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Slippery Elm: The Digestive Aid that May Fight Breast Cancer

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Slippery elm - Dr. Axe

Do you struggle with constipation, diarrhea or other digestive issues? If so, it’s worth trying slippery elm, an herbal remedy used in North America since the 19th century that has been shown to treat a number of digestive issues.

What are the uses for slippery elm (also known as red elm)? It contains mucilage, a substance that becomes a slick gel when mixed with water.

This mucilage coats and soothes the mouth, throat, stomach and intestines, making it ideal for sore throats, coughs, gastroesophageal reflux diseases, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diverticulitis and diarrhea.

What Is Slippery Elm?

The slippery elm tree (SE), medically known as Ulmus fulva, is native Eastern North America, including parts of the U.S. and Canada. It’s long been used by Native Americans to make healing salves and tinctures that can help treat various types of wounds, as well as taken orally for the relief of flu and cold-like symptoms and sore throats.

The SE tree ia medium-sized tree that can reach well over 50 feet in height and is topped by spreading branches that form an open crown. The tree’s bark has deep fissures, a gummy texture, and a slight but distinct odor. It’s the inner bark that’s most often dried and powdered to be used for medicinal purposes, since it creates a lubricating substance when mixed with water.

Today, slippery elm bark is typically found in tablet and capsule form, or used to make lozenges, powders, teas and extracts.

Benefits

In addition to mucilage, research demonstrates that SE contains antioxidants and antimicrobial agents, making it a great remedy for wounds, burns, boils, psoriasis and other external skin conditions triggered by inflammation.

Like other high-antioxidant foods, studies suggest it may also help relieve inflammatory bowel conditions like ulcerative colitis, which is why it’s recommended for anyone following an IBS diet.

1. Helps Improve Digestive Function

Is slippery elm a laxative? Although it works differently than some other laxatives, it seems to improve symptoms of constipation, IBD and IBS, including in both adults and children. The fresh inner bark can be used in place of, or along with, other natural laxatives.

In one study, the effects of two different formulas on digestive function were compared, both of which included SE in addition to other herbs.

Formula one was associated with a small but significant increase in bowel movement frequency, as well as reductions in straining, abdominal pain, bloated stomach and IBS symptoms. Subjects who took formula two experienced a 20 percent increase in bowel movement frequency and significant reductions in straining, abdominal pain, bloating and global IBS symptom severity, as well as improvements in stool consistency. Ultimately, both formulas led to  improvements.

SE has also been shown in certain studies to treat diarrhea and diverticulitis. Additionally, it may help protect against ulcers and excess acidity in the GI tract because it causes reflux stimulation of nerve endings, and that reaction leads to increased mucus secretion. Not only does this help most people, but it can actually give much relief to your dog too.

2. May Aid in Weight Loss (When Combined With a Low-Calorie Diet)

Since SE has the ability to improve digestion, this may aid in weight loss.

A study performed at New York Chiropractic College used normal participants from the faculty, staff, students and community members to participate in a 21-day weight loss program. Nutritional supplements containing digestive enzymes that were intended to facilitate digestion, reduce cholesterol levels, increase metabolic rate and mediate inflammatory processes were consumed 30 minutes before each meal.

The regimented supplementation program included daily supplementation with a one green drink, as well as a “cleanse supplementation” containing slippery elm plus other herbs and minerals. The cleansing mixture was taken before each meal during week two of the study. During week three, the cleanse supplementation was replaced with prebiotic and probiotic supplementation.

At the end of the study researchers found that participants experienced clinically meaningful reductions in weight and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. It was concluded that “Weight loss and improvements in total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels occurred after a low-energy-density dietary intervention plus regimented supplementation program.”

3. Can Help Reduce Oxidative Stress

Because it contains compounds called phenolics, SE may act as a natural free radical scavenger and fighter of oxidative stress.

Phenolics are antioxidants that have been shown to elicit cellular responses that counter oxidant stress, which contributes to aging and many chronic diseases. Plant phenolics also seem to help protect against pathogens due to their natural antifungal effects.

4. May Help Prevent Breast Cancer

SE was first promoted as an option to help treat breast cancer, including DCIS, in the 1920s. The inner bark of SE has become an herbal remedy used by some to help support cancer recovery for prevention, and for improving quality of life and side effects among those undergoing conventional breast cancer treatments.

Though more studies need to be conducted, slippery elm — when combined with certain herbs such as burdock root, Indian rhubarb and sheep sorrel (which together form the supplement called Essiac) — may improve conditions for women with breast cancer and improve depression, anxiety and fatigue.

Because it has immune-boosting benefits and anti-inflammatory effects, it may help relieve pain associated with breast cancer.

5. May Reduce Severity of Symptoms of Psoriasis

SE has been shown in certain studies help patients with psoriasis, a condition that currently has no cure.

In one study, five case studies were evaluated of patients with psoriasis following a specific dietary regimen. The subjects were asked to follow a dietary protocol that included a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, small amounts of protein from fish and fowl, fiber supplements, olive oil, and avoidance of red meat, processed foods and refined carbohydrates. They were also asked to consume saffron tea and slippery elm bark water daily.

The five psoriasis cases, ranging from mild to severe at the study onset, improved on all measured outcomes over a six-month period, demonstrating that SE makes a great addition to any psoriasis diet treatment.

Slippery Elm Interesting Facts

Slippery elm trees, identified by their “slippery” inner bark, may live to be 200 years old. Sometimes called red elm, gray elm or soft elm, this tree grows best on moist, rich soils of lower slopes and flood plains, although it may also grow on dry hillsides with limestone soils.

Although SE trees are abundant and associated with many other hardwood trees, they are not important lumber trees; instead they have been used mostly for medicinal purposes throughout history.

In the U.S., SE trees are uncommon in much of the South, but grow abundantly in the southern part of the lake states and in the corn belt of the Midwest. They can be found growing from Maine west to New York, extreme southern Quebec, southern Ontario, northern Michigan, central Minnesota and in certain other areas.

As described above, there are many medicinal uses for slippery elm. Some Native American tribes believed SE could make childbirth easier. It was also consumed as a tea and was used to treat sore throats.  The Iroquois were known to scrape the bark of the slippery elm tree to treat infections, swollen glands and conditions affecting the eyes.

However health-related purposes were not the only use of SE. The bark supplied material for the sides of winter houses and roofs of the Meskwaki. The inner bark was used by many tribes by boiling the bark to make fiber bags, large storage baskets, ropes and cords, making slippery elm one of the most versatile trees on the planet.

How to Use

SE bark can typically be found at your local health food store in a variety of forms — including tea, lozenges, capsules and tablets, poultice, and extract. If possible, speak with an herbalist or nutritionist for help finding what works for you.

Here are some of the most common uses and forms:

  • Diarrhea (in humans and pets): treatment by ingestion of capsules, tablets, tea, tincture and extracts
  • Cough (humans and cats): treatment by lozenges, tea, tincture, and extracts
  • Acid reflux: treatment by tea, and extracts
  • Constipation (pets, especially cats): treatment by powder or extract added to food
  • External skin conditions (humans and pets): treatment by shampoo or topical cream infused with extract.

Dosage Recommendations:

Dosage is usually dependent on weight.

If making SE tea at home (see below) use about 2–3 teaspoons of powder per one-cup serving. You can consume the tea 1–2 times daily.

A general recommendation in capsule/tablet form is a dosage of about 1,600 milligrams daily, taken in 2–3 divided doses. Because the concentration of SE varies depending on the specific supplement, always read the product’s dosage recommendations carefully.

Recipes

There are many ways you can incorporate SE into your diet. Here are a few recipes to try:

Slippery Elm Tea

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 tablespoon slippery elm bark powder
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 teaspoon local honey (optional)
  • 3 ounces almond or coconut milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cacao
  • Sprinkle of cinnamon

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Add boiling water to cup.
  2. Add the slippery elm bark powder and stir well.
  3. Then add the honey, almond or coconut milk.
  4. Stir again.
  5. Top of with a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Here are a couple others to try:

Risks and Side Effects

Does slippery elm have side effects? Though SE is usually well-tolerated, some supplements containing this herb may trigger side effects in some people, such as nausea, increased bowel movements, frequent urination, swollen glands, skin blemishes, flu-like symptoms and slight headaches.

Because it coats the digestive tract, it may slow down the absorption of other drugs or herbs. To prevent drug interactions, it may be best to take slippery elm two hours before or after other herbs or medications you may be taking.

SE should only be given to children under the supervision of a knowledgeable practitioner.

Herbal medicines can trigger allergic reactions, including skin rashes, among people who are sensitive to their effects. Therefore, use caution and check with your health care provider, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or using other medications.

Is it safe to take slippery elm every day? Like other herbs, it’s best to take breaks from using it periodically. Try taking it for several weeks, then taking several weeks off before starting again if necessary.

Final Thoughts

  • Slippery elm is a medium-sized tree native to North America that contains bark that is used to make supplements and medicine.
  • The bark contains mucilage, a substance that becomes a slick gel when mixed with water. This mucilage coats and soothes the mouth, throat, stomach and intestines, making it ideal for sore throat, cough, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diverticulitis and diarrhea.
  • It’s even been used to heal wounds, relieve the flu or common cold, treat infected and swollen glands, and to wash and heal sore eyes.
  • The inner bark is where most of the health benefits reside. This bark is dried and powdered to be used for medicinal purposes and typically found as tablets and capsules, slippery elm lozenges, slippery elm powder for making teas or extracts, and coarsely powdered bark for poultices.
Josh Axe

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