Enzymes are catalysts for virtually every biological and chemical reaction in the body, and digestive enzymes are crucial for the breakdown of food into nutrients that the body can absorb. Digestive enzymes, of which a variety are herbs, are used to treat a number of digestive problems and other conditions.
Digestive enzymes are used for relief of a number of digestive conditions, including:
- gastroesophageal reflux
- peptic ulcers
Minor digestive complaints can be relieved by these mild digestive enzymes, rather than the more pharmacologically active ones.
Carminative herbs are considered to be mild and are rich in volatile oils, which have antibacterial properties. These herbs include peppermint (Mentha spicata), ginger (Zingiber officinale), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), anise (Pimpinella anisum), and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Carminative herbs help to stimulate peristalsis, which is the wave-like action that pushes food through the digestive tract. These herbs can also help to relax the smooth muscle of the digestive tract, helping to reduce spasms. The antibacterial properties of the volatile oils aid in reducing gas pains that result from bacteria in the intestines acting on pieces of food that have not been digested fully.
Peppermint is one of the oldest medicinal herbs. Peppermint has three major actions in the body: it reduces nausea and vomiting, it encourages the liver to produce bile, and it clears the stomach of imbalanced bacteria. It is particularly useful for treating spastic colon, irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhea. Peppermint is also useful for reducing gas pain and indigestion.
Demulcent herbs can help ease heartburn, another bothersome digestive condition. These herbs are rich in mucilage, soothing irritated or inflamed tissue. Examples of demulcent herbs include marsh mallow root (Althaea officinalis), Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), and slippery elm (Ulmus rubra).
Herbs, known as bitters, can relieve constipation and assist the stomach in acid digestion. Bitter herbs stimulate bile production, and bile is the body's natural laxative. Taking bitters in a capsule or pill form will not work because in order for the liver to produce bile, the bitters must be tasted, not just ingested. Some examples of a bitter herb are dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), ginger, and aloe (Aloe vera).
Ginger has been found to be particularly useful in treating nausea. In a 1988 study involving 80 Danish naval cadets who were unaccustomed to sailing heavy seas, ginger capsules were found to be very beneficial in reducing seasickness. Another study in 1990 at Bartholomew Hospital in London found ginger to be effective in reducing post-operative nausea. Ginger has stimulating and antiemetic properties that warm the stomach to reduce intestinal and gas pain.
Aloe can be a powerful laxative when used internally. It takes 10-15 hours to work in the body, so it is best used in the evening before bedtime. Do not use aloe for an extended period of time, or dependency can develop. Overuse of aloe can result in loss of intestinal tone. Overdoses of aloe can result in diarrhea, intestinal distress, and kidney problems, so caution should be taken when using this herb.
Astringent herbs are beneficial in slowing down diarrhea. These herbs contain tannin, a substance that causes protein in body tissues to tighten up. When an astringent herb is taken, the proteins in the digestive tract tighten up to form a protective barrier that reduces fluid and electrolyte loss.
A few suggestions apply before using any of the various herbal supplements to aid digestion. It is best not to overeat, and snacking between meals on anything other than fruit should be avoided. Increase the consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, and try to decrease the amount of fatty foods, red meat, dairy products, nuts, and nut butters from the diet. Try to relax while eating, chew food 10–20 times, and avoid distractions while eating, such as reading or watching television. Drink at least eight glasses of water each day.
Many of these herbs make delicious teas, and are commonly available as packaged teas. Those who wish to make their own tea should try steeping one teaspoon of dry herb per cup of boiled water for five to 10 minutes. Be sure to cover the tea so that the volatile oils do not evaporate. An Indian custom that is also helpful for digestion is to keep fennel or anise seed available at the table to pass around following a meal.
There have been very few scientific studies to prove either the adverse or the beneficial health effects of the 1,500-plus herbal products that are available throughout the United States. Furthermore, under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, herbal products are not required to be proven safe before they are marketed. After the product is marketed, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must prove the dietary supplement unsafe before it can be removed from the shelves. Many people associate the term "natural" with "safe," and that is not always the case. Anyone taking herbal products of any kind should be certain to discuss this with their physician. As is the case with some prescription medications, dependency on some herbal supplements is possible. No herbal supplements should be taken for extended periods of time without discussing this with a physician first.
Herbal preparations can vary widely from one brand to another, and within the same brand from one purchase to the next, making inconsistency in the concentration of ingredients a potential risk. Anyone using herbal products should be careful and try to use well-known brands because these products are largely unregulated.
Side effects & interactions
Anyone taking herbal products should always discuss this with their physician. Herbs have the potential to interact with any prescription medication, as well as with other herbs. So, persons wishing to take digestive enzymes should consult a physician.
Starbuck, J. "3 Herbs for Good Digestion: Ginger, Peppermint and Aloe." Better Nutrition (1999): 44-49.
Sullivan, K. "Oh, What a Relief It Is." Vegetarian Times (1996): 94-99.
Alternative Medicine Foundation, Inc. 5411 W. Cedar Lane, Suite 205-A, Bethesda, MD 20814. (301) 581-0116.
American Botanical Council. P.O. Box 144345, Austin, TX 78714-4345. (512) 926-4900. Fax: (512) 926-2345. http://www.herbalgram.org.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. P.O. Box 8218, Silver Spring, MD 20907-8218. (888) 644-6226.