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All health Starts in the Gut

All Health Starts in the Gut

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Ask the Holistic Herbalist Blog

Health Starts in the Gut

This post on Ask the Holistic Herbalist Blog is from a conversation at the store this weekend.

And as always, this blog and all content herein is not intended to be medical advice, nor is it meant to treat, diagnose or cure any condition. It’s for information purposes only, and you should always check in with your healthcare provider before engaging in any health affecting activity.

The Interaction:

JL is the patron who walked into the Vital Ways Herbal Apothecary, and CS, the Herbalist

  • Jl: I’m not digesting my food well. I think I need to detox.

  • CS: What are you experiencing and what are you eating?

  • JL: I eat relatively well, but I sometimes skip meals due to being too busy and I often eat on the go. It feels tight, and hard in my stomach and I get really full on a small amount of food, and burp up a smell that is kinda sour.

  • CS: How long has it been happening, have you been evaluated by a medical professional?

  • JL: No, its recent, but off and on for decades and I’m not overly concerned about it, but its unpleasant

  • CS: Do any foods in particular make it better or worse? Have your tried anything that has helped or made it worse?

  • JL: Nothing has made it better or worse, I eat brown rice, lentils, raw and cooked veggies and occasionally fish.

Tongue Appearance:

Swollen, pale, medium thickness pronounced white coat

Traditional Interpretation:

This person presents with a fairly typical pattern of what might be considered in Chinese Medicine to be Deficient Spleen Qi or in Ayurveda, Low Agni, or in western constructs, digestive hypofunction.

*The difference of meaning between what the Chinese mean when they use the Organs name and the Western Organ Systems are not the same. In most cases they’re not even really related. We’ll address later with a Chinese Medicine Practitioner to give us further insight, but for now, it’s helpful to know that spleen in Chinese medicine roughly means upper digestive function, and not at all the western organ that we know of as the spleen which has immune/lymphatic/blood cell effects.

All 3 systems, would agree, perhaps with a slight different nuance, perhaps with heart fire, or liver fire’s impeding spleen or in our modern system stress leading to sympathetic activation which is overriding parasympathetic innervation of digestion, but beyond the causal nuance we’d all agree that the process at the most basic level is one of deficiency of function. We’ll address the manifestation and the cause below.


Guided by an holistic approach, our goal is to empower the person with knowledge, skills and support to facilitate their vital self-correcting healing mechanism.

A very effective herbal band aid approach to digestive hypofunction are bitters and carminatives.

However, this approach fails to address the root cause(s) which we can safely posit in this instance likely stem from a combination of difficult to digest foods, combined with stress during eating.

My first thought, was to carpet bomb their small intestine with 3 different herbal anti microbials, and stimulate their migrating motor complex using antimony, then, purge them with 5oz of Lobelia per qt water, and then blood let them to reduce the bilious humor, and then if necessary see if I can find someone skilled in trephining if this didn’t work.

But then, I thought better of it, and considered that most likely starting with least invasive, most gentle approach that would lead them to a higher overall state of health would be the best approach. So we discussed reducing the challenge of difficult to digest foods, and addressing their tension, rushed nature of meal, COMBINED with some gentle herbs including carminatives, bitters and an acrid.

If this approach didn’t work, considering a step two that would include more investigation of food, lifestyle and presentation is straightforward enough.

Creating Digestive Harmony in acute cases requires proper food, and proper function, which stems from proper mindset.

The mind-gut interaction is bidirectional. If you can relax the mind, the gut works better and if you can feed the gut healthy foods, then it signals the mind to function better.

So, the first conversation was about engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, with a short conscious breathing exercise before eating. My favorite method is breath counting, (see a later post for this) combined with a moment of deep food appreciation. It doesn’t require much of a stretch to consider that most of us in the US (but certainly not all) are incredibly fortunate to live in a place that have access to food.

The health benefits of being appreciative are being investigated by researchers right now, and the early data are clear that adopting this mindset is beneficial on attenuating an excessive physiological stress response, and therefore is useful for many functions and processes that stress impacts; In this case, digestion.

Appreciation in this situation is as simple as taking a moment to look at your food, identify why you’re eating it, and to feel appreciation for having access to it. This exercise takes about 1 minute and is invaluable for a host of reasons and in particular for this person, is useful to engage the parasympathetic, (rest and digest) part of their nervous system which will turn their metabolic switches from flee to digest.

The second part of the conversation was about food choices and in particular about challenging to digest foods. We explored how cooking and fermentation have overlapping value as predigestion of foodstuffs. Then we even delved briefly into lectins and phytates, legumes and enzymes but this was not the focus so we didn’t linger too long on this.

JL decided that they felt that they could benefit from engaging in breathing and appreciation part of the holistic approach and consider altering food choices, at least until digestion was corrected and perhaps later.

These two adaptations, relaxing and then choosing digestible foods, are the basis of the strategy to help this person. The herbs chosen synergize with this basic pattern and intervention quite nicely. You can see similar approaches in many traditional systems of health care.

Herbal Formula:

Artichoke Leaf


  • Gentian

  • Artichoke leaf

  • Bitter Orange

  • Fennel

  • Ginger

  • Lobelia

The exact proportions were based on in-person variables that are beyond the scope of this post.

Upon tasting the remedy, JL said that they felt an immediate shift of improvement, which is not that uncommon with digestive remedies and stress remedies. Often however, the effects of herbs outside of these two areas, aren’t realized for hours to days, so immediate shifts are by no means a surefire way to ascertain if your remedy is the correct one. To further complicate this, people often feel better immediately after taking a remedy as its reassuring and supportive to have someone work with them, and to know they’re taking steps towards improving your health, even at times when the remedy is not entirely suited to them. So, the proof is in the progress of the condition, not in the immediate effect, but immediate effect can be a useful sign if understood and factored in properly.

JL promised to return in 1-2 weeks to discuss the outcome so we’ll revisit and discuss outcomes at that time.


As Hippocrates tells us, Health starts in your gut, and JL knew this quite well. Digestion is not like Vegas, what happens in the gut does not stay in the gut. If the gut is not working well, then the obvious lack of nutrition occurs which is bad enough, but also, immune function is generally disordered, as is, the metabolism and what our bodies do with energy storage or fat deposition and burning. So, the Gut health is at the center of all good holistic strategies to health.

We hope that you learned something with this blog, and if you’d like to find out more, please do stop by and perhaps we’ll include your story on a future blog in the Ask the Holistic Herbalist series. Until then, I wish you much success on your path towards lasting vibrant health.