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The Herbal Approach to Dysbiosis

by Anne McIntyre(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 167 - February 2010

The importance of our intestinal flora is increasingly being recognized as a prerequisite for good health. In a healthy gut our beneficial bacteria, especially bifidobacteria and lactobacilli strains, perform a number of different functions. They synthesize vitamins, and short chain fatty acids, and break down dietary toxins, making them less harmful. They check the overgrowth of pathogenic microorganisms, and stimulate local immunity, inhibiting infections like Salmonella, parasites such as pinworms and decreasing the risk of food poisoning. They also enhance general immunity; in fact, four-fifths of the body's immune system is found in the gut lining.

There are a variety of factors that can adversely affect the balance of beneficial bacteria in relation to more pathogenic microorganisms in the gut. Poor digestion, stress, wrong diet (particularly an excess of sugar and refined carbohydrates), and the use of antibiotics and steroids lead to proliferation of pathogenic yeasts, viruses and bacteria which create toxins, destroy vitamins, inactivate digestive enzymes and lead to formation of chemicals which are potentially carcinogenic.

This is known as dysbiosis and it may be the underlying cause of a variety of symptoms including bloating, gas, heaviness and lethargy after eating, abdominal discomfort, vaginal thrush, IBS, chronic diarrhoea or constipation, allergic reactions such as asthma, hives, psoriasis, eczema, and migraine; recurrent infections, cystitis, catarrh, skin problems, PMS, depression and lethargy. Dysbiosis can provoke inflammatory problems including ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease; it can predispose to arthritis by causing autoimmune reactions and is linked to liver problems. The resultant state of toxicity in the bowel irritates the gut lining and causes leaky gut syndrome, which allows large molecules of partially digested foods including whole proteins to be absorbed and predisposes to food intolerances and allergies.

There are of course many wonderful herbs which can help to resolve this digestive mayhem. Cat's claw, garlic, burdock, turmeric, ginger, myrrh, cinnamon and andrographis are some of the most effective to combat dysbiosis. Goldenseal, grapefruit seed extract, olive leaf and reishi mushroom are also excellent. Oregon grape, elecampane, dill, bearberry, calendula, Echinacea, fennel, amalaki and kelp act similarly. Some of these are detailed below. Aloe vera juice (25 mls twice daily) is soothing, immune enhancing and combats dysbiosis. Antimicrobial spices turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and long pepper enhance secretion of digestive enzymes, inhibit the proliferation of pathogenic microorganisms and can be added daily to your diet. Probiotics in the form of live yoghurt or supplements of Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacteria help restore normal bacterial population of the gut. Vitamin C (500mg daily), caprylic acid (1gm with meals), linseed and evening primrose oil are also helpful.

Oregon grape (Berberis /Mahonia Aquifolium) is an evergreen shrub native to western N America, and with its yellow flowers and purple berries it is popular among gardeners. It was used by Native American tribes as a detoxifying herb for infections and skin problems. The dried roots and rhizomes contain alkaloids (berberine, berbamine, oxyacanthine, herbamine) tannin, resin, and fats and act as a bitter tonic to stimulate the flow of digestive enzymes and bile from the liver. It enhances digestion and absorption, removes stagnant food from the gut, clears toxins and dysbiosis. It resolves constipation as well as infections causing diarrhoea and dysentery including Shigella, Staphlococcus, and Salmonella.

Andrographis  (Andrographis paniculata) is an annual plant native to India with a very bitter taste. It is highly valued in Ayurvedic medicine for enhancing immunity and combating acute infection. The aerial parts contain diterpenoid lactones (andrographolides) and flavones (oroxylin, wogonin) and are used as an antiviral, antiprotazoal, antifungal, antiparasitic and immunostimulant, and make an excellent remedy for dysbiosis. Andrographis helps re-establish normal gut flora and combat acute gut infections, bacillary dysentery, enteritis, worms, parasites, and candida.  It is antibacterial against Staph aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Proteus vulgaris, Shigella dysenteriae, and E coli (Kuhn and Winston 2001).

Tulsi or Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is a lovely plant, native to India and other parts of Asia, which has an uplifting and strengthening effect on mind and body. The plant contains essential oils including eugenol, carvacrol, linalool, nerol, camphor; triterpenes, sterols, polyphenols, flavonoids; and fatty acids.  It has an antispasmodic and warming effect in the gut, improves digestion and absorption and has laxative, anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer and anthelmintic properties, helpful in anorexia, nausea, vomiting, inflammatory bowel problems, enteric pathogens and worms.

The flowers and leaves of Sweet marjoram (Origanum marjorana) contain essential oil including camphor, borneol, terpinene and sabinene, mucilage, bitters, and tannins. Sweet marjoram is a good probiotic. It enhances digestion and absorption, has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and enhances general immunity.

Long pepper (Piper longum),  a close relative of black pepper, has warming and energizing properties and acts as a stimulant and a tonic.  The root and seeds contain volatile oils, alkaloids: (piperine, piplartine), lignans, resin, and esters. Long pepper enhances appetite, digestion and absorption up to 30% (Tillotson 2001);   Piperine stimulates an enzyme that enhances uptake of amino acids from the GI tract.  It has antimicrobial properties and is excellent for combating amoebae, worms, and pathogenic organisms in the gut.  It is used for anorexia, dyspepsia, flatulence, constipation, and colic and it enhances the liver's ability to break down toxins, and reduces liver damage. 

Inulin is an indigestible extract generally of chicory (Cichorium intybus) root although it actually occurs in a number of other plants including garlic, onion, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, elecampane, dandelion, burdock and asparagus. It is comprised of oligosaccharides and works as a prebiotic, meaning that it feeds probiotic bacteria including lactobacilli and bifidobacteria and helps them to overcome dysbiosis. Taken daily inulin improves bowel regularity and absorption of nutrients particularly calcium and magnesium, maintains normal LDL cholesterol, blood sugar and insulin levels, regulates blood pressure, and enhances general immunity.

Burdock (Arctium lappa) is a handsome biennial plant native to temperate Europe and N. Asia long respected for its cleansing, detoxifying and antiseptic properties. The roots contain up to 50% inulin, as well as mucilage, pectin, polyacetylenes, volatile acids, sterols, tannins, bitters, aldehydes, flavonoid glycosides (quercetin, kaemperol) and asparagin.  Burdock is an excellent digestive, a mild laxative and acts on the liver and pancreas. Its mucilaginous fibres absorb toxins from the gut and enhance their elimination from the bowel and the fructooligosaccharides in root have a probiotic effect (Flickinger et al 2002).

Elecampane (Inula helenium) is a large, statuesque perennial with yellow, daisy flowers native to Europe and N Asia. The bitter and aromatic roots and rhizomes contain volatile oils, up to 44%  inulin; sterols, resin, pectin, mucilage, calcium and magnesium. Elecampane is an excellent digestive, it is antibacterial and antifungal, combats dysbiosis and enhances immunity. It also has anti-inflammatory properties, helpful in arthritis and auto-immune disease.


Kuhn, M. and Winston, D. Herbal Therapy and Supplements. 2001. Lippincott. Philadelphia
Tillotson, A K (et al) The One Earth Herbal Sourcebook. Kensington Publishing Corps., New York. 2001.
Flickinger EA, Hatch TF, Wofford RC, et al  In vitro fermentation properties of selected fructooligosaccharide-containing vegetables and in vivo colonic microbial populations are affected by the diets of healthy human infants. J Nutr Aug 132(8): 2188-94. 2002.


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About Anne McIntyre

Anne McIntyre FNIMH MAPA is a fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and a member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners' Association. She has been practising as a herbalist for 30 years and has also trained in remedial massage, aromatherapy, counselling, homoeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine. She is the author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Complete Woman's Herbal (Gaia), The Complete Floral Healer (Gaia), The Herbal Treatment of Children (Elsevier), The Top 100 Remedies (Duncan Baird), The Complete Herbal Tutor (Gaia) and Healing Drinks (Gaia). Anne's latest book Dispensing with Tradition: A practitioner's Guide to using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way has recently been published. She teaches regularly in the UK and USA and spends as much time as she can in her herb garden which she opens to the public by appointment. She practises at Artemis House, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, (Tel: 01451 810096) and in London and Wales once a month. She may be contacted on Tel: 01451 810096

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