Do you experience heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux or other mild digestive complaints from time to time? Paul Keogh outlines traditional Chinese and Western herbs that may help ease your symptoms.
What is indigestion?
Up to 20 per cent of Westerners experience symptoms of functional dyspepsia, which is the medical term for the group of symptoms most of us refer to as ‘indigestion’ or ‘heartburn’.
Symptoms of functional dyspepsia tend to occur at least 15 minutes after meals, and may include:
- Pain and discomfort in the stomach area, which is often described as ‘burning’ in character
- Acid reflux, in which food or stomach contents are regurgitated or belched up, often accompanied by a sour taste
- Feeling uncomfortably full after meals (also known as post-prandial fullness)
- Becoming full after eating only a small amount of food (also known as early satiety) or having a poor appetite
You don’t need to have all of these symptoms to be experiencing functional dyspepsia. In fact, you may only experience one or two of them – usually on an intermittent basis rather than after every meal.
What causes indigestion?
Surprisingly, for a problem that’s so common, scientists still aren’t entirely clear what causes dyspepsia. However, we do know that certain eating habits and lifestyle factors are sometimes involved.
For example, eating too quickly or too irregularly, consuming large amounts of caffeine or fat, or eating food you’re intolerant to may all contribute to indigestion symptoms. (New research published in 2017 suggests that intolerance to wheat is a common contributing factor in dyspepsia and that many sufferers may experience benefits from following a wheat-free or gluten-free diet).
The traditional Chinese view of indigestion and reflux
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), consuming large amounts of greasy foods, alcohol, dairy products or foods considered ‘Cold’ in nature (like salad vegetables) is believed to give rise to an excess of ‘Dampness’ in the gastrointestinal tract.
In turn, excess Dampness is traditionally believed to interfere with the normal functioning of the Spleen organ-meridian system, which plays a key role in digestive processes in TCM, and consequently may cause symptoms like indigestion, nausea, a poor appetite and loose stools or diarrhoea.
Chinese herbs to ease digestive discomfort
The traditional Chinese approach to addressing indigestion symptoms often focuses on the use of herbs regarded as having the ability to dry out excess Dampness.
In particular, black atractylodes is traditionally used to relieve abdominal pain, bloating, a poor appetite, diarrhoea and nausea, while goldthread and citrus peel are both traditionally used to address reflux, nausea, bloating and loose stools.
Chamomile eases flatulence bloating and indigestion
While you may think of chamomile as a relaxing herbal tea, it also has a long history of use in traditional Western herbal medicine for the relief of mild digestive disturbances like indigestion, flatulence, bloating and burping.
Globe artichoke promotes bile production and flow
Globe artichoke is another herb from traditional Western herbal medicine, where it’s used to promote the production of bile in the liver, and its subsequent flow from the gallbladder into the small intestine. It’s traditionally considered especially useful for digestive symptoms like nausea, bloating, abdominal discomfort and uncomfortable feelings of fullness.
Probiotics support healthy bowel function
The balance of bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract (collectively referred to as the microbiota) plays several important roles in digestive function, but may be disrupted by a poor diet, exposure to harmful bacteria or the use of certain medicines.
Taking a probiotic supplement may help inhibit harmful bacteria from becoming established in the bowel and help restore a healthy microbial balance.
Probiotic supplements may also help keep faecal matter moving through the bowel at a healthy rate (a healthy bowel transit time) and relieve constipation, irregular bowel movements, and abdominal bloating and discomfort.
When choosing a probiotic supplement, be aware that it’s not only the quantity of friendly bacteria in your bowel that’s important, but also their diversity, so look for a high-strength formula that provides probiotic bacteria from multiple strains.
Specific probiotics are warranted in some situations. For example, the probiotic strains Saccharomyces boulardii (SB) and Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG) may help reduce adults’ risk of travellers’ diarrhoea and reduce the risk, symptoms and duration of diarrhoea in children.