dangers lurking in the digestive system for our precious nutrients – it is easy to see that in diarrhoea food can be swept too quickly through the system to be absorbed. The opposite problem can exist in constipation with auto-intoxication as food, especially meat and animal products, rotting in the bowel poison our systems – as I always say, if you want to bury something dead, don't do it in your colon! Too much added bran can chelate nutrients such as zinc, calcium and iron, and so people, especially elderly people, would do well to use the softer pectins and cellulose from fruit and vegetables for their fibre (apples are said to help with calcium and iron absorption).

A useful herb for weight-gain is Trigonella foenum-graecum (fenugreek) – it is the seeds that have traditionally been used. Messegue, the French Herbalist, recommends two teaspoonfuls a day with a suitable sweetener for a week followed by a break for a week, and so on. Medicago sativa (alfalfa) has also been recognised as a treatment for avitaminoses, not only for its high vitamin and mineral content, but possibly for its phytooestrogens which help give a more rounded figure – best taken as sprouts. No discussions on vitamins and minerals could be without the bold Urtica dioica – the stinging nettle and so this often slips into the prescription, especially for blood or iron problems. Does the similarity between chlorophyll and haemoglobin play any part here?

Capsicum minimum (chilli pepper or cayenne) provides the highest concentrate of Vitamin C of any vegetable, and small amounts of it can be useful in helping the absorption process. This works by increasing the gastric secretions and therefore nutrient intake and ties in with the picture in Chinese diagnosis above of alleviating a cold condition; however, in excess spices in general can also damage the bowel and so only small amounts are used medicinally.

Traditionally bitters were taken to stimulate the digestive juices in preparation for the meal. We know these aperitifs as popular liqueurs which unfortunately we now tend to take after the meal – Chartreuse, Pernod, etc. An even better known example of this is coffee, which specifically stimulates the digestive system – too much coffee, especially if followed by a cigarette rather than food, can eventually exhaust the system. The caffeine contained as a cheap filler in many proprietary pain-killers is what gives them their well-known constipating action. The judicious use of bitters in herbal practice, bearing in mind they are energetically cooling, have a place in helping absorption, taken half an hour before the meal. Artemissia absinthium (wormwood) with its general digestive-stimulating action can be seen to increase the rate of absorption across the mucous membrane. In Bulemia bitters are thought to help by generally speeding up digestion and opening the pyloric sphincter early, hopefully before food is ejected; this would obviously not help in the alternative strategy of using laxatives to void unwanted food – this would also help if greedy intestinal worms were at the root of the problem. Gentiana lutea (gentian), probably one of the strongest bitters, has a reputation for helping weight gain. If the problem is hormonal then Serenoa serrulata (saw palmetto) may also play a valuable part. Simple relaxants should not be overlooked in cases of nervous debility leading to poor absorption and Avena sativa (oats), if tolerated, are a useful adjunct, as are nuts and seeds in general – pulses may give too much wind problems if not very carefully cooked.

The digestive system may be in architecture a very simple tube, but the 'trains and stations' involve some extremely complicated 'technology'. Eating a varied organic, wholefood, 100% vegetarian diet should cover most individuals; however, if you are experiencing problems, it may be well worth a trip to a practising Herbalist to get expert advice in how to rebalance the system. A careful practitioner will, after a full diagnosis, administer herbs and give dietary advice, hopefully bearing in mind the energetics we have discussed, to gently rebalance and help restore any deficiency in the system that surely lies at the root of our well-being.

For a list of registered Medical Herbalists, contact: The National Institute of Medical Herbalists, 56 Longbrook Street, Exeter, Devon EX4 6AH – enclosing an A5 SAE.
Illustration on this page from Herbs for Common Ailments by Anne McIntyre. Published by Gaia Books Limited Tel: 01453-752 985. £7.99.

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About Keith Robertson

Keith Robertson, M.NIMH, BSc, a founder of the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine and a well-known teacher of natural medicines, adds some thoughts from an Herbalist's perspective.

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