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Shoring Up the Earthen Wall: Herbal Allies for Leaky Gut Syndrome

by Jonathan Edwards

With digestion at the foundation of health, it’s no surprise that ailments from anxiety to allergies are rooted in the gut. And as modern eating habits continue to deteriorate, so-called “leaky gut syndrome” is becoming more and more pervasive. 

In leaky gut, the internal barrier between us and the outside world (as it passes through us) becomes degraded. As a result our systems become inundated with all sorts of strange particles. A healthy small intestine would keep out these alien bits of protein, but a leaky gut doesn’t have the integrity to say ‘no’.

Leaky gut syndrome can have a range of consequences. As all manner of improbable molecules trickle into the bloodstream, the liver has to work overtime to detoxify; meanwhile, the immune system can go haywire when faced with a slew of unfamiliar proteins. Yeast cells like candida, with no business in the interior, can pass through the loose pores of the gut wall and take up systemic residence. With this subtle internal invasion afoot, one may very well feel fatigued, puffy, achey, or moody, with blood sugar swings and cravings for sweets. Often one will begin to notice that certain foods reliably contribute to these or other odd symptoms, even if there is no prior history of food sensitivities. 

Before heading too far down the painful route of allergy testing and elimination diets, consider: widespread food sensitivities are for the most part a modern phenomenon. Our ancestors may have had plenty else to worry about, but (except in rare cases) eliminating gluten or avoiding carbohydrates was rarely a concern. They had healthy gut walls.

Naturally, the reasons for the widespread decline in intestinal integrity have a lot to do with diet, and something to do also with the stresses of modern life—which are after all inseparable from the ways we feed ourselves and each other. What we eat and how we eat are both foundational parts of not just digestive but overall health and vitality. 

In a nutshell, my suggestion is this: Slow down. Eat real food. Share it with others. Take your time doing so. Relax and give thanks. 

The instructions to “slow down” and “relax” may sound like feel-good platitudes with little clinical relevance, but it’s just the opposite. When we’re hurried and stressed, it’s almost impossible to digest anything, whereas when we’re enjoying ourselves, even stubborn and chronic complaints (like those nagging food sensitivities) tend to recede into the background.

In the context of conscious eating habits, a coherent and targeted herbal regimen can significantly speed up gut wall healing and relieve food sensitivities, allergies, brain fog, and more. The nature of the particular condition will dictate what herbs are called for, with some cases requiring more of a soothing, demulcent approach (slippery elm, marshmallow root, shatavari), others more astringent and anti-inflammatory therapy (pomegranate rind, triphala), and so forth. However, there are some herbs and formulas that virtually anyone with gut wall issues stands to benefit from. Here are my top three. 

Guizhi Tang. This ancient Chinese formula consisting of five safe, food-grade herbs—cinnamon, licorice, jujube dates, peony root and fresh ginger—has a profound and generally over-looked effect on gut wall integrity. Guizhi (“gway-jer”) Tang is most widely used for early stage colds, as it helps bring warmth and circulation to the surface of the body and shore up the body’s defenses (wei qi in Chinese medicine speak) so a chill can’t penetrate. However, the surface of the body also includes the inner, intestinal surface, and Guizhi Tang enhances circulation to this key area as well. The more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts synergy between the herbal components means that this formula can significantly shore up the intestinal boundary. 

Classical Chinese Medicine luminary Dr. Heiner Fruehauf champions the use of Guizhi Tang in this context, and offers a tailor-made version of it in his patent remedy Cinnamon Pearls, where it is combined with other herbs to promote healthy digestion and to calm leaky gut related auto-immune reactivity. Typical dosage would be 3 Cinnamon Pearls twice daily, although larger amounts are sometimes applicable. 

Triphala. This Ayurvedic powder is composed of three fruits (and none of them is a peach). Together, amalakiharitaki and bibhitaki make for an intensely bitter, sour and astringent combination. But unpleasant as the taste can be, it’s a magical mixture when it comes to the guts. Triphala has a distinct way of tightening the gut wall and decreasing permeability without causing constipation as other astringent herbs might. In fact, it has a gentle and non-habit forming laxative quality that perfectly balances out the otherwise drying astringency. If you’re still on the fence, triphala is highly regarded in Ayurveda as a rejuvenative tonic appropriate for all ages and constitutions, while from a modern perspective, amalaki is one of the richest known sources of vitamin C. Typical dosage is 1/2-1 teaspoon of the powder in warm water, once daily, in the morning. Capsules are also available, but the powdered form is most effective. 

Yarrow. This single herb has an impressive range of actions, with effects on circulatory, immune, and digestive systems, to name only a few. But the unifying theme of this herb’s diverse actions is borders and boundaries, which is why I’ve included it here: it helps strengthen our boundaries, lending the gut wall the ability to say ‘no’ to molecules that had better stay out. Meanwhile, on a psycho-emotional level, Yarrow also helps us say ‘no’ to people, situations and foods that do not serve our best interests. It has a particular affinity for sensitive types (Vata in Ayurvedic terms, or the Guizhi / cinnamon twig constitution of Chinese herbalism), the ones most prone to leaky gut issues in the first place. Administration is typically in tincture form; Cascadia Folk Medicine makes the best Yarrow tincture I have encountered. Dosage need not be high; 5-10 drops before meals is adequate. 

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Jonathan H. Edwards is an herbalist, acupuncturist and writer based in Brooklyn. Learn more about his work at www.axismundihealingarts.com.