Discover slippery elm and its many health benefits

written by Dr Karen Bridgman

Discover slippery elm and its many health benefits

Credit: Emma Lopez

Slippery elm (Ulmus fulva/Ulmus rubra) bark is a traditional Native American remedy also known as red elm, Indian elm, moose elm and sweet elm. The slippery elm tree is native to eastern Canada and eastern and central US, where it is found most commonly in the Appalachian Mountains. In the 19th century, it was officially recognised in the American Pharmacopaeia. Historically, North American Indians and early settlers used the inner bark of the slippery elm not only as a poultice and healing drink but also to build canoes, shelters and baskets. Early settlers boiled the powder with bear fat to prevent rancidity. The inner bark collected in Spring is most often used but the leaves also can be dried, ground into a powder and made into a tea.

Active ingredients

Slippery elm contains water-soluble polysaccharides, mucilage (gums), starches, nutrients (cell-wall associated minerals), antioxidants, tannins. It has a unique combination of water-soluble and water-insoluble fibre that on contact with water becomes mucilaginous (slimy or mucous like). Slippery elm swells by 50–140 times its original size when mixed with water. It is this property that confers its major health benefits. The astringent effects of the tannins, by “tightening” surfaces they contact, also provide an effective barrier to bacterial infection.

Actions

The therapeutic actions of slippery elm include demulcent, emollient, antitussive (relieves coughing), astringent, anti-inflammatory and nutritive.

Therapeutic uses

While most of the evidence for the use of slippery elm comes from traditional sources, internally it is an excellent herb for the mucous membranes (demulcent action), where it is anti-inflammatory, soothing, repairs the membranes and draws out poisons. When taken internally, it not only directly soothes the membranes it comes into contact with, but it has a reflex stimulation of the nerve endings in the gastrointestinal tract, leading to increased mucous secretion of all inflamed surfaces including the lungs and the urinary tract.

Digestive system

Slippery elm is a major herb for soothing inflammation of the membranes in the digestive system.

This property covers multiple conditions. It neutralises stomach acids (eases reflux and heartburn) and is a metabolic waste remover (draws out impurities). The mucilaginous compounds coat and heal the mouth, the oesophagus and gastrointestinal tract. In the gastrointestinal tract it reduces the inflammation of ulcers particularly in the stomach and duodenum, and helps provide a barrier between the ulcer (membrane damage), and the stomach acid.

Slippery elm soothes inflammatory bowel condition such as inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. As a pre-biotic, in the colon it ferments to form the short chain fatty acids such as butyric acid that feeds the correct bowel bacteria – lactobacilli and bifido-bacteria. Its property of absorbing water means it can function as a bowel normaliser – that is, it can relieve both constipation (bulks out the stool) and diarrhoea (solidifies loose stools).

It has also been used traditionally to expel tapeworms.

Slippery elm is rich in nutrients, particularly those that support the health of the mucous membranes and has been used as a gruel (porridge) for infants, convalescents and the elderly with digestive problems.

Respiratory system

Slippery elm powder is soothing and anti-inflammatory for sore throats and can be made into lozenges to relieve throat irritation. As a decoction or as a syrup, it eases dry hacking coughs and soothes lung inflammation.

Urinary tract

This same property of soothing mucous membranes also makes it useful to relieve urinary tract inflammation such as cystitis.

Skin

Topically Slippery elm relieves minor injuries such as burns, cold sores, razor cuts, scrapes and sunburn. It was used during the American Revolution to treat and soothe gunshot wounds. Topically it has also been used to relive gout, rheumatism, abscesses, varicose ulcers and toothaches.

The astringent action of the tannins, ‘draws out’ toxins, boils, splinters and other irritants as well as tightening the skin to protect against bacterial infection.

A decoction of the leaves was used to remove discolouration around blackened or bruised eyes.

Using slippery elm

For internal use, 1 -2 teaspoons of the powder mixed into water or juice, taken up to 4 times per day. It can also be mixed successfully with yoghurt or in porridge if added just after it is cooked. Slippery elm inner bark has been used for treatment of gastrointestinal ulceration at doses of 1.5 to 3 g three times daily.

For topical use (external use) the powder is mixed with either boiling water or glycerine and made into a paste or poultice and applied to the affected area.

Safety

Slippery elm is generally regarded as safe with no known side effects reported. It is a safe and effective remedy for children. Generally well tolerated but it must be consumed with adequate water as it can become very viscous. In pregnancy slippery elm has been documented to induce abortive effects but only when the paste is used vaginally. Orally it can safely relieve the constipation of pregnancy.


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Dr Karen Bridgman

Dr Karen Bridgman is a holistic practitioner at Australian Biologics, Sydney, and Pymble Grove Health Centre, Gordon.