Demulcents: The Slippery Herbs
What is a demulcent?
The word “demulcent” is derived from the Latin word for “caress” which is an inspired way of describing how these gentle healing herbs work in the body. Some people may be familiar with demulcent herbs because they are often used in throat lozenges, such as Irish moss, horehound or marshmallow for cough suppressants. As usual the plant world offers the best wholesome demulcents, whereas synthetic demulcents that include methylcellulose and propylene glycol are not compatible with human health and should be avoided.
Sometimes when the inner and outer delicate tissues of the body become overly dry, raw, inflamed or irritated, they need a herb that will replenish moisture, nourish and build tissues, strengthening the organism as a whole. This is when we turn to the reliable herbal demulcents. Herbalists define a demulcent as a mucilaginous or “gooey” herb that forms a soothing and protective film over a mucous membrane, relieving minor pain and inflammation. Indeed demulcent herbs do effectively calm, cool and heal irritated or inflamed tissue and provide a protective barrier against future irritation. This slimey action triggers a reflex that helps promote natural moistening secretions within the body.
How Demulcents Work
Demulcents are a classification of plants, sometimes referred to as muco-protective agents that also include plant food substances. Demulcents produce mucilage, an edible carbohydrate composed of various forms of complex sugars (heteropolysaccharides) that have the ability to bind themselves to water. Accordingly, it is best to extract the mucilage from demulcent herbs by infusion in water rather than in alcohol tincture form. The polysaccharide mucilage has the tendency to become very slimy and gummy when it comes in contact with water. We may have noticed how some dried seeds like chia swell up after a few minutes when put in water. They build what seems like a soft cocoon of viscous mucilage around them. These mucilage substances have a clear and direct action on the lining of the intestines or lungs that soothes and reduces irritation by direct contact and prevents the drying out of mucous membranes of the body.
Gentleness in action
The mucilaginous plant polysaccharides are large compounds that cannot physically cross the gut wall. In the digestive tract, the mucilage comes in direct contact with the tissue of the digestive system, but when it comes to the effect of demulcents on other systems, it is more complicated. When you take a demulcent and feel it moisten the lungs, its interesting to note that these compounds are not crossing the gut wall, traveling through the bloodstream and binding to some receptor in the respiratory system to increase the mucosal membrane secretions. The direct action of herbal mucilage would not be possible due to metabolism because it will have to have been broken down into its constituent parts, thus losing its unique soothing action. Demulcent herbs are a stellar example of a reflex action of an herb, meaning that the body is reacting to the presence of the plant; there is communication between the plant and the vital force of the body that is triggering the demulcent action upon the mucosa.
It is wise to combine demulcent herbs to herbal blends to soften the blow of the more intense astringent, anti-inflammatory or cathartic herbs, mitigating potential stripping of the linings to protect the integrity of the membrane tissues. The synergistic inclusion of demulcents as a secondary action means that the other stronger actives can exert their medicinal properties safely and more effectively. Most herbs can compliment their action(s) in combination with another herb, basically showing off their best side with the support of a “good friend”. Demulcents donate moisture to tissues acting in the opposite way to astringents that draw fluids from the tissues; although some demulcents can also act as astringents. Remember herbs generally have many different herbal energetics, not only one and demulcents are very often anti-inflammatories as well by virtue of their action. By making the canals of the body more slippery they improve peristaltic movement in the body; for instance, demulcents soften stools in the colon to prompt easier evacuation for those suffering from constipation.
The thick gooey substance produced by many plants
It is always helpful to understand why a plant produces a certain constituent and how the plant itself uses it. Mucilage within plants plays a role in the storage of water and food, seed germination and thickening membranes. Some plants like to use this feature of the mucilaginous, “slimy cocoon” to spread their seeds. When ingested by animals, the protective coat often helps prevent the eaten seeds from being digested. The animals defecate the coated seeds and give them a little boost with their very own fertiliser.
Cacti (and other succulents) and flax seeds especially are rich sources of mucilage. Mucilage is found in different plant parts, for example; in horehound (Marrubium vulgare) it is the leaves that are mucilaginous and in marshmallow (Althea officinalis), it is the roots. A leaf of common mallow will also easily demonstrate a demulcent effect, we may notice after chewing it a few times our saliva turns viscous and gel-like. The inner bark of the slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), a North American tree species, has long been used as a demulcent to relieve acidity in the stomach and soothe sore throats.
The mucous membranes – our first line of defence
The key healing action of a demulcent targets the mucous membranes; the areas of the body where moisture is essential as our first line of defence. The mucus membranes cover all the surfaces of the tissues that are in contact with the outside world: Respiratory system, urinary tract, digestive system, vaginal canal in the female reproductive system, the eyes and ears. Submucosal glands found in the airways, mouth and gastrointestinal tract produce and release mucin and mucus. Bodily mucous has an important job to do; because the tissue in many of the above systems is exposed to the world it needs a protective lubricating layer. The mucus fulfils its role as part of the immune system in two ways: 1) Mechanically trapping pathogens, dust particles and other foreign objects in the gooey stuff and expelling them from the body through coughing, sneezing or swallowing it to eventually leave the body by pooping. 2) Chemically, mucus contains immune cells that can break down the cell walls of bacteria. The mucus also contains immune cells that are called IgA that prevent bacteria from docking on our body cells. The oral cavity is often referred to as the “mirror of the body,” because the mucous membranes in our mouth change depending on many different diseases.
General properties of demulcent herbs
Demulcents herbs can help the following conditions.
Bladder infection, cystitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, pleurisy, celiac disease, gastritis, colitis, damaged skin cells, diverticulitis, ulcers, food poisoning, high cholesterol, constipation, prostate enlargement, sore throat, laryngitis, pharyngitis, vaginal dryness.
The mucous membranes need our protection
By providing a protective coating over the mucous membranes of inflamed airways, demulcents soothe irritated or damaged surfaces and function as analgesics, anti-inflammatories. Mullein and coltsfoot providing a protective coating over the inflamed airways, Liquorice for example is one of the most powerful demulcents, used for its soothing action in the throat, stomach and intestines. Think of how calming aloe vera gel is on hot sunburn. Slippery elm soothes stomach and oesophageal tissue from acid burn with reflux and ulcerous conditions. Mucilage in herbs is also an excellent source of dietary soluble fibre that helps the body to get rid of pathogenic gut bacteria and support beneficial intestinal micro flora that are important for overall good health. It gently cleanses toxins and other accumulations in the colon and will also stimulate peristalsis in constipation; conversely mucilage can also be used to gently treat the irritation of diarrhoea. Corn silk will relieve irritation in the urinary tract due to infection.
The joints are another area of the body where demulcent herbs are beneficial. The synovial fluid is designed to keep the joints lubricated. When the body is dry, the fire element is not kept in check and the joints become dry, stiff and inflamed - leading to arthritis. To effectively treat eye irritations, like conjunctivitis or surface damage we can add demulcent fennel seeds to eyebright, goldenseal and chamomile herbs. The fennel will provide softening mucilage to soothe with the anti-inflammatory and antibacterial action of the other herbs.
Traditionally, most demulcents are prepared via cold infusions. The reason behind this is that we are focusing to mainly extract the mucilaginous polysaccharides - the gentle healers. If we are preparing milder or more complex demulcents, we might be looking at a hot infusion.
Aloe vera, marshmallow, liquorice, mullein, cornsilk, comfrey, chickweed, plantain, oats, slippery elm, coltsfoot, ashwagandha, flax seed, fenugreek, chia seeds, elecampane, cinnamon, psyllium seed husks, burdock, wild yam, rhodiola, calendula, skullcap, horehound, linden flowers, hibiscus.
Honey is a natural demulcent, already digested by bees, its gooey consistency is already soothing and the perfect carrier in elixir form for demulcent and other active herbs. There was once the prevalent idea that milk was ideal to relieve an upset stomach because it coats and soothes the digestive lining and eliminating nausea. Milk which is full of fat may temporarily coat an acidic or sore tummy but any soothing effects are short-lived. Drinking milk is in fact counterproductive to healing the gut because it is difficult to digest, generates inflammation, excess mucous and triggers lactose intolerance, all of which could make a sore stomach worse in many people (a huge percentage of the population are lactose intolerant).
Dehydration is epidemic
It is not only the planet that is drying out but so are people. The human body needs herbal demulcents; we should always keep them at hand to bind moisture to our tissues that are not utilising it properly. When we consider the pattern of dryness, it’s important to consider the importance of fluids within the organism. The body’s fluids are not only responsible for maintaining the lubrication of the tissues but are also the vehicle through which nutrients, metabolic waste products, and substances, in general, are carried throughout the organism. When we see constitutional dryness, it’s important to consider that the cells are less able to receive their nutrients and that metabolic waste products are more difficult for the body to detoxify. This pattern can ultimately lead to wasting, deterioration and atrophy of the tissues, as well as a potential for accumulating cellular waste products.
While it’s common to think of the body’s moisture content solely achieved through water, it’s important to remember that the other primary fluid nourishing the organism is from oils. It’s common for many people in the modern world to be water dehydrated, but most are also oil dehydrated. This typically occurs through poor nutrition and inadequate intake of appropriate dietary fats and oils. It’s common knowledge now that unnatural and processed oils create havoc on the internal ecology of the system by promoting systemic inflammation. This heat and inflammation further dry out the body, leading to a vicious cycle at the root of many common degenerative diseases afflicting the modern Western world.
Keep sipping hot herbal teas with demulcents
Research has found that an environment of dryness increases the chances of respiratory infection by 80% in a nursing home for older adults. Supporting the integrity of the mucous membranes in the back of the throat can be a major defence against catching colds and flues in the winter, when heating is churning out dry dusty air. Once mucous membranes are damaged, there is nothing to stop virus particles from getting into cells and multiplying. People are always exposed to viruses and bacteria but it is only when mucous membranes fail that these microbes get a foothold. One good way to prevent colds from airplane flights is to drink lots of water and ingest foods and teas rich in mucilage, i.e. demulcents. Regular sipping of hot herbal teas with at least one demulcent herb included will do much to help the body utilise fluids more efficiently and prevent dehydration, even more so than sculling down litres of water.
Emollients are the skin demulcents
An emollient is a slippery soothing herb used topically on the outside of the body. Similar to demulcents that work internally, emollient herbs are also mucilaginous, but they're used on the skin to help soothe, condition and protect. Emollients are a necessary adjunct herbal treatment to employ with pruritic, irritated or inflamed skin problems like eczema, dermatitis, urticaria or psoriasis once the underlying causes have been addressed. They will soothe, cool and relieve the distressed skin, such as chickweed, plantain, calendula or marshmallow root. Often times, applying a demulcent herb in form of a poultice like plantain or comfrey can work very effectively.
Emollient herbs also include all the cold pressed fatty plant oils that provide the most important softening, lubricating base for all natural cosmetic creams, lotions and massage oils. It is crucial that only cold-pressed oils, preferably organic, are used with their whole spectrum of plant nutrients intact. Avoid cheaper heat-processed cooking oils that are often contaminated and certainly carcinogenic. Good examples include: nut oils like almond, hazelnut and macadamia, argan, kendi, cacay, cocoa butter and coconut oil. Seeds: sunflower, jojoba, sesame, shea and hemp. Fruit oils: Olive, rosehip and avocado. These are all rich in fatty acids and have a great affinity with the skin soothing its surface; this allows them to be easily absorbed and shield the skin from water loss.
The energetic nature of demulcents
Generally, demulcent herbs are associated with the moon and water element. The mucus membranes hold the emotion of resentment. The sinus more specifically deals with our resentments that manifest around abundance issues. The spleen can also be an issue for those with chronic mucus membrane problems. Resentment often times begins in the spleen as "resentment of others". The spleen is directly connected to the mucus membranes and so illness that begins in a spleen imbalance often flows over to the mucous membranes of the body.
If our internal linings or external surfaces are in need of soothing demulcents or emollients, it is likely a subtle signal that we need to up the ante with our nurturing and gentle self care. If we have become overly dry, dehydrated or irritated, then we have excessive air element in our constitution and require extra comfort, cosseting, cooling and caressing with rich, oily, lubricating substances that are gentle and not harsh in any way. Demulcents will counter the imbalance and restore nutrients and moisture, calm the nervous system, cooling anger, relieving tension and repairing the damage. Ingesting demulcents and massaging with oil relaxes the body and changes the electrical activity in our brain altering our body's chemical processes. The stress hormone cortisol is reduced and several “feel good” chemicals are released (endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin). Indeed a demulcent will make pleasant or sweet, soften, soothe, alleviate and relieve.
The use of demulcents herbs internally can reduce the rate of drug absorption by forming a semi-permeable coating over mucus membranes, delaying gastric emptying and by binding with intestinal contents. Caution should be taken with drugs with a narrow therapeutic window such as lithium, digoxin and insulin. This interaction may be of benefit with some medications such as Verapamil and other calcium channel blockers that may cause constipation by slowing transit time and increasing water reabsorption from the colon. Soluble fibre taken with lots of water may alleviate this. In general, take drugs at least one hour prior to ingesting large amounts of plant fibre/complex polysaccharides like demulcents.
From the Tinderbox apothecary: