The Immune Boosting, Gut Healing Herb That Everyone Is Talking About
Plants have been used as powerful natural medicines since the first human discovered that plants could do more than just feed us. Once, herbal medicine was known only to those who studied it, but today, you can look up which herbs to take for what problem in seconds with a smart phone or a computer. However, Dr. Google can be fickle and not always a source of reliable information. Plus, it can be difficult to know exactly how a certain natural medicine may or may not work for you.
Some of us out there still do make a study of the subject, and after years of using natural remedies in my functional medicine practice, I have developed a few go-to remedies that I often call upon to aid my patients again and again. Slippery elm is one of them.
Scientifically known as Ulmus rubra but more commonly referred to as Red Elm, this native North American tree can live for up to 200 years and is mostly found growing from northern Florida westward to eastern Texas and up to southeast North Dakota. The Red Elm tree thrives in moist soil and can reach up to 50 feet in height. Its most distinctive feature is its “slippery,” gummy-textured inner bark with a sweet, almost maple-like smell. This is the part of the tree with medicinal properties, (1) and because slippery elm’s healing power is so widely known and effective, slippery elm bark is the fourth most harvested product in the herbal market. It is most commonly dried and powdered for use in teas and natural supplements.
Native Americans began using the bark of the Red Elm tree as a remedy in the 19th century - likely to help with digestion. What makes slippery elm a standout in this arena is a substance it contains known as mucilage. When mixed with water, the mucilage forms a thick gel that coats the throat and the intestinal lining. This makes it a perfect remedy for the symptoms of chronic GI problems such as leaky gut syndrome, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. It’s also useful for colds that cause a sore throat because it eases throat pain. Slippery elm is also full of bioflavonoids, starch, tannins, calcium, and vitamin E, each with useful properties of their own.
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While slippery elm is most commonly used for digestive and respiratory complaints, many studies have demonstrated that this herbal remedy could address an even wider range of ailments. More research will clarify slippery elm’s usefulness and long-term effectiveness, but for now, many people have personal experience - myself included! - using the supplement to great effect. And that speaks volumes.
1. Respiratory problems
Thanks to its mucilage content that soothes and coats the throat, slippery elm is a widely used ingredient in cough drops meant to relieve throat pain. Slippery elm can also be used as an antitussive to suppress coughing and ease symptoms of laryngitis, asthma, and other upper respiratory problems. (1)
2. Digestive issues
As I mentioned earlier, slippery elm is a known demulcent (meaning it forms a protective film that reduces irritation) due to its mucilage content and ability to reduce inflammation in the gut. It can also ease symptoms of digestive problems like IBS and stimulate nerve endings in the gastrointestinal tract to increase mucus secretion.
Plus, since it’s high in both soluble and insoluble fiber, slippery elm is considered a prebiotic and producer of beneficial short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). (2) In other words, it can help support a healthy microbiome by giving your beneficial microbes their favorite food - and we all know how important that is. Its high-fiber content is also what makes slippery elm a great natural laxative. So, if you’re going to add this to your wellness routine and aren’t dealing with constipation, keep it in moderation!
A preliminary study has shown that supplementing with slippery elm can improve the rashes and scaly dry patches that can be caused by psoriasis. In one small-scale investigation, a group of researchers followed five people with psoriasis over a six-month period who improved their diets and drank slippery elm bark water on a daily basis. Every patient showed significant improvement in their symptoms afterward.
Phenolic compounds that are commonly found in many different plants (3) including slippery elm can protect against the effects of stress. Research has shown that by adding slippery elm and other high-phenolic herbs to the diet is a great way to relieve both stress and anxiety.
5. Heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD
Heartburn, acid reflux, and the more serious condition called GERD can occur when stomach acid creeps back up into the esophagus, irritating the lining and creating an uncomfortable burning sensation. The mucilage of slippery elm coats the esophagus and eases the symptoms of this reaction by protecting the esophagus from the eroding effects of stomach acid. When used for this purpose, slippery elm is best taken right after meals.
6. Breast cancer
Since the 1920s, slippery elm has been one of the most popular natural remedies for fighting breast cancer and easing symptoms of treatment. When used in combination with the herbs Indian rhubarb, sheep sorrel, and burdock root, slippery elm can ease related symptoms like depression, anxiety, and fatigue. This is likely due to its immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties. (4)
7. Wound and burn healing
Due to its high mineral and antioxidant content, slippery elm is perfect for salves and other topical remedies for treating burns and other wounds. In fact, its dried mucilage can act like a bandage, providing an added protection for wounds so they can heal. Its high antioxidant count can also work to stop free radical damage and fight wrinkles and other signs of aging skin. (5)
In addition to promoting detoxification via its natural laxative effect, slippery elm acts as a mild diuretic, helping to flush out even more toxins from the body. In fact, slippery elm is a common ingredient in many natural liver detox products.
9. Blood sugar regulation
With close to 50 percent (6) of Americans being either prediabetic or diabetic, blood sugar regulation has become a serious problem. High blood sugar can contribute to chronic inflammation, weight loss resistance, hormone imbalances, and more. High-fiber diets have been shown to help keep blood sugar levels under control, making slippery elm a useful addition to the diet of anyone who wants to keep their blood sugar stable.
Overall, slippery elm is generally safe for most individuals. However, because of the way its mucilage coats the digestive tract, it could potentially decrease the absorption of medications. If you are on any medications, it’s important to discuss with your doctor whether slippery elm is appropriate for you. This may just be a matter of allowing some time between taking slippery elm and taking medication. Another concern for those with highly sensitive skin: Some people use slippery elm topically, but it can cause skin irritation in some people.
My favorite ways to use slippery elm
You can find slippery elm in most natural food stores in many different forms, including tea, lozenges, powder, tablets, and supplements. It’s important to choose organic versions whenever possible, to avoid toxins and the contributing effect they can have on various health problems, especially autoimmune conditions. You should also avoid purchasing any supplement, tea, or other product with unnecessary additives. Read the label!
My personal favorite way to use slippery elm is in tea, as it’s easy to sip throughout my day with patients. During cold and flu season, I also use slippery elm cough drops that I make myself, to avoid additives. These are my favorite go-to recipes:
Slippery Elm Tea
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon slippery elm powder
- Manuka honey to taste
- Boil water in a kettle over the stove.
- Pour the hot water into a mug.
- Stir in slippery elm powder and honey. Manuka honey is one of the most nutrient-dense varieties of honey and will really give your immune system a boost, especially if you are trying to overcome a virus.
Slippery Elm Cough Drops
- 1½ cups of water
- 1 handful dried slippery elm
- Manuka honey to taste
- Place dried slippery elm in a fine mesh bag.
- In a large pot over the stove, add in water and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Turn off the stove, add the mesh bag to the water, cover, and let steep for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Remove the mesh bag, add in the honey, and turn stove on to medium. Heat until it reaches 300°F (you can use a candy thermometer).
- Remove from stove and pour into small cough-drop-sized candy molds. Let them cool.
- Remove from the molds and store in a sealed container in the pantry for up to one week. Hopefully you won’t need them for longer than that!
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- Christopher R Watts, Bernard rousseau "Slippery Elm, its Biochemistry, and use as a Complementary and Alternative Treatment for Laryngeal Irritation" A J Physiol Biochem Pharmacol. 2012; 1(1): 17-23 doi: 10.5455/jib.20120417052415
- "The Numerous Healing Properties of Slippery Elm" MediHerb No. 42 August 2004 http://www.promedics.ca/site/downloads/Slippery%20Elm.pdf
- Bhattacharya, Amita et al. “The roles of plant phenolics in defence and communication during Agrobacterium and Rhizobium infection.” Molecular plant pathology vol. 11,5 (2010): 705-19. doi:10.1111/j.1364-3703.2010.00625.x
- Zick, Suzanna M et al. “Trial of Essiac to ascertain its effect in women with breast cancer (TEA-BC).” Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.) vol. 12,10 (2006): 971-80. doi:10.1089/acm.2006.12.971
- Shenefelt PD. Herbal Treatment for Dermatologic Disorders. In: Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S, editors. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011. Chapter 18. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92761/
- Menke A, Casagrande S, Geiss L, Cowie CC. Prevalence of and Trends in Diabetes Among Adults in the United States, 1988-2012. JAMA. 2015;314(10):1021–1029. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.10029
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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